By Jeff Nations
NEW MARKET -- For a pair of pitchers who attack opposing batters from diametrically opposite sides, Front Royal Cardinals starters Jake Harper and Keegan Long seem to have a knack for ending up in the same place.
Both members of the Cardinals' starting rotation, Harper and Long are two-thirds of a contingent from Saint Joseph's College (Indiana) playing for Front Royal this season. Cardinals starting second baseman Josh Keim is the third part of that trio, a group that's played a major role in the Valley Baseball League team's fast start this season.
Front Royal manager Brad Neffendorf said he landed his three Pumas -- St. Joseph's nickname -- after heeding strong recommendations from their college coach, Rick O'Dette.
"I've recruited up that way a little bit," Neffendorf said. "Obviously they're Division II, but they're not too far away from us. They gave me a call and said they had a couple guys. We took Josh Keim as well, who's been great for us on both ends on the mound and at the plate."
Harper and Long have one more thing in common -- both were selected to play on the North squad in next week's VBL all-star game in Harrisonburg.
"It's been going well," Harper said. "Keeg and I have both been getting on the mound, pounding the zone pretty well. Our defense behind has been good most of the time. Usually we put up a lot of runs, and when me and Keeg do our job on the mound it's been going pretty well so far."
Harper, a 6-foot-5, 210-pound left-hander who will be a senior next season, took a regular turn in Saint Joseph's rotation during the spring. The Pumas struggled to a 19-31 overall and 14-22 mark in the Great Lakes Valley Conference, but Harper put up solid numbers with a 2-2 record in 11 games (nine starts). He fired 53 2/3 innings, fanning 45 batters while posting a 3.86 earned run average.
That proven track record, combined with his previous experience as a member of VBL rival Harrisonburg's starting rotation last year, made Harper a good bet to be a solid regular for the Cardinals this season.
He hasn't disappointed, posting a dazzling 1.53 ERA over 35 1/3 innings spanning five games (all starts) with 30 strikeouts and only nine walks. Harper has been happy to face a variety of opponents this season after seemingly always pitching against the Rockbridge Rapids when he played for the Turks last year.
"Last year I faced Rockbridge four times," Harper said. "If you split it in half, twice I pitched against them two times in the same week, within five days. That made it really interesting -- not going in there and surprising them or anything, it was just I've got to compete my butt off and hope they don't shell me."
Harper is ready to get his work in this summer. Despite his regular workload for the Pumas in the spring, Harper said he has no innings limit to worry about this summer. Like most every player in the league, he's focused on sharpening his skills for the present and the future.
"Here, you just come and you pitch," Harper said. "You compete your butt off and you try to get better and bring it back to school with you so you can get better for these guys and get better for the guys back at school, too."
Long, a 6-2, 185-pound rising junior, didn't enjoy as much success in the spring. Shuttled between starting and relief roles, Long scuffled to the tune of an 0-4 record and a 7.18 ERA over 26 1/3 innings, with four starts in eight appearances.
Since joining the Cardinals, Long has settled in to at least a semi-regular starting gig. Four of his seven appearances have been starts, and he's gone 2-2 with a 1.91 ERA in 28 1/3 innings with 26 strikeouts and nine walks allowed so far.
"I kind of struggled a little bit here and there in outings, gave up certain runs I shouldn't have given up," Long said. "I feel like now I've been able to bear down a little bit here and get in a groove.
"Getting a little regular role, kind of knowing where you're at in the game and when you're going to start, it's a good feeling."
Neffendorf said Long will continue to get plenty of opportunities to start for the Cardinals this summer.
"He'll be a guy we're going to run out there every sixth or seventh day and let him go for awhile," Neffendorf said. "He deserves it and he's pitched well."
Harper and Long have helped Front Royal get off to a strong 18-8 start in the VBL this season, currently good for second in regular-season standings.
"I guess we both came in here with the mindset of just attacking the zone and going after hitters," Long said. "Every time I go out there -- no free bases, no free bags, no nothing. So it's just go right after the hitters."
It was an easy decision to make, but Neffendorf is glad he heeded O'Dette's advice about his two pitchers.
"It was a no-brainer," Neffendorf said. "Jake's pitched in this league before, and Keegan's a guy who was an all-star last year in the Perfect Game League and he's an all-star again because he's been good, he's been really good."
Contact staff writer Jeff Nations at 540-465-5137 ext. 161, or firstname.lastname@example.org