The Winchester Royals did not have a game on their Valley Baseball League schedule for Sunday, but the day was going to be a big day for the franchise.
The Royals’ had six players initially selected for that evening’s All-Star Game at James Madison University. A seventh was added to the North squad on Saturday.
That’s a number that can make both the franchise and Coach Mike Smith very proud. Smith scours college rosters looking for talented players and he’s obviously hit the jackpot on a few, which was made tougher by the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 and 2021.
He certainly landed some of the league’s most devastating bats at the top of his lineup.
Leadoff hitter Nate Furman (UNC Charlotte) leads the league with a .439 batting average and is second with 16 stolen bases. No. 2 hitter Austin Bulman (Rice) is second with a .419 average, leads the league with 36 RBIs and is tied for fifth with six homers. No. 3 Will Long (Tennessee Tech) hits third and is fifth in the league with a .368 average, third with 34 RBIs and tied for fifth with six homers, including four this past week. Cleanup hitter Cristopher De Guzman (Alabama State) is hitting .286 and has swiped 10 bases.
All four are All-Stars.
Pitchers Kenneth Quijano (Rider), who has a 2-0 record with a 3.20 ERA, and Michael Darrell-Hicks (Jacksonville), who is 1-2 with a 1.80 ERA, joined them on the North squad. Garret Gainey (Winthrop), who has struck out 19 batters in 9.1 innings, was added to the team on Saturday.
On Friday prior to Gainey’s addition, Smith said that the venerable Jim Phillips, who has served with the Royals in some capacity since their inception, couldn’t recall more in-season honorees.
“Mr. Phillips has been around since 1979 with this team and he said he can’t remember that we’ve ever had that many at one time,” Smith said. “They are all well-deserving. They’ve all played extremely well. They’ve been a great part of our success so far. It’s nice to see the recognition for those guys.”
And Smith believes those players can help lead the Royals into the playoffs and possibly do some damage.
After a weekend doubleheader loss to Staunton, Winchester (14-15) is tied for third in the North with New Market (16-17). Front Royal (13-18) is a close fifth as six teams in the division battle for one of the four playoff berths.
Smith has reason for some optimism for his club’s potential. Just this past week, the Royals whipped first-place Strasburg 18-2, smacked second-place Strasburg 14-6 and clubbed Front Royal 14-8.
“Offensively, I’ve always felt pretty good about the team,” Smith said. “It’s just we needed our starting pitching to get us a little bit deeper into games. Just give us five or six innings if you can so we don’t tax the bullpen so much. They have been taxed. … Right now offensively, we’re probably one of the top teams in the league.”
Smith says making the playoffs will be a tough task because of the strength of the North Division. Strasburg (21-10) and Woodstock (21-12) are a game apart at the top. Charlottesville (24-8) has an eight-game game lead in the South.
“In the past as a Northern team and when we always traveled South to play those teams, they seemed to be in some aspects a little bit stronger at times than the North,” Smith said. “I think that it has definitely flip-flopped this year. The Northern teams are the toughest. To take the top four out of the top six, it may come down to the last day to be honest with you. It’s just strong from top to bottom and there are a lot of good players in the league this year.”
Smith, who has 15 years of experience in the VBL, certainly likes the chemistry his squad.
“They’ve all seemed to mesh very well,” he said. “Over the years that I’ve done this, you get a few ‘me’ guys who are usually worried about themselves, their stats, this and that and then get out of here. This group is all about the team. They get excited during our games. They stay in our games. They’re engaged. They seem to like each other and are very supportive of each other. It’s just a great group of guys, man. It’s just a pleasure to sit back and watch them play.”
Smith said that after a 2020 summer where there were few opportunities to play and the entire VBL season was canceled that the joy to play is evident.
“You can just see they are so happy to play summer baseball and happy to be around their other teammates,” he said. “When you are having success and you’re winning that also helps. We’ve been above .500, below .500, sitting at .500. If we just keep doing this, I think the kids will be happy.”
And what will it take to secure a playoff berth?
“It’s going to take everybody staying healthy,” Smith explained. “So far everybody wants to be here. Every now and then, you’ll get a few guys where they hit that wall and they’re burned out and tired and ready to go home. I’ve done a decent job of rotating this lineup around, getting everybody rest and the at-bats they need.
“If everybody stays healthy, we can just keep playing the way we are playing. That’s usually the way it is with every team. If everybody stays healthy, we can definitely make a push.”
The Royals know that they will have support in the stands. They’ve seen it several times at Bridgeforth Field this season and today starts the team’s second youth camp of the season which once again is filled to its maximum of 90 participants.
“It’s been great,” Smith said of the fan support. “They know this team. There have been times where we have been behind in the seventh and eighth innings and you look up and the fans are still there. We’ve had a couple of walk-off wins and they get excited. It’s just nice to see everybody back at the ballpark again. The kids are hanging around the dugouts. … The community support has been great.”