STRASBURG – If there was one thing that took priority on Colton Schultz’s list of things to improve during the summer Valley Baseball League season, it was to rediscover his timing against fastballs.
Squaring up the heater was a problem that plagued Schultz throughout his sophomore season at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, the Strasburg Express outfielder/designated hitter said last week. Simply put, he was late on anything that wasn’t off-speed, and Schultz saw his batting average dip from .294 to .262 between his freshman and sophomore seasons in 2017 and 2018.
About to make his first foray into the collegiate summer ball experience, Schultz entered the Valley League season in June determined he was going to get his foot down early and focus on hitting fastballs. Still, it was clear when he played his first game for the Express that the improvement he needed to make was going to take some time.
“We almost played the matchup game (with Schultz),” Express manager Anthony Goncalves said before a recent home game. “We would put him in there for a guy that was heavy off-speed so he could catch up to it, he didn’t have to time up the upper-80s fastball. Once he started to (get to the point where) he was getting hits off fastballs, that’s when we started seeing his timing was getting there. And I believe he hit a home run here, it was lefty on lefty, which is always tough, that was a sign for me, he’s ready. Ever since then he’s just been barreling everything up. It doesn’t matter lefty, righty. He’s been one of our most consistent guys.”
The left-handed hitting Schultz has wielded one of the VBL’s hottest bats since the midway point of the season. Entering Sunday’s home game against Harrisonburg, Schultz was batting .352 (38-for-108) with three home runs and 23 RBIs and held the league’s XXX-best average thanks to a 14-game span from June 25 to July 17 during which he batted .456 (26-for-57) with two homers and 14 RBIs.
Schultz’s progress was hampered early in the summer as he worked his way back from a grade 1 sprain of the AC joint in his shoulder he suffered after hitting the left-field fence during a series against Rice in May. He was batting just .207 for the Express on June 17 but has made up for lost time by posting nine multi-hit games since June 25. In five of those contests Schultz, Strasburg’s primary designated hitter and occasional outfielder, recorded three or more hits.
During one three-game stretch earlier this month, he was 10-for-14 (.714) with two homers, a double, eight RBIs and nine runs scored.
“I’d say if I come into a night and my first at-bat I’m able to hit it hard or get a good hit or see a lot of pitches from that starting pitcher, I feel pretty confident and comfortable then the rest of the game,” Schultz said of his penchant for bunching hits together during the second half of the summer. “That first at-bat’s huge because it can take a lot of pressure off of you later in the game. But the biggest at-bats are late in the game, so that’s when I try to stay the most focused and dialed in.”
Maintaining his torrid offensive pace over multiple weeks, Schultz said, has been a lesson in sticking to a routine, keeping a “steady mindset” and simply having fun. Part of his turnaround at the plate, he added, may have been spurned on by the presence of his parents, who spent the week of July 4 watching their son play in the Valley League.
“Maybe I was a little bit more focused in when they were here, you know?” said Schultz, who’s from Huntsville, Alabama. “I wanna perform for them and do well for them. Maybe I was just more relaxed.”
Regardless of what has triggered his better fortunes at the plate – getting regular at-bats while fully healthy certainly helps – Schultz’s solid second half in the VBL could be just he needs heading into his junior season at UAB.
Schultz, who started 29 out of 41 games played for the Blazers as a freshman in 2017 and slashed .294/.403/.404 with a homer and 16 RBIs in 109 at-bats, said he may have put too much pressure on himself during a sophomore season in which he started 52 games. He saw dips in his batting average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage in 2018, while only managing to match his home run and RBI totals from his freshman season despite having 82 more at-bats.
Schultz could be on the verge of a bounce-back in 2019 should he find a way to carry his Valley League success back with him to UAB.
“It’s hard for me to say,” Schultz said when asked how his summer season could impact his junior year, “because this is my first summer in the Valley League, in summer ball. But I think it’s gonna be a great confidence booster, and just picking up some tips from the coaches here and my teammates, just kind of staying in a groove. And anything just falls back on this summer and (I’ll) know that ‘hey, I did it this past summer, let’s just do it again right now.’”
Unfortunately for the Express, Schultz’s prolonged hot streak – and those of several other hitters, as well – did little to pull Strasburg out of a season-long struggle for victories, and their late push for a playoff spot is reaching a desperate hour with the end of the regular season looming on Thursday. The Express entered Sunday trailing Winchester by four games for the fourth and final playoff spot in the North with eight games remaining.
Schultz said last Wednesday that Strasburg was still pushing hard despite slim chances of making the postseason, adding that on a personal level he wants to “finish strong and stay focused” at the tail end of his first season of collegiate summer ball.
“The goal is to just keep on doing what I’m doing,” he said. “Just staying relaxed and I guess enjoying this last week and a half with guys I’ll never really see again and coaches I’ll never play for. Just enjoying that and thanking everybody around the program here and the Strasburg community for having us.”