Flying fast: Cards use steals to up pressure

By Jeff Nations

Brad Neffendorf went into his first recruiting year as the new manager of the Front Royal Cardinals with one primary objective — find some pests, and lots of them.

Neffendorf, who’d previously served as the pitching coach for Valley Baseball League rival Winchester in 2011 and currently fills that same role at Campbellsville (Kentucky) University, probably has a better idea than most on how to get under a pitcher’s skin.

That pressure primarily comes on the base paths, where Front Royal currently leads the league in stolen bases by a wide margin with 109 swipes heading into Friday night’s action. The next highest teams, New Market and Covington, have 87 steals apiece.

“Number 1, I wanted a lot of speed,” Neffendorf said. “I don’ know what the league record is for stolen bases, but I know we’re doing pretty well in that category. What I wanted to build this team around was obviously pressure. “

There’s more to it than just stolen bases. Neffendorf sought out players with enough speed to leg out infield hits, take the extra base time after time, and scratch and claw at the plate to somehow avoid making an out.

Nick Sinay has certainly fit the bill. The Cardinals’ leadoff hitter has been Exhibit A for Front Royal’s harassing style of play. The rising junior outfielder from the University of Buffalo has proven to be the ideal table-setter. He leads the league in on-base percentage (.546) and he’s not particular about how he gets there. Sinay is batting an impressive .355 this season and is the top run scorer (41) in the VBL, but he also shares the league lead in walks (33) and has double the amount of hit by pitches (18) than any other player in the VBL.

Sinay also leads the team in stolen bases with 26 (second-best in the VBL). Neffendorf said Sinay’s blazing speed was on full display during this year’s VBL All-Star Game in Harrisonburg, when he clocked a blistering 60-yard dash time during the skills competition.

“He ran a 6.2 (seconds) twice at the All-Star game and there were some watches that had him at 6.18,” Neffendorf said. “I mean, that is big-time Major League speed. He can defend, and his on-base percentage is ridiculous.”

Sinay has thrived for the Cardinals this season. At Buffalo, he was the team’s No. 2 hitter in the lineup. He ranked third nationally in hit by pitches (25), stole a slew of bases (a team-best 31) and drew his share of walks. But Sinay’s batting average never really impressed — he hit just .254 for Buffalo in the spring. Neffendorf said Sinay’s success in cutting down on strikeouts (21) and working deeper into the count have been the major factors in boosting his batting average more than 100 points from the spring to the summer.

“Coach put a team together with a lot of speed,” Sinay said. “I love that. I don’t hit many balls out. I’m a contact hitter and I’m supposed to get on base.

“We put pressure on for other teams to make a play with all the guys stealing or advancing an extra base. It makes a lot of teams kind of crack under pressure, make a bad throw and then more things happen. So I think the way we play is pretty exciting when we’re really on and playing as a team.”

As for all those lumps from getting hit by pitches, Sinay will gladly take them for a free pass to first base.

“I like to get up on the plate a little bit — same thing, put a little pressure on the pitcher,” Sinay said. “If he hits me, I get a free base and can get a couple stolen bases. I don’t mind getting hit at all. I know some guys don’t really like it, but anything I can do to get on base.”

Sinay and No. 2 batter Tyler Tichenour (12 steals) are catalysts, and the Cardinals’ No. 3 and No. 4 hitters — Shell McCain and Hunter Newman — have been wildly successful at igniting rallies this season. Newman ranks second in the VBL in RBIs (42) and is tied for second in home runs (seven), fulfilling the role of thumper in the middle of the order.

McCain has been a bit more of a hybrid this season. The rising senior from Tennessee Wesleyan College, who plays both second base and outfield, was originally ticketed to lead off for the Cardinals after filling that same role in the spring for his NAIA school. McCain changed those plans early in the summer with a potent bat.

“He was definitely looking at me as a leadoff guy,” McCain said. “Then I hit the weight room a little bit, got a little bigger, faster, stronger.”

McCain, currently batting .338 with four home runs and 33 RBIs, is also a major threat on the base paths. He’s second only to Sinay for the Cardinals’ stolen base lead with 20 steals this season.

“Shell, to me, is one of the best fastball hitters in this league and he does a great job with two strikes,” Neffendorf said. “He’s hitting [.338] with a number of doubles and four jacks, but he can also run and he can hit to all fields with power.”

McCain, who put up similarly gaudy numbers at Wesleyan in the spring, has thrived playing the Cardinals’ brand of baseball this summer.

“This is a great style of play,” McCain said. “We have guys that can run and we have guys in front of me that can get on base and I know they can get on base. They do their job, whether its reading dirt balls and getting over to second base, giving our three, four, five guys a chance to drive them in.”

Offense is just part of a successful team, of course — without pitching, even the best hitting teams likely won’t go far. Neffendorf covered those bases by loading up on talented arms to put together a staff that currently boasts the league’s best earned run average (3.07). Providing the run support to back up that solid pitching has been the goal all season, and for the most part its been working just fine. Front Royal has been at or near the top of the VBL standings all summer and has already locked up a spot in next week’s opening round of the playoffs.

“It’s what I like to manage and what I thought could help us be successful — some guys in the middle who can hit, some guys at the top and bottom who can run,” Neffendorf said. “It’s worked out OK.”

Contact staff writer Jeff Nations at 540-465-5137 ext. 161, or jnations@nvdaily.com