Change in approach has Bandits’ Ward thriving at the plate

Woodstock River Bandits Nick Ward runs down the first base line after hitting a fly ball during a recent game in Woodstock. Ward is leading the Valley Baseball League in batting average. Rich Cooley/Daily

Woodstock River Bandits Nick Ward runs down the first base line after hitting a fly ball during a recent game in Woodstock. Ward is leading the Valley Baseball League in batting average. Rich Cooley/Daily

WOODSTOCK – Nick Ward underwent something of a mentality switch when he arrived in Woodstock for the start of the Valley Baseball League season in June.

The change, which came in his approach at the plate, he said, was inspired by some offensive struggles in the playoffs during his sophomore season of college baseball at West Chester University in his home state of Pennsylvania this past spring. Ward had focused his mental energy in the batter’s box on getting a hit, he said, an approach that didn’t pan out as he batted .188 (6-for-32) in eight postseason games for the Golden Rams.

Taking advantage of a fresh start in Woodstock, Ward dumped that approach for one that puts less pressure on him to produce.

“It’s just something that I kind of flipped a switch and said OK, I don’t really care what my batting average is, I don’t really care where the ball goes after I hit it,” Ward said Thursday. “It’s just kind of, I’m trying to hit it hard and if I get a hit, I get at hit. I’m just trying to beat the pitcher, really.”

Ward has beaten Valley League pitchers this summer, and quite often.

In 35 games played through Thursday night, Ward is leading the VBL with a .398 batting average, 53 hits, 12 doubles and a .487 on-base percentage. He’s hit safely in 29 of those 35 games – including in 23 of his last 26 – had a 10-game hitting streak earlier this summer and has 17 multi-hit games with the River Bandits (11-27), who were eliminated from playoff contention with Thursday’s loss to Front Royal.

The key, Ward said, has rested in his newfound strategy at the plate. He isn’t trying to hit home runs – although he has five of those this season – and he isn’t trying to hit the ball in the gap for extra bases.

“I’m not even trying to get a hit,” he said. “I’m just trying to hit the ball hard.”

Ward, a shortstop playing third base for Woodstock due to the Bandits’ abundance of middle infielders, settled permanently into the lead-off role about midway through the VBL season, and he’s rewarded the River Bandits with ideal table-setter production with his high on-base percentage – buoyed by his 16 walks and seven hit-by-pitches – and 32 runs scored, the second-best mark in the league.

“We put him in the lead-off spot and it’s almost like he starts every game off with a hit, it seems like,” River Bandits manager Kyle Ward said. “I mean, he comes out here, he works hard, he goes about his business the right way. He’s in the weight room, I know, at nights. I couldn’t ask for more from a player.”

The left-handed batting Ward has coupled his prototypical lead-off production with a .617 slugging percentage, a number that trails only Waynesboro slugger Zach Sterry (.770).

“I wouldn’t consider myself like a power hitter, but I would consider myself maybe a lead-off hitter who’s not afraid to be a power hitter,” Nick Ward said. “I’m certainly not trying to hit home runs, like that’s not my job. My job as the lead-off hitter is to get on base, and if it goes over the fence it goes over the fence. That’s just a bonus.”

Ward’s power is a new commodity. He had never hit a home run prior to this past college season, he said, during which he hit three for West Chester to go along with 26 RBIs and a .310 batting average. Instead of being enticed by the long ball, Ward said the arrival of his power was “relieving.”

“When I went into college I was not a power guy and when you think of the best college hitters that eventually go on to the next level, they can hit for power, they can do everything. And power was the one thing that I lacked and obviously that’s the thing that scouts look for the most,” he said. “It was relieving once I realized that I could actually do it and now my approach doesn’t change. Actually, it became better because I knew I could do it and I didn’t have to try to do it.”

In his first collegiate season, Ward played sparingly as a freshman at Virginia Commonwealth University in 2015, when the Rams reached the NCAA Super Regional round, and he then transferred to Division II West Chester in search of more playing time. He said he came to the VBL in seeking improvement at the plate above everything else.

“I wanted to make myself a more well rounded threat,” Ward said, “which it looks like I’ve been able to improve on a little bit.”

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

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