STRASBURG – Strasburg Express manager Anthony Goncalves recently referred to center fielder Justin Hayes as the “Ichiro of the Valley Baseball League.” Such a comparison to a Major League Baseball star – and one destined for a spot in baseball’s Hall of Fame, no less – is a lofty one, but the skill sets are certainly similar.
For Hayes, a 5-foot-8, 150-pound lefty from Norfolk State University, his game is all about making the pitcher and the defense around him uncomfortable. His ability to make consistent contact makes him a nuisance in the batter’s box, where he hunts fastballs or anything else he can hit hard on the ground somewhere. He’s as much a pest on the bases with his speed.
“His game is just put pressure on,” Goncalves said prior to Wednesday’s game against Charlottesville, “and that’s what he’s been doing for us all year.”
Whether it’s been at the plate or on the bases, teams have certainly felt Hayes’ presence through the Valley League’s first month and a half.
Entering Friday’s game against Winchester, Hayes was slashing .314/.396/.421 and held at least a share of the VBL lead in hits (38) and runs scored (31) while drawing a team-high 15 walks and stealing nine bases.
In most ways, his summer stat line has mirrored that of the prototypical leadoff hitter. In other ways, however, it has not.
Not only is Hayes Strasburg’s top run scorer, but he’s also the team’s leader in RBIs (he’s got 24 of them through the team’s first 29 games) and doubles (seven). Hayes, who has one home run in college ball to his credit, has gone deep twice this summer for the Express – including a solo homer against the Tom Sox on Wednesday – and he was the hero in a July 2 win over Staunton in which he blasted a walk-off grand slam.
Hayes’ consistency – he’s had hitting streaks of 14 and eight games this summer – prompted Goncalves to move his leadoff man into the third spot in the lineup about a week ago, meaning Hayes is getting a taste of life in the heart of the order and as a primary RBI producer for the first time in his career.
“I think I had like 12 RBIs real early in this season, and that’s all I had in my school season,” Hayes, who batted second on Wednesday, said, “so that was definitely a surprise, but I like producing.
“Just gotta give it to my teammates getting on base and getting in scoring position to were I can just put the bat on the ball. I’m not a big power guy, just try and put the ball in play and find holes and produce runs that way.”
Even when he’s moved down in the lineup, Hayes said his approach hasn’t changed much. He’s seen a few more off-speed pitches than usual, he said, but Hayes still abides by a style that his teammates often refer to as “chop and run.”
“I just try to chop the ball and try to beat it out. That’s just my approach, just put the ball on the ground,” Hayes said. “I mean if I miss in the air and it’s in the gap, it’s a good thing, but I just try to stay out of the air, stay on the ground, find holes that way.”
Hayes’ summer season has been a continuation of his strong junior campaign with Norfolk State, during which he led the Spartans in batting average (.347), hits (58), runs scored (35) and steals (28).
Producing at that level during the college season, however, required Hayes to rediscover what had made him a successful hitter.
Hayes played his first two years of college ball at Old Dominion University and, following a freshman season in which he hit .321 in 53 at-bats, struggled to a .212 batting average while seeing increased playing time as a sophomore in 2016.
He’d tried different batting stances and hand placements to break himself out of the slump that season, but Hayes rediscovered his confidence at the plate after transferring to Norfolk State and sitting out the 2017 season per the NCAA’s transfer rules.
“You don’t really wanna hit .212 and transfer somewhere else, but confidence-wise, I found that (again),” Hayes said. “I started lifting more, getting stronger, running well. Just this year I kind of quieted down my swing. I don’t have much movement at all that I used to. Just kind of keep the bat on my shoulder, just a little load and it just helps me be more quiet and just think which pitches are which ones.”
In the VBL, Goncalves said Strasburg’s offense goes as Hayes goes – he reached base safely in 26 of 28 games played entering Friday – and on top of that the center fielder’s defense has been “flawless.”
“It’s a no-fly zone. If the ball gets hit in his area, he’s catching it,” Goncalves said. “There’s maybe been one or two times this year where he’s been actually beat. The kid catches everything. And he’s smart. You can see it during the game, he’s making adjustments.”
Over the final two weeks of the VBL season, Hayes said he wants to work on “finding the middle of the ball” on his swing – something he’s struggled to accomplish recently – and to steal more bases.
Strasburg, which won back-to-back Valley League championships in 2015 and 2016 and played for another VBL title last summer, entered Thursday at 11-18 overall and three games out of a playoff spot in the North Division. Hayes said he believes a return to the playoffs still remains a possibility for the Express in 2018.
“We just have to pitch it well and just play defense behind them,” he said. “I think the real sore, as most people can tell, is our pitching, and when we are pitching sometimes we aren’t hitting, so we just gotta put it all together. I think we have a great team, so we’ll definitely be able to make a little run.”