Valley Baseball League notebook: Rebels searching for consistency in midst of playoff hunt

With the Valley Baseball League All-Star Game approaching this weekend and the final third of the regular season ahead, New Market manager Zac Cole is looking for more consistency from his team.

Though the Rebels sit well below .500 this summer – they were 10-18 through Wednesday’s games – they are still in the mix for a playoff spot in the North, a feat reserved for the top four teams in each division. Heading into Thursday, New Market was a half-game behind Purcellville for fourth place in the North with 14 games remaining.

“We’ve competed hard and that hasn’t been an issue for us all year and I don’t think it will be down the stretch,” Cole said after Wednesday’s loss to Winchester, the Rebels’ 11th defeat in their last 15 games. “We’ve struggled on the mound, especially in the bullpen, and if we can shore that up – we’ve pitched better as of late but we’ve kind of cooled off on the bat side. If we can get those two going together again I think we’ll be OK.”

New Market has sported one of the most powerful lineups in the VBL this season – through Wednesday the Rebels led the league in home runs (22), doubles (56) and hits (270), and were third in team batting average (.268) and runs scored (157) – but the team has struggled to find consistency on the mound. Rebel pitching held the second-highest team ERA (5.52) entering Thursday, while allowing the second-most runs (183) and a league-high 169 walks, 49 more than the rest of the VBL.

Anchored by Alabama State University freshman right-hander Terrell McCall (2-0, 1.73 ERA, 28 strikeouts in 26 innings), the Rebels have seen some improvement from their starting pitching over the last week, as New Market’s starters pitched at least five innings while allowing one earned run or fewer in five of the last eight games.

“We’ve just gotta keep fighting,” Cole said. “I think we’ve got a team that can win some games, we’ve just gotta put some pieces together and kind of do some things at the right time. We either pitch well one day or we hit well one day, we’ve gotta do it both at the same time. If we do that I think we’ve got a chance to beat anybody in the league. I really do. I think we’ve lost like 10 one-run games, so it’s been frustrating, but if we can get in the playoffs you never know. It’s a whole new season.”

BANDIT BRIGHT SPOT: The 2016 season has not been kind to the Woodstock River Bandits, who entered Thursday tied with Charlottesville for the worst record in the VBL (8-18), a struggle due in large part to the Bandits’ ineffectiveness on the mound.

Statistically, Woodstock has had the worst pitching in the VBL this summer, but the Bandits have had a bright spot on the mound in the form of left-hander Drew Mancuso.

Mancuso, a junior from the University of the South, is 2-0 in eight appearances (two starts) for Woodstock with a 2.66 ERA, 22 strikeouts and just three walks in 27 innings pitched. The lefty’s numbers actually took a bit of a hit in the Bandits’ 13-7 loss to Waynesboro on Wednesday night, a game in which he was tagged for six runs (four earned) on eight hits and two walks over five innings en route to a no-decision.

Prior to Wednesday’s start Mancuso boasted a 1.64 ERA while limiting opposing hitters to a .241 batting average, numbers bolstered by a streak of 18 innings during which he allowed just one earned run. That run included his first start for the Bandits on June 29, when he tossed seven innings against Front Royal while allowing just one unearned run in a winning effort.

CALL TO THE BULLPEN: Strasburg has ridden a balanced formula of offense and pitching to the top of the VBL this summer, and the Express’ bullpen has particularly come on strong of late.

During a five-game winning streak that was snapped with a 4-2 loss to Front Royal on Wednesday night, Strasburg relievers had combined to allow 12 hits, five walks and two earned runs over 17 innings for a 1.06 ERA during that span.

“They’ve been pretty good here lately,” Express manager Butch Barnes said of the bullpen earlier this week. “We’ve been getting them in there for short stints and trying to get people in and out.”

BELOW AVERAGE BATS: Front Royal has enjoyed some of the best pitching in the league so far, but the Cardinals’ bats have been far less consistent.

Entering Thursday’s home game against Staunton, the Cardinals (14-12) ranked in the middle of the pack in runs scored (126) but had the second-lowest batting average (.228) in the VBL to go along with a .312 on-base percentage, the worst mark in the league.

Shortstop Bernabe Camargo (.338, two home runs, 11 RBIs) and pitcher/designated hitter Zac Wiley (.300, three homers, nine RBIs) were the only Cardinals batting .300 or better prior to Thursday’s game.

Despite those inconsistencies at the plate, Front Royal left-hander Erne Valdes said it hasn’t put any added pressure on the Cardinals’ pitching staff.

“I don’t really see it like that,” Valdes said earlier this week. “Hitters are gonna do their thing. I know hitting is way harder than pitching, so I just wish the best for them and keep grinding it out. I’m sure things are gonna start (going) our way soon.”

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