WOODSTOCK – Members of the Woodstock River Bandits frequent the local Sheetz in the downtime between batting practice and the start of each Valley Baseball League home game, using that period for a chance to grab some grub and cool off in the air conditioning. Clayton Jeffries, however, is often among a group of players that stays behind to take some extra cuts in the cage.
That work ethic draws praise from Bandits manager Greg Keaton, an assistant coach from West Virginia State University who coached Jeffries for two seasons at Lenoir-Rhyne University. Keaton raves about Jeffries as a hitter, noting his ability to battle in the box and to use the whole field and his intelligence at the plate. The foundation for all those attributes, Keaton said, lies in Jeffries’ blue-collar approach to the game.
“He has to work because, I’m not saying this in a negative way, but he doesn’t have what you’d call traditional God-given athletic ability or form or anything,” Keaton said of Jeffries prior to Monday’s game against Waynesboro. “He just outworks, and he’s a really smart hitter, too. He knows what he’s looking for and he executes the process of the plan that we’ve pounded into him since he got on campus at Lenoir-Rhyne when I was coaching there.”
Jeffries, an outfielder and occasional pitcher, has been a bright spot for a River Bandits team that has struggled to find wins all summer. Entering Tuesday, the Lenoir-Rhyne senior was batting .354 with four doubles, a triple and 16 RBIs, and he ranked third among all qualified hitters in the VBL in batting average before going 0-for-5 against Waynesboro on Monday night.
Jeffries, a left-hander who was voted to this past weekend’s VBL All-Star Game, hit safely in 15 of his first 18 games with Woodstock, and the Bandits’ RBI leader has posted four games of three RBIs.
Jeffries said he’s felt re-energized at the plate after being reunited with Keaton this summer.
“I could credit it to seeing the ball well, because yes I have,” Jeffries said of his success at the plate, “but also two years at Lenoir-Rhyne I’d been with Coach K, and he’s really taught me how to swing and stuff. And being around him again, he’s really reminded me of all the steps it takes to be a good hitter and figure out what to hit in certain situations, what to look for and all that stuff. He’s really helped me a lot, and so have the other two coaches, Tucker (Abruzzino) and Cliff (Jackson).”
Jeffries has also received a boost from getting everyday playing time with Woodstock after playing sporadically through the season’s first three weeks, during which he played in only six of the team’s first 14 games. Keaton said that lack of playing time was simply the result of the River Bandits trying to figure out their roles on the diamond.
“I knew what I was getting when I got him,” Keaton said. “I just wanted to see what everybody else had, too. But now it’s pretty much cut and dried; we have to have him in the lineup every night.
“He’s got a good personality,” Keaton added. “He doesn’t get too high; he doesn’t get too low. He’s what a hitter should be as far as mentality. He doesn’t try to force things. He doesn’t try to be something he’s not. He’s what you want in a baseball player. But the biggest thing I like about him, I mean he battles. He battles all the time. He doesn’t cave in. He doesn’t give in.”
Jeffries, a native of Lakeland, Florida, is coming off a junior season at Lenoir-Rhyne – a Division II school in Hickory, North Carolina – in which he batted .222 (12-for-54) with a home run and seven RBIs in 29 games.
Recently Jeffries has been battling some mechanical flaws, he said, and he’s worked on preventing his shoulder from flying open in the batter’s box, which causes him to roll over on pitchers. It’s an issue Jeffries said he’s long fought.
“What I strive for when I’m hitting, one is to be a hard out, like try not to strike out as much,” said Jeffries, who struck out only seven times in his first 65 at-bats with Woodstock. “I’ve tried to perfect two-strike counts, trying to just put the ball in play, hit it hard somewhere. Also, I’ve worked a lot on going the other way, opposite field.”
Jeffries’ goals for the rest of the summer include continuing to sharpen his mechanics in the box, he said, and he’d like to see the River Bandits put more wins on the board over the season’s second half. Woodstock entered Tuesday’s game against Purcellville with a record of 4-21, the worst mark in the Valley League.
“Even though our record doesn’t show it, we have a pretty good, scrappy team,” Jeffries said. “Other teams in the league, there’s good pitchers, good hitters. It’s just finding ways to put it together. As a whole, I think this is a pretty good league, and I really enjoy playing in it.”