FRONT ROYAL – College players from across the country converged on the Shenandoah Valley a month ago preparing to take part in the Valley Baseball League. Thanks to Mother Nature, the 2018 summer ball experience hasn’t quite been what those players signed up for.
What was supposed to be two-plus months of baseball on a near-daily basis has instead been a sporadic summer session overflowing with rainouts and suspended games through the season’s first half. Last week’s particularly bad bout with drenching storms left some area teams shut out from taking part in any baseball activities altogether.
“We couldn’t do anything,” Front Royal catcher Christian Avant said following a 6-1 loss to Purcellville on Tuesday night, the Cardinals’ first game in eight days. “The cages were flooded. The bullpens were flooded. The field was flooded. Most guys just sat around and played Fortnite and just watched Netflix. That’s all there really is to do.”
The Cardinals, the leaders of the North Division, were hit hardest by last week’s downpours. Following a win over New Market on June 18 and a scheduled off day the next day, Front Royal saw its next five games fall victim to rain, including a washout of a doubleheader against Charlottesville on Sunday that was supposed to make up for a prior rainout between the two teams.
When the Cardinals – who had played just 14 games entering Wednesday, the fewest in the VBL – finally returned to action against Purcellville on Tuesday night, they weren’t very sharp. Front Royal committed four errors, surrendered a pair of solo home runs and left 11 baserunners stranded as the Cannons cut the Cardinals’ lead in the North to two games.
Avant admitted after the loss that it was difficult to play a game after an eight-day layoff, which he said included a light practice – consisting of pitchers throwing off flat ground and hitters taking cuts off a tee – on Monday. But Cardinals manager Zeke Mitchem said he didn’t want to use the weather as an excuse to “let these guys off the hook for playing poorly.”
“The guys have done the best they can with the resources that we have. Does that mean we can have better resources and better opportunities? Of course,” Mitchem said. “But at the same time, again, I don’t wanna use that as an excuse. You don’t forget how to play baseball.”
The battle against Mother Nature has been a season-long affair. Strasburg, which had four games rained out last week and had nine total games postponed through the first 27 days of the season (five of which have since been made up), saw its first four contests of the new campaign washed out before finally hitting the field for its opener on June 5.
Not a single Valley League game was played on June 2 or June 3 due to weather.
Front Royal has had eight total games postponed (only one of which has been made up) so far, and Woodstock has had six games postponed and another suspended in the first month, only two of which have since been played.
New Market has been the most fortunate of the four VBL teams in the Northern Virginia Daily’s coverage area, having suffered five postponements and a suspended game. The Rebels have already made up four of those contests and had played 18 games entering Wednesday, tied with Purcellville, Harrisonburg and Staunton for the most in the league.
New Market manager Zac Cole, now in his third season with the team, said this is the most the Rebels have been impacted by rain in his time in the VBL.
“It’s been tough, but our guys have had a good attitude about it,” Strasburg manager Anthony Goncalves said on Wednesday. “They’re trying to stay busy. Whenever we have 45 minutes to an hour gap where it’s not raining – like last week, the guys still get their work in but we both know baseball, you’ve gotta get on the field, and you’ve gotta play. So that’s where it is. It’s just managing guys, and when we do get to play, they’re rusty.”
Goncalves said the stop-and-start nature of the season has been particularly troublesome for a team like the Express, who have struggled enough in finding consistency on the diamond without the added burden of the weather.
The Express have had difficulty getting position players into a rhythm, Goncalves said, and the team has had to get creative with its pitching staff, sometimes using two starters in a given game – when the pitchers are comfortable doing so, he noted – in order to make up for lost starts.
Cole noted that the rainouts have actually been a welcomed respite from the everyday grind for some of New Market’s position players, but added that the same can’t be said for Rebel pitching.
“It’s been hard to keep our pitchers regular and get them regular work,” Cole said. “We’ve got guys that are going four and five days in between pitching, not because they’re not good enough or not because of any other reason other than the fact that when you only play two games and you get a night or two off, you just try to get everybody involved, and it’s tough to do that.”
The rain also has impacted Strasburg’s players in non-baseball areas, Goncalves said.
“A lot of the guys will work around the town for some extra money, if it’s landscaping, whatever it is,” he said. “They haven’t been able to do that either because of the weather.”
The VBL’s unbalanced schedule – there are 11 teams, requiring one team to be off each night – could prove a tricky obstacle should the postponements continue to mount. The final day of the regular season is scheduled for July 26, with the playoffs set to begin immediately after.
Strasburg has already played doubleheaders against Woodstock and New Market, and Woodstock has four more doubleheaders looming on its schedule next month, while Front Royal has two. The Cardinals also are scheduled to host Staunton in a 2 p.m. makeup game on Monday, after which the Braves will travel to Strasburg for a game later that night.
Cole said he hopes New Market’s ability to avoid future postponements and quickly reschedule rained-out contests will allow the Rebels to keep their scheduled late-season off days intact, though other clubs may not be so fortunate.
“I know if it keeps it up, I don’t see us finishing all the games, which wouldn’t be good,” Goncalves said of the poor weather. “You wanna play all these games and see what these kids can do.”