By Brad Fauber
Front Royal first-year manager Brad Neffendorf chose left-hander Jake Harper as his starting pitcher for the Cardinals' season opener against Aldie back on May 30 because he felt Harper was the guy who could set the tone for Cardinals in the 2014 Valley Baseball League season.
In that game against Aldie, Harper tossed seven innings, allowed two runs and struck out seven to earn the victory. Two months later, Harper has been awarded the league's top pitching honor.
Harper, a rising senior from St. Joseph's College in Indiana, was named the Valley League's Pitcher of the Year on Monday, the league announced.
"I think it just shows how he went about his business," Neffendorf said Monday. "Jake is the ultimate competitor. He gave us everything he had out there on the mound."
Harper, a 6-foot-5, 215-pound left-hander from Frankfort, Illinios, emerged as the leader of a terrific Front Royal pitching staff this summer. In eight regular season appearances (seven starts) for the Cardinals, Harper went 5-0 with a 2.22 ERA, 47 strikeouts and 11 walks in 52 2/3 innings pitched.
In his lone playoff start against the Strasburg Express on July 29, Harper went 5 2/3 innings and allowed four unearned runs in a loss that featured six Front Royal errors.
Harper's five victories this summer tied him with Harrisonburg's Logan Onda for the Valley League lead, and his 47 strikeouts in the regular season were good for fifth in the VBL.
As a team, Front Royal finished with an ERA of 3.02, by far the best mark in the league.
Neffendorf cited Harper's competitiveness, his up-tempo style on the mound, his command of the strike zone and his experience in the Valley League (Harper pitched for Harrisonburg in 2013) as the key factors in Harper's success on the mound.
Harper was 2-2 with a 3.86 ERA and 45 strikeouts in 53 2/3 innings in his junior season at St. Joseph's this past spring, and Neffendorf said it was an easy decision to bring Harper to Front Royal.
"He's had great years at St. Joseph's and they are a team that's really built around pitching. They've sent some really good ones to the valley before... It was a no-brainer to take him," Neffendorf said.
Harper will continue to get plenty of exposure this summer, as he was picked up by the Cotuit Kettleers of the Cape Cod League following Front Royal's elimination from the Valley League playoffs on July 31. Harper made his first appearance with Cotuit on Monday, when he pitched 1 2/3 innings of relief while allowing an earned run on two hits and striking out one in the Kettleers' 4-2 loss to Falmouth.
"He deserves it, too," Neffendorf said of Harper's opportunity to compete in the Cape Cod League. "He's a guy who, honestly, looking at what he did this summer, he could've competed up there all summer. ... We were fortunate to have him this season."
The Cardinals, who finished the season 26-17 and remained atop the league standings for most of the summer before cooling off down the stretch, led all teams with seven players selected to the 2014 all-Valley Baseball League teams, including six on the first team.
Harper's college teammate and fellow starting pitcher Keegan Long was among the six Cards chosen for the Valley League first team. Neffendorf said Long -- who went 4-2 with a 1.61 ERA and 41 strikeouts in 44 2/3 innings -- also could've easily been awarded the league's pitcher of the year honor.
Front Royal third baseman Hunter Newman (.324, seven home runs, 42 RBIs), outfielders Nick Sinay (.341, 43 runs scored, 28 stolen bases) and Shell McCain (.333, four homers, 34 RBIs, 20 stolen bases) and relief pitcher Kevin Becker-Menditto (2-0, 0.93 ERA, 14 strikeouts, seven saves in 19 appearances) were also named to the first team.
Catcher Spencer Wolfe (.320, 14 RBIs) was the Cardinals' lone second-team selection.
"It goes to show the quality of team we had, especially starting off 16-4 and remaining at the top [of the league standings]," Neffendorf said.
Strasburg, which advanced to the semifinal round of the playoffs before being eliminated by Charles Town over the weekend, had four players named to the all-Valley League team.
Catcher Anthony "Teddy" Payne (.336, three home runs, 21 RBIs) and starting pitcher Mike Vinson (3-1, 2.15 ERA, 34 strikeouts in 37 2/3 innings) were named to the first team. Pitchers Brock Hunter (3-3, 2.35 ERA, 47 strikeouts in 42 innings) and Sean Stephenson (0-2, 0.93 ERA, 24 strikeouts, five saves in 16 appearances) were second-team selections.
New Market designated hitter Joe Chittester (.296, 17 RBIs) was a second-team selection and the Rebels' lone representative on the all-Valley League teams.
Contact staff writer Brad Fauber at 540-465-5137 ext. 184, or firstname.lastname@example.org