Mostly different names, same local flavor.
At the beginning of the 2018 Valley Baseball League season, the Winchester Royals were managed by Jacob Mays, a Shenandoah University assistant baseball coach at the time, and the team featured four graduates of local high schools.
This year’s Royals will be led by a local high school coach in Clarke County’s Mike Smith, whose numerous Valley League stops over the years include a 2006 assistant position in Winchester. The Royals will once again start the year with four local high school graduates. They’ll also roll out a Shenandoah University outfielder who plays his college games at the Royals’ Bridgeforth Field home.
Winchester opens its Valley Baseball League season at 7 p.m. tonight at Bridgeforth against Front Royal, one day after each of the league’s other 10 teams opened their seasons.
Pittsburgh junior infielder Alex Amos (Millbrook High School), Navy junior pitcher Trey Braithwaite (Millbrook), Radford senior outfielder Adam Whitacre (Sherando) and Virginia Commonwealth junior pitcher Colt Webb (Clarke County) are this year’s local high school crop. Webb — who will play for the VCU next year for the first time after transferring from Potomac State — is making his second appearance with the Royals. Webb appeared in two games for Winchester last year before joining Purcellville, where Smith served as an assistant, and pitched in three games.
Webb is not the only 2019 Royal who will be accustomed to wearing the team’s green and yellow colors. Senior Louisiana Monroe second baseman Mason Proseski is back after leading the VBL in stolen bases last year (27 to go along with .301 average, 19 RBIs and 21 runs in 40 regular-season games) as well as senior Nebraska outfielder Aaron Palensky (.280, 19 RBIs, 23 runs, 8 stolen bases).
Winchester’s 30-man roster also includes Grant Thompson of Shenandoah University. Thompson (.290 batting average, 5 home runs, 35 RBIs, 10 doubles, 8 stole bases) and Whitacre (.261, 6 home runs, 25 RBIs, 11 stolen bases), another former Purcellville Cannon, are two of the five outfielders on the Royals’ roster, and both will see plenty of action.
Smith also has another nearby player on the roster. Beau Lowery — whose grandfather John and father John Jr. have each managed the Royals — is a sophomore left-handed pitcher from West Virginia University and a resident of Martinsburg, W.Va. Lowery’s time with the Royals will be brief, though. WVU is playing in the NCAA Regionals, and he has to leave around July 1 because of another obligation.
Smith said he wasn’t necessarily trying to bring in local talent — in the cases of Amos and Whitacre, he was only able to bring them in because other players dropped out — but he’s looking forward to seeing how things play out for a Royals team that is looking to play for the Jim Lineweaver Cup after its second straight North Division finals loss last year. Winchester (24-22, 22-20 in the regular season) was swept 2-0 by New Market after beating top-seeded Purcellville 2-0 in the North semifinals.
Braithwaite is coming off a particularly impressive season. The 6-foot-3 righthander had 10 saves to go along with a 3.10 ERA, 33 strikeouts and 10 walks in 29 innings to make the All-Patriot League first team.
“He had a great year,” Smith said in a phone interview. “We’ll look at him at the back end of the bullpen as a closer-type. We’re very excited about that.”
Webb had an impressive year for Potomac State. In 64.1 innings he struck out a remarkable 106 batters, including 21 against Harford Community College on April 24. Webb also posted a 7-4 record with a 2.38 ERA while walking only 26 batters. Smith said he’d like to use him as a starter, but he’ll be cautious with him because of his workload this spring.
“He did throw a lot of innings, so that’s a concern,” Smith said. “We’re not going to rush him right into the rotation to start. I’d like to see him get an inning or two out of the bullpen, getting his arm back where it needs to be, then throw him back into the rotation hopefully.”
Amos is looking to jump-start his career after making the All-Atlantic Coast Conference Freshman team in 2017. Amos started in 34 games in 2018 before suffering a season-ending injury, which Smith said involved his wrist. In 2019, Smith said lingering problems with the wrist injury led Amos to have an operation after playing in only eight games. Smith added that Amos will receive a medical redshirt.
In a phone interview on Tuesday, Smith said Amos was fielding ground balls and throwing, but it might not be until mid-June before Amos starts swinging a bat.
Smith said he expects Prososki (.444 on-base percentage with 23 RBIs, 33 runs and 9 stolen bases at Louisiana Monroe) to wreak havoc at the top of the lineup for the Royals. Winchester’s other returning position player in Palensky will also hit at the top of the lineup once he actually arrives in Winchester. Palensky is in the NCAA Regionals this weekend with Nebraska, where he was looking to build on his team-leading .324 average, 6 home runs, .481 slugging percentage, and .426 OBP. Palensky also ranks second on the Huskers with 31 RBIs.
Another position player Smith expects big things from is sophomore infielder John Dyer, who recorded 11 home runs, 54 RBIs and had a slash line of .330/.420/.581 for Tennessee Tech. Smith said Dyer’s arrival will be delayed by a couple of weeks because of injury. Sophomore catcher Jeremiah Boyd from Presbyterian College was drafted by the Boston Red Sox out of high school and had 15 RBIs in 40 games (27 starts) in his debut college season.
Smith said he lost three pitchers — all left-handers — in the past couple of weeks due to their college teams shutting them down, but he still has a lot to like about his likely six-man rotation. Oklahoma Wesleyan right-hander Mike Anderson went 12-1 with a 3.39 ERA and 80 strikeouts in 106.1 innings.
“He was throwing hard today, four pitches for strikes,” said Smith on Tuesday. “You can tell he’s a workhorse. He’s excited to be here, and he wants the ball.”
Two right-handers out of Motlow State Community College in Tennessee are among the others in the mix to start — tonight’s starter Logan Walters (63 strikeouts in 55 innings) and Dalton Wilder (61 strikeouts in 54 innings) who is transferring to Troy — but Smith said Tuesday there’s a lot he was still trying to figure out in terms of pitching roles.
In addition to Braithwaite, Whitacre’s Radford teammates Ryan Bywaters (3.38, 21 strikeouts in 24 innings) and fellow right-hander Cody Boone, who throws from three different arm slots, could play big roles in the bullpen.
Right now, Smith feels more confidence in Winchester’s hitting compared to its pitching. Overall, he likes the group he’s assembled quite a bit.
“Offensively, one through nine, it’s going to be pretty good,” Smith said. “It’s a waiting game with the arms and how they’re going to fit in, and what role they accept. We have to see how the pitching falls into place.
“If you look at the Northern Division and you look at the rosters, they’re loaded. This is probably going to be one of the toughest years I can remember. It’s going to be a battle in the North, but I see no reason why we can’t win it.”