STRASBURG – With players hailing from all levels of college baseball and from all corners of the country, teams in the Valley Baseball League can sometimes need time to develop a winning chemistry. Count Furman University right-hander Mason Kenney among those pleasantly surprised with just how quickly Strasburg found a rewarding camaraderie.
Strasburg was arguably the VBL’s best team through the season’s first half, posting a 19-7 record at the regular season’s midway point – the best in the league – and cruising through a stretch that saw the Express win 17 of 20 ballgames.
“When we first got together as a team, we connected pretty well, the team chemistry,” Kenney said before Tuesday’s win over New Market. “I think that helped out a lot, especially early in the season when we kind of went on that run where we really never lost. It really just kind of showed that together as a team, we really formed and connected, which made it a really, really good experience.”
Kenney, a sophomore from Milton, Georgia, was as important to Strasburg’s quick success as any player on the Express’ roster. One of the top arms on an Express pitching staff that has seen several key pieces removed due to injury and other circumstances, Kenney was stellar in his first six appearances for Strasburg this summer, posting a 1.75 ERA in 25 ⅔ innings spanning five starts and a relief appearance.
“He’s [a] competitor,” Express manager Brock Moss said of Kenney, who owns a 3-1 record with a 3.63 ERA this season. “He throws a lot of strikes. He likes to just compete. In coaching terms, we kind of use the word ‘bulldog.’ He’s kind of got that mentality. He just doesn’t let a lot of things bother him. It’s been a huge peace of mind as a coaching staff to know that every sixth, seventh day we’ve got a guy we can hand the ball to and you know that we’ve got a chance to win the ballgame.”
Kenney earned that confidence from Strasburg’s coaching staff quickly upon his arrival in the VBL.
In his first start for the Express in the season opener on May 31, Kenney, sticking to a pitch count that he said Moss implemented for Strasburg’s pitchers, allowed one earned run over four innings against New Market in an eventual Express loss.
Kenney held Purcellville to a single run over 4 ⅔ innings in his next start on June 7, and a week later tossed five shutout innings against New Market to earn his first win of the summer. A scoreless inning of relief followed before Kenney threw two more solid starts, first holding Woodstock to two runs over five innings in a win and then allowing just one run over six frames against Harrisonburg on June 30.
Kenney was one of six Strasburg players voted to the VBL All-Star Game on July 7 as a result, and one of two Express pitchers alongside fellow right-hander Bryce O’Brien.
“Probably confidence,” Kenney said of the key to his fast start in the Valley League. “I was just really trying to develop a few pitches, and I started to. So I was just really able to use that.
“I was trying to develop my two-seam (fastball) and just really get more run on it, which I’ve done. And mainly my changeup. I’ve gotten a lot better controlling it and making it a good plus pitch.”
Kenney’s VBL experience has been a bit different than what he’s used to on the diamond. Out of necessity due to injuries, Kenney said, he was asked to be a two-way player during his freshman year at Furman in 2019, playing some third base and shortstop when he wasn’t on the mound.
This summer marks the first time in quite some time, outside of a brief three-week stretch last summer before he arrived at Furman, that Kenney has gotten to focus solely on pitching without having to worry about preparing himself to also take up a position on the left side of the diamond, a feat that creates extra wear and tear.
“The recovery and just getting stronger and in better shape,” Kenney, an infielder and pitcher in high school, said of the benefits of putting his entire focus on pitching, something he said he’ll get to do next season at Furman due to the arrival of some infield reinforcements, “because here I can start, I can do my recovery, I can run, I can work out almost every day leading up until (my start) and I can actually do like long toss and throw like that. In infield, it was like I’m sore but I just have to get to 90 feet so I don’t die if I have to go into the field today.”
Kenney’s success in the VBL was a continuation of the progress he made as a freshman in college this past spring.
After being sidelined for a month due to arm soreness early in the college season, Kenney said he returned to the mound as a bullpen piece used primarily in blowout situations just to log some innings. Success in that role, Kenney said, worked him into Furman’s rotation by season’s end.
“I ended up taking over the Sunday starting job the last few weeks of the season and did well then,” said Kenney, who went 2-1 with a 4.80 ERA, 16 strikeouts and seven walks in 30 innings pitched for the Paladins.
Boasting a fastball that he said he’s trying to get back up consistently into the low 90s now that he no longer has to worry about being a two-way player, Kenney said he complements four-seam and two-seam fastballs with a changeup and a slurve that sports a sharp, late break.
“He trusts all of his pitches in any count,” Moss said. “He’s not afraid to throw anything in any count, whether it’s a 3-2 breaking ball, a 2-0 changeup. Even on a 2-2 (count he’ll) go to a location that’s not really thrown very much, whether that’s up and in on a 2-2 count, kind of that borderline area. He’s just a guy that he’s willing to use all three of those pitches. He’s willing to go up, down, in, out.
“He’s kind of a guy that’s got a little bit of a special breaking ball in terms that it’s high spin rate. Typically with higher spin rate pitches, no matter what the pitch, it’s typically a little harder for the hitter to hit.”
Kenney’s last two outings for the Express haven’t quite lived up to the status of his first six appearances. In his past two starts, the right-hander has allowed nine earned runs on 16 hits over nine innings while striking out six and walking four.
“Little things here and there, maybe leaving the ball up a few innings, maybe not getting a few calls that I wanted or did earlier (in the season),” Kenney said of his recent outings. “But just little things like that, just one swing and it’s two runs here, two runs there.”
A return to his earlier form would be a big boost for a Strasburg squad trying to shake off some second-half struggles and make a run at the team’s third Valley League championship.
“We’ve definitely bounced back from that,” Kenney said of a skid that included a five-game losing streak that made the race for first place in the North Division a tight one with Woodstock, “especially mentally. I just think finish strong, get the wins we need and then just head to playoffs healthy, everyone feeling good, and I think we can make a real run at it.”