Nations: Summer baseball delivers thrills

Another summer full of Valley Baseball League action is officially in the books following Tuesday night’s climatic Game 3 matchup between the Waynesboro Generals and the Strasburg Express at First Bank Park.

VBL commissioner Don Lemish has handed out the James W. Lineweaver Trophy to this year’s league champion, the Waynesboro Generals, the bats and baseballs are safely stored and the remaining players are making their way home now.

It’s been, as always, a frenetic (by baseball standards, anyway) two-month regular season and a rain-filled postseason for the VBL. For me, it’s also been a summer of baseball I won’t soon forget.

Our defined coverage area includes four VBL franchises — Front Royal, New Market, Strasburg and Woodstock. That’s a lot of games on any given night, and despite our best efforts we missed out on plenty of them this summer. Still, it felt like every dry night one or two of us would be out there taking in a game. And this year, more than any other I can remember, many of those games had a positive storyline for at least one of those teams we cover on a regular basis.

Consider — this season, three of the four VBL teams we cover made the playoffs, and the one that didn’t — Front Royal — was in the playoff hunt right up until the next-to-last day of the regular season. Truly, there were no bad teams providing a nightly downer for area baseball fans this summer.

Strasburg, on the strength of a tremendous late-season surge that carried the Express right into the playoff and on through to the championship series, has plenty to be proud of this season. In just the franchise’s third year of existence, the Express surged to the championship round behind the strength of a power-hitting lineup tailor-made for First Bank’s cozy confines, decent starting pitching that elevated to another level in the playoffs, and a lock-down bullpen that never got the credit it really deserved during the season.

Oh, and the Express produced the VBL’s Most Valuable Player for the second time in three seasons. Center fielder Jordan Tarsovich, a Richmond resident who plays collegiately at VMI, lit up VBL pitching this season in his first go-around in a wooden-bat league. The Express leadoff hitter won the league’s batting title in impressive fashion, hitting .414 over the summer. In the playoffs, Tarsovich was even better. Heading into Tuesday night’s championship, Tarsovich was sporting a .438 average with a home run, four RBIs and four stolen bases.

Express general manager Jay Neal and his staff deserve plenty of credit for both the on-field product and the fan-friendly entertainment off it. My personal favorites this year — excluding the indomitable Mr. Tooth, my all-time favorite — have been the guest appearances by native son Russell Rinker of the Blue Man Group (an approachable, remarkably unpretentious and downright fun brand of performance art, by the way … but I digress). Rinker can belt out a smooth rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” And of course, Express fans are treated to a few well-timed fireworks after every home victory. Baseball and fireworks? Can’t beat that combination for summer entertainment.

New Market just missed out on facing Strasburg in the VBL championships, as the Rebels fell just short in the South division finals against Waynesboro. First-year Rebels manager C.J. Rhodes’ aggressive, gambling style on the basepaths worked well all season, helping the franchise to a second-place finish in the regular season in the traditionally strong South. Hopefully the gregarious Rhodes will be back next season to improve upon his first year managing in the VBL.

Woodstock ran into a hot Aldie squad in the first round of the VBL’s North division playoffs, which was a shame considering the great season the River Bandits put together under VBL Manager of the Year Phil Betterly. Woodstock won the North division regular season with a well-balanced squad that featured a player with unique local ties. VMI left-handed pitcher Campbell Henkel, who delivered an all-star season for the River Bandits, is the son of Massanutten Military Academy Head of School Merle Henkel.

Front Royal’s playoff absence was a disappointment, as a late-season slump cost the Cardinals a chance to continue their season and showcase one of the best facilities in the VBL in Bing Crosby Stadium.

All in all, it was one unforgettable summer of baseball.

Contact Sports Editor Jeff Nations at 540-465-5137 ext. 161, or jnations@nvdaily.com>