FRONT ROYAL – Front Royal ruled the Valley Baseball League’s North Division for most of the summer season, but the Cardinals have lost their grip on the top spot in the standings with the end of the regular season fast approaching.
Entering Tuesday, Front Royal had lost four straight games to fall to 20-13 overall and a half-game back of Purcellville, which had surged its way to the North Division lead with 10 wins in 11 games.
“I mean we’re gonna have to play better baseball, first and foremost,” Cardinals manager Zeke Mitchem said prior to Monday’s 7-4 loss at home to South Division leader Covington. “But we’ve gotta stay healthy. We’ve had tons of guys go home. We have more guys leaving. Again, the schedule’s not been conducive for us to have any kind of consistency. It’s just a grind right now for the guys. I’m not gonna tell you that we’re gonna win seven of the last 10 or we’re gonna lose seven of the last 10. I don’t know what’s gonna happen. I know that we’re running on fumes.”
Front Royal entered the week on the tail end of a grueling stretch that saw the Cardinals scheduled to play 11 games over nine consecutive days immediately following the league’s all-star game on July 8. The Cards went 4-6 in the first 10 games of that stretch (Tuesday’s game at Strasburg was rained out) and were out-scored 54-41 in that span.
One of the VBL’s best offenses throughout the summer – the Cardinals entered Tuesday with the league’s highest team batting average (.290) and were top three in runs scored – Front Royal has been shutout three times since the all-star game and averaged only 2.8 runs per game during a six-game stretch through Monday’s loss, during which the Cardinals went 1-5. They were held without a hit in a loss to Waynesboro on Sunday.
Mitchem added that team’s pitching staff has been “absolutely depleted.” Front Royal lost Motlow State Community College left-hander Kobe Foster (2-0, 1.61 ERA in four summer starts) a day after he started for the North in the VBL All-Star Game, and Mitchem said Monday the team would soon lose Arizona Western College right-hander Ramon Miranda, who is 4-1 with a 2.27 ERA for the Cardinals.
The Cards also lost their leading RBI man and another all-star starter, Georgia Southern University catcher Christian Avant, on July 9.
Despite the run of hard luck, the Cardinals have remained competitive outside of a 17-0 loss to Charlottesville in the second game of a doubleheader on July 9. Mitchem praised the effort of his players, noting that the Cardinals’ recent lack of consistency is the result of lack of pitching depth and off days for their position players.
“We’ve been competitive, we just haven’t had the swing or the pitch or the option to go to, to get over the hump,” said Mitchem, whose team should claim one of the North’s four playoff spots, barring a complete collapse over the final 10 days of the regular season. “We haven’t, and that’s been frustrating for the coaches and the players but at the same time, we’re on the same page in that this is a bad hand and we’ve gotta do the best with the hand that we have. And the guys have. Again, the coaches and the players, I really feel like, have stepped up and taken this challenge on.”
CALL TO ARMS: Front Royal, like other teams in the Valley League, is busy with late-season roster additions to compensate for player departures, and Mitchem said the Cardinals have been forced to add what he called “mercenaries” – players who are only with the team when they’re scheduled to play – to flesh out the pitching staff.
West Virginia University right-hander Conner Dotson, a recent acquisition, made his first start for Front Royal on Monday and allowed four earned runs on four hits, two walks and six strikeouts over five innings against Covington.
Ryan Potts, another righty from Shepherd University, was scheduled to make his own Cardinals debut on Tuesday against Strasburg.
Mitchem said as of Monday the Cardinals had signed four new position players and four new pitchers over the last week and a half, although the team has lost “essentially an equal amount” of players in that span due to injury and other reasons.
“You’re just trying to stay even right now,” the Front Royal skipper said. “It’s not about getting better, necessarily.”
LOOKING AHEAD: The Cardinals have nine games left – including a home game Thursday against Charlottesville and doubleheaders Friday (at Woodstock) and Saturday (vs. Strasburg) – before the regular season ends on July 26. Front Royal gets a much-needed break with a scheduled off day Wednesday following Tuesday’s rain-out.
“I can’t speak for the players … but I know from a coaching standpoint we can’t get there fast enough,” Mitchem said Monday of the impending off day.
Two of Front Royal’s final eight games are against Purcellville and could decide the North Division’s top seed in the playoffs. The Cardinals host both of those contests, once next Monday and again in the regular-season finale.
Front Royal also has three games remaining against Woodstock, which has the worst record in the Valley League, in addition to Saturday’s doubleheader against Strasburg, which has the league’s second-worst record (11-20).