VBL Notebook: North Division race remains highly contested in regular season’s final week

Front Royal's Spencer Packard, left, gives a fist pump to teammate Rob Griswold, right, after Griswold scored Thursday night against Charlottesville. Rich Cooley/Daily

The end of the Valley Baseball League season slated for Saturday is quickly approaching and the playoff race in the North Division remains unsettled, though that picture – which of the four teams will make the postseason, at least – could clear up in the next couple of days.

As it stands after rain wiped out the entire VBL slate on Tuesday, Purcellville (22-14) has locked up a playoff spot with six games remaining, while Front Royal (21-15), barring a three-way tie for the final two spots, has done the same. New Market (20-17 with five games left) and Winchester (19-19, four games left) were in a race against Strasburg (15-21, six games left) for the last two postseason bids in the North.

New Market, which holds the head-to-head tiebreaker against Strasburg, can clinch a playoff berth with one more win or an Express loss. Winchester can clinch at least a tie for a postseason spot with two wins or one win and a Strasburg loss, and the Royals and the Express have split four regular-season meetings with another key head-to-head matchup scheduled between the two on Wednesday at First Bank Park.

Of all the teams still in playoff contention in the North, only Strasburg has been eliminated from contention for the division’s top overall seed.

Only one game separates Purcellville and Front Royal, and both teams are scheduled to meet twice more in a doubleheader at Bing Crosby Stadium on Thursday. The Cannons are 3-1 against the Cardinals this summer.

New Market, which is 8-3 in its last 11 games, could go a long way toward locking up a top-two seed and home field advantage in the first round of the playoffs this week. The Rebels are scheduled to complete a suspended game against Purcellville and play another against the Cannons on Wednesday, and they will play a makeup game against Front Royal on Saturday.

“All these games kind of have a little bit of heightened awareness,” Rebels third-year manager Zac Cole said Tuesday, “and everybody’s kind of locked in because there’s a lot still to play for even before you get to the playoffs. We all wanna host. You wanna host a playoff series, that’s obviously the goal. You wanna get two out of those three games at your home field. That’s kind of what we’re battling for. As much as I would love to win our division, I’d really like to get in that top two so our fans at home can see two playoff games, hopefully, at least.”

Strasburg, the longest shot to make the four-team playoff field among the North’s contenders, needs to win at least four of its final six games to have any shot of catching Winchester.

RAIN, RAIN, GO AWAY: The VBL’s season-long battle with Mother Nature continued on Tuesday, as all six scheduled contests were washed out by this week’s rains after half of the league’s four-game slate was erased on Monday. The area’s most recent bout with wet weather – and the threat of more on the way Wednesday – already prompted league officials to extend the regular season to Saturday, and the scramble to reschedule makeup games is adding some extra stress to the playoff race.

Front Royal, which hasn’t played a game since last Friday, is scheduled to play doubleheaders on Thursday and Friday in order to get its final six regular-season games in over the next four days.

“It’s not good, man,” Cardinals manager Zeke Mitchem said. “The guys are very anxious and we’ve had some guys leave already this week, and I think some more are getting ready to leave. It’s been a pretty disappointing finish for the Valley League.”

POWER SUPPLY: New Market remains one of the hardest hitting teams in the VBL this summer, and the Rebels have battered opposing pitching during their three-game win streak.

In those three games New Market scored a total of 27 runs (an average of nine runs per contest), and in the latter two against Purcellville and Staunton the Rebels hit six total home runs. New Market ranks second in the Valley League in home runs (34) and slugging percentage (.427).

Outfielder Andrew Eyster (University of South Carolina) continues to punish Valley League pitching, and he homered in back-to-back games against Purcellville and Staunton, including the go-ahead solo shot in the top of the 12th against the Braves on Sunday.

Eyster leads the VBL in batting average (.420) and OPS (1.303) and has eight home runs, 29 RBIs and 13 doubles in 100 at-bats. Half of Eyster’s 42 hits have gone for extra bases.

Rebels third baseman Chase Sudduth (31 RBIs) and Eyster rank fourth and fifth in the Valley League in RBIs.

BAD COMPANY: The Woodstock River Bandits, who entered Tuesday 5-33 (.131 win percentage), are on pace to finish with one of the worst single-season records in the Valley Baseball League in the last 57 years. Should the Bandits fail to win more than one of their final four games this week, they’d trail only the 1962 Craigsville Cardinals (3-36, .077 win percentage) for the worst record since the VBL became an NCAA-sanctioned league in 1961.

According to Jimmy McCumber, the Valley League’s media relations director, other single-season lows from the 1960s include the 1961 Craigsville Cardinals (6-33, .154), the 1969 Waynesboro Generals (8-32, .200) and the 1967 Staunton Braves (9-33, .214). Since 1970, the league’s worst record belongs to the 2009 Rockbridge Rapids (9-33, .214).

Woodstock, which won its season opener on June 1 before losing eight straight, has gone 1-12 in its last 13 games, a span that included a 10-game losing streak. The River Bandits, who last made the playoffs in 2015, haven’t had a winning record since 2013, when they went 26-17 – the best record in the North Division – during the regular season.