North Division race still wide open ahead of VBL all-star weekend

The Valley Baseball League’s brief all-star break is coming up this weekend to mark the unofficial midway point of the 2017 season and while clear playoff frontrunners have emerged in the South Division, the status of the North is far less certain.

All six North Division teams entered Friday’s games no more than 5 1/2 games behind Purcellville for the division lead, meaning Front Royal, New Market, Strasburg and Woodstock each remain in contention for one of the North’s four playoff spots with three weeks left in the regular season.

Front Royal began Friday in second place in the North with a 14-11 record, trailing Purcellville (16-10) by 1 1/2 games and leading New Market (14-12) by a half-game.

“So far I couldn’t be happier,” said Cardinals manager Brian Daly, whose team has won four of its last five games entering Saturday’s road game at New Market.

“We’ve definitely dropped a number of games that we probably should’ve won but overall the way we’ve been playing and the way we’ve been playing lately… I’m very happy with where we’re at considering the guys we lost to the draft, injury and also personal reasons. I feel pretty good where we’re at right now.”

Daly said the Cardinals’ greatest asset so far this summer has been their balance up and down the lineup. Front Royal entered Friday tied for second in the VBL in team batting average (.285) and ranked third in runs scored and stolen bases and fourth in RBIs.

On the mound the Cards ranked seventh in the 11-team VBL in team ERA (4.60) but held the league’s second-best marks in opponent batting average (.234) and strikeouts. Daly said the back end of Front Royal’s bullpen is something the team needs to “tighten up a little bit.”

New Market, which hosted Woodstock on Friday night, entered the day boasting one of the Valley League’s most powerful offenses. Through Thursday’s games, the Rebels ranked fourth in team batting average (.274) and led the league in home runs (16), RBIs (151) and doubles (47).

The Rebels, who had won three of their last four games prior to taking on the River Bandits, have paired their productive offense with a pitching staff that ranks third in the VBL in ERA (4.28).

Strasburg, the two-time defending Valley League champ, finds itself in some unfamiliar territory as the Express (12-13) entered Friday having already matched their loss total from a season ago.

The Express went into Friday’s home game against Winchester having lost four of their last six and ranked in the middle of the pack in team batting average (.261), though Strasburg did have 13 home runs to tie for the league’s third-best mark.

As a staff, Strasburg’s pitchers had amassed a 4.38 ERA – which ranked fifth through Thursday’s games – and surrendered 23 home runs, by far the highest total in the VBL, prior to Friday.

Though Woodstock came into Friday five games below .500 with a record of 10-15 and ranked last in the North Division, the River Bandits are still very much in the running for a postseason berth and trailed fourth-place Strasburg by only two games.

“We’re still in the hunt for a playoff spot, which going into the all-star break is a pretty good place to be in right now,” Bandits manager Will Thompson said Friday afternoon. “We have control over our own destiny still.”

Thompson said developing more consistency in the lineup through all nine innings of each game will be a focal point over the final weeks of the regular season for a River Bandits team that ranks in the league’s bottom third in most major offensive categories.

Woodstock entered Friday ranked last in the VBL in team batting average (.242), runs scored (4.7 per game) and home runs (three) and was 10th in team ERA (5.33), though the Bandits were also second in fielding percentage (.962).

Thompson said he hopes the tight race in the North Division keeps the Bandits zeroed in down the stretch.

“It gives guys an extra incentive to take each game serious and give it their all because really it could come down to one game. A game we blow now could be the deciding factor with what happens three weeks from now,” Thompson said. “Each game really does matter. Every day’s important, no days off.”

That “no day’s off” line could apply to several Valley League teams in a different way after the area’s most recent bout with rain has left some squads running low on rainout dates.

Daly, whose team – along with Charlottesville, Purcellville and Strasburg – has had at least two games washed out this week, said prior to Thursday’s postponement that Front Royal had used up all its planned rainout dates, meaning doubleheaders could soon make their way onto the Valley League schedule.

“With pitch counts and innings restrictions and everything else, that’s definitely gonna make it tough, but at the same time I believe everybody’s in the same boat,” Daly said. “It’s gonna be tough but it’s also gonna be fun.”

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