After spending much of the summer struggling to play much better than .500 ball, the New Market Rebels have emerged as one of the hottest teams in the Valley Baseball League’s North Division at the season’s critical stage.
The Rebels entered Wednesday having won eight of their last 11 games, and in doing so had clawed to within 2½ games of first place in the division with five games left in the regular season. New Market, which was 20-17 and three games over .500 for the first time this summer entering Wednesday, have a chance to cut deeper into Purcellville’s lead during a Friday matchup that includes the completion of a suspended game and another scheduled contest against the Cannons.
Purcellville, which surged into the division lead by winning 11 of 14 games, is the lone team in the North that could challenge the Rebels for the title of hottest team in the division entering Wednesday, though New Market was responsible for handing the Cannons two of their three losses during that 14-game stretch.
“I think it’s been kind of a testament to the type of kids that we have,” said third-year Rebels manager Zac Cole, who has his team on the cusp of making its second straight playoff appearance, of New Market’s recent surge on Tuesday afternoon. “Sometimes in summer baseball you’re used to worrying about kids are just ready to go home. I don’t think kids ever don’t play hard but they’re kind of relieved sometimes when they lose. We’ve been fortunate, with this group of guys especially, where they wanna win the league, they wanna be here, they wanna play. So you’ve kind of seen down the stretch here, our effort level has been great. Our guys show up every day ready to play. They wanna get better.”
While Cole credits most of New Market’s recent success to the players’ attitudes, the Rebels also appear to have finally found the team-wide consistency they’d been searching for nearly the entire summer.
New Market’s offense has produced all season – the Rebels entered Wednesday tied with Staunton for the Valley League lead in runs per game (6.5) and ranked second in home runs (34) and slugging percentage (.427) – and its pitching and defense seems to finally have caught up, Cole said.
Finding more stability on the mound, Cole said, required the Rebels coaching staff to use a little bit of creativity while drawing inspiration from how the Tampa Bay Rays are using their pitching staff, with success, in Major League Baseball.
“If you’ve looked at our box scores the last two weeks, we haven’t had a traditional-type pitching staff where a guy goes five or six innings and then you have a middle reliever and then a guy comes in at the end,” Cole said. “We’ve kind of had to piece things together and make sure guys are available with the pitch count rules and kind of be a little bit more creative.”
During New Market’s successful 11-game stretch running from July 10 through Sunday’s extra-inning win over Staunton, the Rebels had a starting pitcher go more than five innings just once. Only twice more did a starter complete the fifth inning.
Rather than trying to squeeze an extra inning or two out of a starter – especially when that starter isn’t typically used in that capacity during school ball – the Rebels have instead preferred to insert a fresh arm when opposing teams reach their trip through the batting order.
“We’re trying to piece it together and try to play matchups a little bit more and make sure that we’re getting the max that we can out of the outings that we get out of those guys and then get them ready to pitch again,” Cole said.
“I think our guys are starting to understand kind of the roles that we’re putting them in and they’re embracing them, and they’ve been successful in what we’ve asked them to do over the last week or so.”
That the Rebels have been able to pull off such a strategy with some success – a team that had a season-long team ERA of 5.13 posted a collective mark of 4.74 over the previous four games entering Wednesday – is a testament to the depth of their pitching staff.
“Depth hasn’t been our issue, necessarily,” said Cole, who noted that New Market has been able to hold onto 12 or 13 pitchers throughout the summer and has efficiently replaced those who left midseason. “We’ve struggled more with having guys that were experienced starters that could pitch deep into a game, and so that’s forced us to kind of use the guys that we have here in a different capacity.”
Cole said that the two contests remaining against Purcellville – which were originally scheduled for Wednesday but were rained out- were “two huge swing games” that could ultimately decide who wins the North and earns the division’s top overall seed in the playoffs, which are set to begin on Sunday. New Market, which entered Wednesday in third place, also has a matchup with fourth-place Winchester (19-19) on Thursday and a contest against second-place Front Royal (21-15) on Saturday.
“We’re definitely gonna have to make sure we’re prepared for those games and not overlook any one individual one,” Cole said, “and just make sure that we’re ready to play each one and go attack each one to the best of our ability, and just kind of see where we end up.”