WOODSTOCK – While not yet officially eliminated from the Valley Baseball League playoff hunt, Front Royal would need something miraculous to happen in order to keep playing ball after the regular season ends next Thursday.
The Cardinals’ long odds – they were four games out of the fourth and final North Division playoff spot with six games left heading into Thursday’s off day – aren’t dampening their spirits or their effort, however.
Though they hold the worst record in the VBL (12-24), the Cardinals have won five of their last seven games and could at the very least pull themselves out of the Valley League cellar before the season comes to a close. Entering Thursday, Purcellville also had 12 wins, though the Cannons had played three fewer games to that point and held an overall record of 12-21. Harrisonburg is also within striking distance at 14-20 through Wednesday’s games.
“The big thing we’re talking about is showing up, have fun, make sure you enjoy being here, first and foremost,” Front Royal manager Tony Hurla said after Tuesday’s 4-3 win over Woodstock. “And then focus on trying to get yourself better each and every day. Right now, it’s paying off a little bit for us.”
All of Front Royal’s wins over their string of success have come against teams in the playoff picture in the North. Two of the Cardinals’ victories have come against second-place Woodstock, two more – including a 9-6 victory on Wednesday night – have come over third-place New Market, and the other came against fourth-place Winchester.
On the season, Front Royal holds winning records against Woodstock (3-1), New Market (3-2) and Winchester (3-2), though the Cardinals are 0-4 against first-place Strasburg and Purcellville. Five of the Cardinals’ last six games are against teams from the North Division, including Friday’s home game against Winchester.
“I told the guys right after the game (against Woodstock on Tuesday) you never know,” Hurla said. “Crazy things happen in baseball, so let’s show up again tomorrow and let’s do the best we can and whatever happens, happens.
“The biggest thing we wanna do is send all these guys back better players than when they came here. That’s what we’re still trying to do.”
OFFENSIVE BRIGHT SPOTS: Front Royal outfielder Dylan Menhennett remains a bright spot for a Cardinals offense that ranks near the bottom of the Valley League in many statistical categories.
After a four-hit night in Wednesday’s win over New Market, Menhennett has hit safely in 10 of his last 11 games and has nine doubles, a triple and three home runs in that span. During his current five-game hit streak, the senior from the University of West Florida is batting .650 (13-for-20) with six doubles, a triple, two homers, eight RBIs and seven runs scored.
Menhennett, who is batting .321 this summer, entered Thursday with the Valley League lead with 14 doubles. He also ranked second in the VBL in runs scored (31) and was tied for third in total hits (42).
“He’s just seeing the ball good,” Hurla said. “He’s hitting it well. Made a little adjustment at the plate with his lower half and it’s really been paying off.”
Tre Dabney, a sophomore third baseman from James Madison University, has been another highlight for the Cardinals this summer. A late addition to the Front Royal starting lineup as he worked his way back from a knee sprain, Dabney is batting .323 (21-for-65) with five homers, 10 RBIs, four doubles and two triples in 18 games. He homered in three straight contests before Wednesday’s 0-for-3 performance.
PITCHING STAFF DWINDLING: Pitching is always a need in the Valley League, as injuries and pitch-count/innings limits often keep summer league teams in a constant search to replenish their pitching staffs. Front Royal has not been spared the impact on its own arms.
As of Thursday, the Cardinals had just eight pitchers listed on its roster. The team has lost five pitchers since the start of the summer, including the recent departure of Arkansas Tech right-hander Shane Scott – who led the Cardinals in wins (three) and ERA (2.43) and pitched 44⅓ innings, tops in the VBL – due to an innings limit.
In the last week, Peter Schuldt (Bates College) has made two starts after making nine previous appearances out of the bullpen for the Cards; Sean Miller (Seton Hall) started for just the second time in 12 pitching appearances; Kyle Choate (South Florida State), who has split time between the bullpen and a starting role, tied his season high with five innings pitched against Staunton; and Cade Middleton had perhaps his best start of the season when he went six innings while allowing three earned runs on six hits, two walks and five strikeouts against Woodstock on Tuesday.
Trey Fields, who has logged 31 ⅓ innings on the mound as a two-way player for Front Royal, also picked up his first win of the summer vs. New Market last Saturday.
“The pitching staff, we got hit hard by some injuries,” Hurla said. “We lost three guys to injury and two more due to innings limit. That’s handicapped us, but the guys keep showing up and playing hard. They’re not giving in.”