HARRISONBURG – As by far the youngest manager in the Rockingham County Baseball League, 23-year-old J.J. Loker makes up for his lack of coaching experience with his ability to recruit an influx of talent onto the Elkton Blue Sox’s roster.
Loker, who — in addition to sharing Elkton’s managing duties with his father, Dave, and assistant Christian Rodriguez — also doubles as a starting infielder, is dealing with a turnover of nearly 20 new players from last year’s squad.
Of the fresh faces, seven have occupied regular starting roles in the field.
While J.J. Loker’s team may have “started from scratch” in the beginning, recent results show Elkton is about as dangerous as any County League team as the start of the RCBL postseason nears.
Winners of 10 of their past 12 games following Sunday night’s 8-6 win over Broadway, the Blue Sox (13-8) have undergone a significant philosophical change this season.
“Last year, we had a lot more power in our lineup,” said Loker, whose team lost the services of former James Madison standout Ty McFarland – a recent 10th-round draft pick of the New York Yankees – among several other key contributors. “This year, we got some guys that can really run and steal bases. And that’s kind of been our philosophy here lately. We started out struggling, and now we’re really coming along. We’re really running the bases hard and trying to make things happen, because we do have a lot of speed on our team.”
Center fielder Terrell Thompson of Virginia Intermont College, a 2009 Waynesboro High School graduate and Elkton’s leadoff hitter, has epitomized that shift by stealing a league-best 22 bases this season. The next closest player in the County League is Loker, who is hitting .354 with a team-best four home runs, at 11.
Thompson is just one of the many players Loker, a 2009 Spotswood graduate and former Division II South Carolina-Aiken baseball player, convinced to join the Blue Sox after having competed against them at the prep or college level.
Among the other key additions this season are Dominican-born shortstop Robert Bautista – a 26-year-old former member of the Chicago Cubs minor league organization – and veteran right-handed pitcher Mark Arrington, whom Loker managed to talk out of retirement after two seasons away from the RCBL.
Bautista speaks very little English, according to Loker, and primarily communicates in Spanish with Rodriguez – a former Elkton infielder who is coaching this season after tearing his Achilles tendon – during games.
During the offseason, Loker said, Thompson and Virginia Tech redshirt freshman Joe Burris – Elkton’s leading hitter with a .382 batting average – at first each declined invitations to join the Blue Sox. Thompson, according to Loker, expected to play in the Valley League, while Burris, Loker said, had made a commitment to compete in the Maryland-based Cal Ripken League. When those plans fell through for Thompson and Burris in the days before the start of the RCBL season, Loker welcomed both players with open arms.
Having himself been a three-year player with the Valley League’s Harrisonburg Turks, Loker understands as well as anyone the differences between playing summer collegiate baseball and playing in the County League.
“Playing for teams like that, it’s a grind,” Loker said of his experience in the Valley League. “You [have games] six, seven nights a week, and you may only play every two, three days. You come play for us, you’re going to play the same amount of time that you’ll play there and you still get to do other things. You get work, you get to go on vacation, you get to do whatever. With something like the Valley League, it’s a full-time commitment. And playing with us, it’s a commitment. But it’s not like a full-time job either.”
However, Loker did make one major exception to that recruiting pitch. Last year, Elkton reached the RCBL playoffs only to be bounced in the first round by the expansion Luray Cavemen. That early exit was aided in part by a mass exodus of key Blue Sox players before the start of postseason play due to various reasons.
“I told ‘em, I said, ‘If you can’t [be around for this year’s playoffs], just let me know and I’ll sign somebody else,’” Loker said. “And they all have come together and agreed that that’s what we’re going to do – we’re going to finish what we started. We’re not going to just call it quits early this year.”