HARRISONBURG —Matt Rose and Eric Kalbfleisch have been having a blast this season in the Valley Baseball League – though not so much in the VBL All-Star Game’s home run derby.
The two Harrisonburg Turks failed to muster much power Sunday evening at Veterans Memorial Park, managing just three home runs between them. But while the power-hitting duo, both ranked in the top three in the Valley League in home runs with four and three, respectively, didn’t have their stroke going Sunday, they have paced Harrisonburg to 15 team homers this summer, matching the club’s 2013 total in 18 fewer games.
“I think the power numbers are up and the league as a whole has hit more home runs this year,” Harrisonburg manager Bob Wease said.
In fact, the Turks (17-7) are one of four teams that have already hit as many or more home runs as last year.
Second-place Front Royal, led by league leader Hunter Newman with five, has smacked 13, up from just four all of last year. Charles Town and Covington have also matched their 2013 totals.
Ironically, perhaps, there were no home runs in a low-scoring All-Star Game on Sunday night, which the South won, 2-1.
The Turks’ increased power numbers have forced Wease to alter the way he manages. Typically a station-to-station tactician with a soft side for players who can bunt and steal, Wease this year is taking advantage of his big bats.
“It changes the way you play the game,” said Wease, whose Turks are in first place at the All-Star break. “Last year, we had a team that liked to run, so we stole a bunch of bases. This year, we have gone to guys that can hit the ball out of the ballpark.”
New Market manager C.J. Rhodes said his team, as well as others from what he can tell, has struggled to put together a consistent pitching staff. He believes that has led to some of the offensive success.
“It’s definitely been a complete 180 from last year and what you’re expecting on a daily or a nightly basis,” said Rhodes, an assistant at Division III Randolph-Macon. “That’s the fun thing about it. You expect one thing and you come out here and it’s been complete different so far.”
The statistics reinforce what Wease and Rhodes are seeing. Valley League teams are averaging 5.19 runs per game, up from 4.54 in 2013. Teams are also batting about 10 points higher, raising their average from .250 in 2013 to .260 this summer in the wood-bat league.
“I just think we’ve got better ballplayers this year,” VBL commissioner Don Lemish said. “Better offensive players and we’ve got so much parity in the league.”
Wease said he can usually tell three or four games into the season who his home run hitters will be. Kalbfleisch, a 6-foot-3, 215-pound senior at UNC-Greensboro back for his second year with the Turks, hit just one home run in 2013 for Harrisonburg. He bulked up entering this summer, having gained 35 pounds on his way to All-Star honors.
Last summer, the Valley League switched baseballs after a 2012 campaign that saw balls fly out of parks at a fast rate. Now, the VBL is facing the same problem the NCAA has with home runs. When home runs are up, they’re too up. When changes are made, the numbers go too far in the opposite direction.
Lemish hopes that an increased focus on bringing Division I players into the league will sort out all the power numbers.
“Nothing against [Division] II and III colleges, they’re all good players, but the more D-I ballplayers you can get, the more you can improve the status of the league,” the former James Madison University athletics director said.
Next season, the VBL will expand into Charlottesville, putting the league back at 12 teams after Rockbridge dropped out this season. Lemish said the new club’s general manager – Joe Koshansky, a former pitcher for the University of Virginia – told him that his goal is to target D-1 players.
“They will be a top-notch franchise from the very beginning and I think one of the advantages they’ve got is they’ve got Brian O’Connor in their corner,” Lemish said, referring to the University of Virginia’s highly successful coach. “While Brian can only send them so many players, four maximum in a given year, Brian can open so many doors for Joe Koshansky, who can open his doors in the college coaching world.
“It’s a marriage made in heaven for everybody. They’re going to go after the best talent they can go after, and to me that says they’re going to beat the bushes on D-1 players and I have a hunch they’ll rival Bob [Wease] for ACC players [the Turks have 11]. Bob has found that that’s a good place and with Brian O’Connor and his contacts, I wouldn’t doubt that they’ll have a lot of ACC players.”
Whether those players will fuel the power surge is anybody’s guess. It was an Atlantic 10 player who bested everybody Sunday night at the All-Star Game’s derby: New Market’s Darian Carpenter (Virginia Commonwealth) had 14 total, including three in the final. And it should be noted that the league-leader in home runs – Front Royal’s Newman – plays for Division II Trevecca Nazarene University in Nashville.
In the All-Star Game, Harrisonburg’s Rose (Georgia State) went 1-for-3 with the only RBI of the game, and Covington’s Blake Edwards (Columbus State) scored the go-ahead run on an eighth-inning error as the South beat the North 2-1 .
Rose gave the South an early 1-0 lead, scoring Harrisonburg teammate Thomas Spitz (Wingate) on a single in the first inning. In the sixth, center fielder Nick Sinay (Buffalo) was hit by a pitch, stole second, advanced to third and tied the game on an error in center field.
Staunton’s Kooper Kessler (Middle Tennessee State) gave up two singles before earning a two-out save in the ninth, striking out catcher Matthew Gandy to end the game.
South All-Stars 100 000 010 – 2 7 2
North All-Stars 000 001 000 – 1 6 2
Schank, Strayer (2), Kelly (3), Cooper (5), Perkins (6), Lewallyn (7), Williamsen (8), Ford (8), Ream (9), Kessler (9) and Escarra, Roach (5); Harper, Delatorre (2), Munn (3), Durkin (4), Anthony (5), Hunter (6), Stephens (7), Mould (8), Cantrell (8), Bickett (9), Karalus (9) and Hoffmann, Payne (4), Gandy (7). W–Ream. L–Bickett. S–Kessler.