By Jeff Nations
NEW MARKET -- Sometime soon, possibly even next season, current New Market Rebels utility player Darian Carpenter will be providing a regular jolt to Virginia Commonwealth University's baseball lineup.
Carpenter, who will be a sophomore for the Rams next spring, has always possessed the ability to hit the long ball, a skill on full display during the Valley Baseball League's Home Run Derby held before the league's annual all-star game.
Carpenter went toe-to-toe with the VBL's best sluggers and came away with the title of Home Run Derby champion, no small feat considering the opposition lined up at Harrisonburg's Veterans Memorial Park for the July 6 competition.
"I took it very seriously," Carpenter said of the derby.
It was nearly a short night for the 6-foot-1, 215-pound resident of Richmond. Carpenter managed only four home runs in the opening round, just enough to claim the third and final spot for the second round. In contrast, Front Royal's Hunter Newman smacked seven homers in the first round and Charles Town's Andrew Yacyk slammed six homers.
To advance to the third round, Carpenter -- who said he's taken part in previous home run derbies, but none quite so competitive -- had some ground to make up since only the top two from the first two rounds combined moved on to the championship. Carpenter, the youngest of the three, got in a groove and stroked seven home runs. Yaczk faltered a bit, stroking just four in the second round as he failed to advance. Newman, currently tied for the league lead in home runs with five, also had four in the second round to finish with 11 along with Carpenter.
In the final, Carpenter led off again and claimed the title with three more home runs as Newman could muster just one more.
"The other guys, Andrew Yacyk and Newman from Front Royal, they're hitting towering shots," New Market manager C.J. Rhodes said. "Darian's going to get through more balls. He's not really as much of a height guy as he is just driving the baseball, so whether it was a ball toward the left-center field gap or down the line, they're just straight-line shots."
Carpenter has never lacked for power. He still holds the career home run record at Varina High School with 24, including a career-best eight during his sophomore season with the Blue Devils.
That power potential flashed right away for VCU, where Carpenter's first career hit was a pinch-hit home run in a 7-0 win over St. Bonaventure on March 21. That would be his only homer of the season, though, as Carpenter struggled to find much playing time as a freshman. He batted .278 in 18 at-bats scattered over 15 games. Carpenter started twice for the Rams, both as a designated hitter, and played the field just three times (all at first base) during his college season.
Rhodes has done his best to help Carpenter make up for that lack of time on the field this summer.
"That's one thing that was kind of the big focal point for this year," Rhodes said. "He's been all over -- first, DH, third base, outfield. He's as athletic as you can get from a guy his size and can play those positions. It's interesting to see him have to come out and work on both aspects of his game -- not really work, but just try and fine-tune them enough to be able to go back in the fall and find a spot and find a home."
Rhodes thinks Carpenter could hold down a corner infield spot on a regular basis if needed, but his ability to move around has been invaluable for New Market.
"I don't think I've allowed him to really settle into a place yet, just because his versatility has been a key part in allowing other guys to get an opportunity," Rhodes said. "I think he's been one of the hardest workers at third base, and it's kind of exciting to reward a kid by playing him there because I know he's been working really, really hard to be better at that spot. But putting him out in the outfield and putting him at first base, he's been able to adjust and handle it, and he's just been able to naturally fill into those roles as well."
Carpenter has continued to hit, totaling four of the Rebels' five home runs this season. He's batting .265 and has added 14 RBIs along with his four homers, six doubles and a triple.
His position may change from day to day, but Carpenter is getting one thing on a regular basis -- at bats -- and he's continued to make the most of his chances.
"The more options and the more he continues to handle the bat like he is, I think obviously they're going to have to look up and find a spot for him," Rhodes said. "That's something that we're working towards."
Contact staff writer Jeff Nations at 540-465-5137 ext. 161, or firstname.lastname@example.org