Woodstock first baseman Lael Lockhart stretches to get the out as Staunton’s Logan Worley reaches first base during third inning action on July 2.

WOODSTOCK – Just over a week ago, Woodstock sat five games behind first-place Strasburg in the Valley Baseball League North Division standings with the end of the regular season closing in. There’s a week left before the start of the VBL playoffs, and the River Bandits have erased that deficit.

Entering Wednesday’s home game against Charlottesville, Woodstock, with an overall record of 20-14, sat just a half-game back of Strasburg (20-13) for first place in the North, setting the stage for what could be an intriguing race to the finish between the two Shenandoah County teams.

Through Tuesday, the River Bandits had won seven of their last nine games and 10 of their last 13. Pair that with Strasburg suddenly struggling after racing out to a 19-7 record through the season’s first half – the Express had lost seven of nine entering Wednesday – and Woodstock was a win away from a potential jump to first place in the North ahead of Wednesday’s matchup with the Tom Sox.

“We’re putting forth a good effort every night,” Woodstock manager Mike Bocock said after Tuesday’s 4-3 loss at home to last-place Front Royal. “We’ve got some great pitching. The guys are working hard. I mean they’re concentrating on what they want to do.”

The River Bandits’ recent surge has included three straight wins over Strasburg, including a doubleheader sweep of the Express last weekend. On the season, Woodstock is 4-2 against the Express; the two teams aren’t scheduled to meet again during the regular season, which ends on July 25.

“I think the catchers are playing well,” Bocock said of the keys to Woodstock’s recent success. “We’re starting to hit the baseball. And we won some close games, some games that we had to battle through.”

Woodstock is 15-7 against North Division opponents this summer, including a 3-0 mark against third-place New Market (the Bandits and Rebels will meet three more times over the next week). The River Bandits are also 2-2 against fourth-place Winchester, 5-0 against Purcellville and 1-3 against Front Royal, which holds the Valley League’s worst record.

A win over Front Royal on Tuesday night would’ve given Woodstock a half-game lead in the North (Strasburg lost to Waynesboro that same night), but the River Bandits couldn’t hold a 3-1 lead and saw the Cardinals score the go-ahead run in the top of the ninth when catcher Blake Way mishandled a throw to the plate from left fielder Austin Bates on a sacrifice fly.

“Every time they play us they play very well, and they’re good,” Bocock said of Woodstock’s struggles against the Cardinals this season. “Their kid (starting pitcher Cade Middleton) pitched well, kept them in the ballgame. We had some chances early to score a few more runs that changed the outcome. But that’s baseball.

“I’ll tell you, Front Royal’s got a good team. Whatever (manager Tony Hurla) is doing, he’s not letting them just belly-up and say ‘we’re not playing ball.’ They come out and they play hard. … That’s a credit to the coach and credit to Front Royal.”

MISSING PIECES: It’s a testament to the talent Woodstock has amassed this summer that it had three players chosen for the Valley League roster for the Southeast Prospects Showcase held in North Carolina on Monday and Tuesday. But the two-day absence of three of the organization’s best players in the middle of a pennant race could also be viewed as a detriment to the River Bandits’ cause.

Woodstock played Monday (a 4-3 win over Harrisonburg) and Tuesday without outfielder Aidan Nagle – who entered Wednesday tied for the VBL lead in home runs (eight) and was top three in batting average (.419) and RBIs (26) – and shortstop William Escala (.351 batting average, 15 runs scored, eight steals).

Bocock also had to make sure left-hander Tristen Bayless – the Valley League’s leader in ERA (1.95) and strikeouts (43) – was available to pitch for the VBL’s showcase squad on Tuesday. Bayless, who also pitched in the VBL All-Star Game on July 7, has started for Woodstock just once – he tossed six shutout innings against Harrisonburg on July 10 – since making a relief appearance on June 26.

Bocock said the VBL shouldn’t hold regular-season games while most of the league’s star power is participating in the showcase. Woodstock’s three showcase players were tied for third-most in the Valley League behind Harrisonburg (six) and Waynesboro (four).

“It’s taxing on the other pitchers and it’s taxing on my players,” he said. “I mean, it ain’t like you just lose a player. You lose a couple of your best players because they’re all-stars. I just don’t think the league – anybody – should play, not just us. It’s just not something that should happen. It’s not fair for us to lose three players and (the Cardinals) don’t lose any players.”

Bayless starred in the showcase, striking out six in two perfect innings in a start against the Florida Collegiate Summer League in Tuesday’s 3-3 tie. Nagle was 1-for-3 with a run scored and a walk on Tuesday, while Escala went 1-for-3 with a run scored in Monday’s 7-2 win over the Southern Collegiate Baseball League.

CHASING THE BATTING CROWN: River Bandits outfielder Caleb Ward went hitless in Tuesday’s loss to Front Royal, but the junior from Norfolk State University had been hot at the plate in four games prior to that setback.

During those four games – all Woodstock wins – Ward went 9-for-13 (.692) at the plate, a surge that vaulted him briefly to the top of the VBL in batting average (.442). He entered Wednesday hitting .429, second behind Covington’s Logan Amiss (.437) and just ahead of Nagle.

Ward hit safely in 22 of his first 31 Valley League games and had 14 multi-hit contests in that span.

– Contact Brad Fauber at bfauber@nvdaily.com