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Posted July 11, 2009 | Copyright © The Northern Virginia Daily
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Powerful change: McQuail has reaped the benefits of a swing adjustment

Front Royal's Steve McQuail hits a second-inning double against Woodstock on Wednesday in Woodstock. McQuail, who leads the Valley Baseball League in home runs this season, will play in Sunday's All-Star game. Dennis Grundman/Daily

Front Royal's Steve McQuail throws out a Woodstock runner to end the third inning on Wednesday in Woodstock. Dennis Grundman/Daily

By Jeremy Stafford -- jstafford@nvdaily.com

FRONT ROYAL -- Find the barrel of the bat, hit the ball hard.

The thought darts through Front Royal cleanup hitter Steve McQuail's head as he looms over home plate, watching as the pitcher twists into his windup.

Look off that changeup; don't swing at that curveball -- just wait for the outside fastball, find the barrel of the bat, hit the ball hard.

But McQuail's at-bats don't always go according to plan. Every so often a ball he intends to line into the gap produces a little more backspin than normal, and so it sails a tiny bit higher, and a tiny bit farther, than McQuail expected. And instead of plopping into the gaping hole in the left field alley, the ball soars high into the Front Royal night sky, and plummets among the few billboards scattered just outside of Bing Crosby Stadium.

McQuail has had 11 such home runs this season, and though he leads the Valley Baseball League in the category, McQuail admits the experience is altogether new to him.

"I have never before in my life hit home runs," McQuail explained in a thick Long Island accent. "I was a gap-to-gap hitter, you know? I would hit line drives.

"I haven't been trying to hit home runs, I've been trying to find the barrel, hit the ball hard, and then the home runs have just been coming."

But despite his short-lived success crushing fastballs out of the park in recent weeks -- or perhaps because of it -- McQuail can't help but be reminded of where he was a year ago, as a freshman at Canisius, when he struggled to find the barrel of the bat.

"I got into a little of a playing slump," McQuail said. "I just wasn't doing a lot of things right."

McQuail spent the summer after his freshman season playing baseball in the Hamptons, and his hitting slump only worsened.

"I didn't get a lot of playing time," he said. "And the at-bats that I got, I had horrible at-bats, I wasn't hitting the ball good at all."

And so early that summer, something clicked in McQuail's skull: Find the barrel of the bat, and find it consistently, or face the chance that college baseball may never come to him as easily as high school ball had.

So without the benefit of a hitting coach to guide him, McQuail changed everything about his swing. He tore apart the mechanics of his old swing like old, crumbling wallpaper in an antiquated room, and reconstructed his swing piece by piece. He studied the swings of Major League hitters like Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton, and used them as guidelines to rebuild his swing.

Each day that summer, McQuail went to a batting cage and honed his new swing by smacking a ball off a tee. He worked to drive his back knee forward on his follow-through; he worked to keep himself tall and elevated; and he worked to keep himself linear.

And he could tell when his swing was off. He could feel in his body when he fell back to the techniques he was trying to forget, instead of standing tall and using the techniques he was trying to learn.

"I would just work on that same swing until it felt right, and it clicked in August," McQuail said. "And then I went up to school, and I used it, and I was hitting a lot better than I ever have in my life."

In fact, McQuail's results were staggering.

In his sophomore season at Canisius, McQuail batted .314 with 14 doubles, 10 home runs and 45 RBIs.

Just like a year ago, McQuail's hitting has been remarkably consistent; but unlike a year ago, his new swing is getting him plenty of at-bats, and he's one of the strongest run producers in the league.

In addition to his 11 homers, McQuail leads the league in slugging (673), is tied for first in total bases (72), and is second in runs scored (73).

What's surprising to some, though, is that McQuail hasn't let this rush of success swell his ego.

"It's pretty cool because he's really a humble guy, too," said Cardinal's second baseman Cody Kauffman, who said he's played in a wooden bat league before. "He doesn't talk about it -- doesn't really talk himself up. It's just fun to be around him and fun to watch him.

"It's something that I've never seen, I've never seen that many home runs with a wood [bat] ... it's pretty impressive."

And in his first season playing baseball in the Shenandoah Valley, McQuail has been invited to play third base for the Valley League North in the Valley Baseball League All-Star game, to be held Sunday at Central High School in Woodstock. McQuail will also compete in the home run derby, which along with the 60-yard dash will provide a bit of pre-game entertainment. But even though he's belted more homers than anyone in the league, the humble McQuail admits he has some reservations about winning the derby.

"I have no idea how I'm gonna do -- I don't go up to the plate and try to hit a homer, it just comes, I don't know how," McQuail said. "It might be a little different when you're up there and you're telling yourself, 'OK, let's hit a homer.'

"I think I'm just gonna try and keep the approach the same: Hit the ball hard, and then I think I can find some over the fence."

But considering the baseball stadium in Woodstock is one of the least hitter-friendly parks in the league -- the River Bandits' nine home runs are the second fewest in the league -- McQuail may not hit as many home runs as some might expect.

"He's in a home run park, so that's the difference," Woodstock owner Stu Richardson said. "If he was playing in some of the other parks, I'm sure he'd have some home runs, but he wouldn't have 11, I don't think.

"Our field, you take away center field ... it's even bigger than some major league parks."

Though the center-field wall at Central is fairly shallow, the wall in left-center and right-center field immediately expands to 365 feet. Richardson said that, down each alley, the wall stands 376 feet away from home plate.

Still, he expects the home run derby, as well as the 60-yard dash and all-star game Sunday afternoon, to provide the Woodstock spectators with quite a show.

"It's pretty good that we got it this year," Richardson said. "We had a lot of volunteers that are helping with it, and we're hoping that it's gonna go off real good.

"There'll be a lot of people in town and it's good for the community and good for our program."

The derby will begin at 5:30, followed by the 60-yard dash at 6 p.m. in front of the football stadium bleachers. The game's opening pitch will be thrown at 7:30.

For Cardinals coach Joe Scarano, the derby and the All-Star game could prove that McQuail's newfound swing, his uncanny ability to wreck a cowhide ball with the barrel of his wooden bat, is not a fluke.

"For here and now, he's the most dangerous hitter in the league in terms of power," Scarano said. "And he's a hard worker, he lifts every day, and he worked on his own swing.

"I've only been coaching for seven years, and he's one of the guys I could point to that is committed to the process."

And McQuail, who is so humble, so unused to being recognized as a power hitter, can only drop his head, peer down at the asphalt walkway behind the Bing Crosby Stadium bleachers, and occasionally shuffle his cleats over a small mound of pebbles piled at his feet.

"It feels great," McQuail said of being nominated by league coaches to play in the All-Star game. "It gives you more confidence that the coaches think I can do it."

Then McQuail lifted his head and squinted as the afternoon sun flashed into his eyes: "I have played pretty good, but I'm just thankful that they thought that I deserve a spot on the All-Star team -- it feels great."

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