Peek performance: Express right-hander ranks among VBL’s best this summer

STRASBURG – Zach Peek was eyeing a job as a weekend starting pitcher as he entered his freshman year with Winthrop University’s baseball team last year, but said Monday that he lacked the mental toughness required to hold down a spot as one of the Eagles’ regular starters.

STRASBURG – Zach Peek was eyeing a job as a weekend starting pitcher as he entered his freshman year with Winthrop University’s baseball team last year, but said Monday that he lacked the mental toughness required to hold down a spot as one of the Eagles’ regular starters.

Instead, a bout with what he said his coaches called “freshman inconsistencies” last fall left Peek with a scattering of five midweek starts throughout 24 appearances with Winthrop in 2017.

As the season progressed, he said, his role grew to include multi-inning relief appearances in more high-leverage situations late in games, the reward for his mental growth after he spent time studying Winthrop’s veteran pitchers who had “figured it out” on the college baseball diamond.

“That’s one thing that I definitely take pride in learning this year is the ability to control myself and control my emotions,” Peek said while seated on a set of bleachers along the third-base line at First Bank Park ahead of the Strasburg Express’ home Valley League Baseball game against Front Royal on Monday evening.

With a firmer grasp on the mental aspect of pitching at the collegiate level – Peek ended his freshman season ranked third on the team in wins (five) and ERA (3.70) – his next step was the summer ball experience, where he could work on honing his skills and set himself up to make another run at a weekend rotation spot for Winthrop next spring.

Peek landed with the Express in the VBL, in his words, because Strasburg needed a starting pitcher and Peek needed to log some starts. His arrival in Strasburg has been a win-win for both parties.

Prior to Peek’s start against North Division leader Purcellville on Wednesday evening, the right-hander ranked among the Valley League’s best in most pitching categories.

In his first six appearances with the Express – including five starts – Peek was 4-0 with a 1.55 ERA and 33 strikeouts in 29 innings and was limiting opponents to a .175 average while dealing only four walks. Strasburg won four of the five games Peek had started entering Wednesday, including Peek’s restricted two-inning start last Friday ahead of this past weekend’s VBL All-Star Game.

“Every time we run him out there he’s getting us deep into games,” Express manager Nate Ramsey said. “When he throws it’s almost been a weeklong thing instead of a night thing because it gives us a chance to rest some guys, it gives us a chance to not tax our bullpen. He’s started winning streaks for us and he’s stopped losing streaks for us. On the field he’s been great.”

Peek’s performance this summer has drawn plenty of attention to the right-hander. He was voted as one of five Strasburg players to participate in the VBL All-Star Game and additionally was selected as one of 30 players to represent the league in the five-team Southern Collegiate Showcase in North Carolina this weekend.

The showcase roster, in contrast with the VBL’s all-star roster, which requires at least one pitcher and one position player from each team, was designed to highlight the top professional prospects in the league.

“I’m honored and thankful that I have this opportunity,” said Peek, a Forest native and graduate of Jefferson Forest High School. “I think it’s gonna be awesome to see the talent that’s everywhere else other than just the Valley League because we’ve seen a lot of guys in the Valley League. So I think it’s gonna be awesome to see what everyone else has to offer.”

Though the stats and the accolades all speak to the success Peek has achieved on the diamond this summer, he said he still has work to do to in order to accomplish the goals he set out to achieve when he joined the Valley League.

That includes becoming sharper with his slider in order to put batters away more consistently, which Peek listed as the top item on his to-do list entering the summer.

“A lot of times in the school year I would find myself getting guys down 1-2, 0-2 really quickly and then just getting weak contact instead of just putting them away,” Peek said. “So that’s one thing that I’d like to do here is just really throw that pitch with conviction and really try to put them away.”

Peek has been striking out opposing batters with more regularity in the Valley League, notching a  rate of 1.1 strikeouts per inning compared to 0.7 in his first collegiate season at Winthrop.

The right-hander’s arsenal includes a four-seam fastball that sits in the low 90s, a two-seamer, slider and changeup.

“He can throw multiple pitches for strikes,” Ramsey said. “He can move his fastball around the zone. He can move his breaking ball around the zone if he wants to. His velocity’s been good, it’s been consistently around 90. He scraped 94 in the all-star game (Sunday). So his velocity’s there and when you can move it around and when you can not just miss the barrel but keep it off the sweet part of the barrel that’s gonna give him a chance.”

As Peek continues to try to prove to his college coaches that he’s better equipped for a weekend starting role at Winthrop in 2018, he’s also aiming to help Strasburg – which entered Wednesday in third place in the North and three games back of Purcellville – make a run at its third straight VBL championship.

“I’d really like to see our team kind of come together and figure out what we’re doing, figure out our identity,” Peek said. “We’re playing good baseball but at the same time we were just on different pages some games. I feel like once we come together we’ll be a force to be reckoned with.”