Cards’ pitching staff dealing hitters a tough hand

Front Royal's Stephen Xirinachs fires a pitch during a game against Charlottesville earlier this season at Bing Crosby Stadium. Rich Cooley/Daily

FRONT ROYAL – Front Royal right-hander Stephen Xirinachs likes to think it was the tone setter for the Cardinals’ pitching staff.

It was June 1, the Valley Baseball League season opener for Front Royal, when Xirinachs stepped to the mound for the Cardinals and tossed six scoreless innings as part of a 3-0 victory over the Woodstock River Bandits.

Xirinachs, a senior right-hander from the University of Massachusetts Lowell, couldn’t have known at the time that his start would set in motion a string of pitching success for Front Royal this summer. What he did know was the Cardinals were a team that wanted to win “right off the bat.”

“We were very competitive at practice when the pitchers faced some of our hitters,” Xirinachs said Tuesday, “so going into the first game I knew I had a team around me that’s gonna do everything they can to win, which makes it easy on a pitcher knowing that his defense behind him is there to do whatever they can.”

Flash forward to the present and the Cardinals (15-12) boast the best pitching staff in the VBL this season. Through Thursday’s slate of games, Front Royal led the league in team ERA (2.67), opponent batting average (.204) and opponent slugging percentage (.294) while striking out 250 batters in 256 innings, also a league-best.

Cardinals left-hander Erne Valdes called Front Royal’s pitching staff a “smart group of guys” who have been able to thrive this summer following the pitching programs designated by their college coaches. Xirinachs said the key has been staying focused on their own development processes while keeping the mood fun and loose.

“We get our work in and then our pitchers play a lot of Wiffle ball just for fun. We like to stay loose,” Xirinachs said. “In summer ball, you get too serious and things are gonna fall apart on you, and then you just get in your own head. You can’t have that. So I would say a lot of our success comes from doing what we do best and staying consistent with it.”

To single out any one Front Royal pitcher as the key cog in the Cardinals’ pitching staff would be as difficult as getting a hit off of them.

In six starts for the Cardinals this summer, Xirinachs is 4-1 with a 2.38 ERA and 27 strikeouts in 34 innings pitched. He’s limited opposing batters to a .149 average – a mark bested only by Valdes (.140) and Cardinals reliever Mitch Stophel (.141) among qualified pitchers in the VBL – though he has walked 16 batters, an issue he’s trying to fix this summer ahead of his final collegiate season.

Blake Whitney, a junior right-hander from the University of South Carolina Upstate, is 2-1 with a 2.94 ERA in 36.2 innings, and his 43 strikeouts ranked second in the VBL heading into Friday’s games. On Thursday, Whitney threw seven shutout innings while allowing only two hits and a walk against 13 strikeouts in Front Royal’s 1-0 win over Staunton in 11 innings.

Valdes, a sophomore from St. Thomas University in Miami, is 2-1 in six starts (34.2 innings) and leads the VBL in ERA (1.04) and strikeouts (45).

Kristopher Van Camp, meanwhile, has a 0.50 ERA in 17.2 innings spanning four starts.

It’s come to a point where Front Royal’s starting pitchers are feeding off the performance of the guys before them.

“It’s fun to see my roommate Steve (Xirinachs) battle out there,” said Valdes, who, ironically, came to Front Royal trying to focus more on pitching to contact and less on striking batters out in order to lower his walk rate. “I’ll be up in the stands charting, doing whatever, but it’s fun. It gets me excited for my start and I’m sure that he feeds off of what I do too.”

It works that way in the Cardinals’ bullpen too.

“I feel like if the starter’s gonna go out there and throw like that, throw a shutout or a one- or two-run game, it’s our job to keep it held down and keep them there so our offense can score a little bit,” said Stophel, who has become a key late-inning arm with a 1.57 ERA and 28 strikeouts in 23 innings “… It’s good to feed off the starters, their energy. They’ll come down to the bullpen and tell you what the umpire’s giving you and what (the hitters) are chasing and all that good stuff, so it’s important to have the starters to feed off of too.”

Front Royal manager Victor Gomez has made a conscious effort to keep those starters fresh. As he pointed out last week, Gomez wants to put a winning lineup on the field each night but, most importantly, he has a responsibility to send his players back to their college teams healthy. Cardinals starters have pitched past the sixth inning only five times this summer, and none have gone longer than seven innings. Even a guy like Xirinachs, who has not been placed on a pitch count by his college coaches, hasn’t pitched past the sixth in any of his summer starts.

In a prime example of Gomez’s strict adherence to pitch counts, he didn’t hesitate to pull Valdes from a game against Woodstock on June 29 even though the left-hander had been perfect through six innings. Valdes exited the game after throwing 69 pitches.

“I don’t think it’d be smart for any of us to throw 100-some pitches during the summer,” said Valdes, who is being limited to 80-85 pitches per game as he remains cautious after having Tommy John surgery over three years ago.

That philosophy figures to keep the Cardinal pitching staff fresh for a possible playoff run. Entering Friday’s games, Front Royal was third in the VBL’s North Division, a comfortable five games ahead of fourth-place New Market with 15 games remaining in the regular season. The top four teams in each division qualify for the playoffs.

“Make it to the playoffs and have a run,” Valdes said of the Cardinals’ goals over the next few weeks. “We kind of need to get on a run right now if we wanna stay on the course. But that’s pretty much it, just win games, compete and have some fun.”

Contact staff writer Brad Fauber at 540-465-5137 ext. 161, or bfauber@nvdaily.com