GROTTOES — There’s no real explanation for the ebbs and flows of Grottoes’ season.
Cardinals coach Bobby Swink pointed to some changes in the lineup. Catcher Dylan Nicely noted that the team played more soundly and outfielder Jacob Merica said the team simply “played our game” during a recent winning streak.
Oh, how quickly that can change in the Rockingham County Baseball League, though.
In a league — outside of first-place Clover Hill — filled with parity, it may be a couple of tweaks that propels a team to a deep postseason run.
“When we play with a high-energy level, we are tough to beat,” Swink said. “These guys need to learn that it’s not a switch that can be turned on when they need it, but they’ve got to prepare the entire day to play with high energy.”
Grottoes has found that out, going through various highs and lows of the season — much more extreme than most teams throughout the league — and unable to get a real grip of where they stand with the playoffs less than a month away.
The Cardinals started the season 1-6 and were in the basement of the RCBL standings, but made a couple of adjustments to shift their trajectory.
“At the beginning of the season, we would have nights where would put runs on the board, but couldn’t play good enough defense to come out on top,” said Nicely, a Spotswood alum. “Then, there would be nights where we could clean up the defense, but couldn’t push any runs across the plate. Lately, we’ve been able to start combining the two, which has led to a lot more success for us.”
After dropping six of its first seven, Swink said he opted to insert some players into the lineup that had been putting together solid at-bats, but not seeing as much time.
Two of those, Spotswood alum Jacob Dansey and Fort Defiance junior Clayton Michael, came in and immediately took advantage of the opportunity.
“Jacob and Clayton were really the catalysts for getting things going for us,” Swink said. “Getting Keegan Woolford back didn’t hurt at all, either, but we had started to turn a corner even before he came back.”
The result was a five-game winning streak for the Cardinals and wins in eight of their next nine games — a number that was enough to quickly move them up the standings.
Entering Wednesday, the Bucks were running away with the league title with a 17-2 overall record with second-place Bridgewater and Stuarts Draft six games behind.
Behind them, however, New Market, Broadway, Grottoes and Montezuma were all within four games of the No. 2 seed and positioning has fluctuated one night to the next.
“Player availability on a nightly basis can vary tremendously and if one team gets everyone while others lose players or have players away from the team for a period of time, things can turn around in a matter of games,” Swink said.
There were lessons to be learned during the winning streak, however.
Just as it appeared the Cardinals were making a push to establish themselves as the league’s second-best team, reality hit and they lost three in a row.
Now, they’re back to sixth in the league standings and trying to recapture the magic of their midseason success in time for a deep postseason run.
“I think the biggest key will be our energy and how we go about preparing for the games,” said Merica, a former East Rockingham standout and current junior at Eastern Mennonite University. “When we come out with high energy, we can be a tough team to handle. With the energy, we also need to be playing our best baseball during the playoffs. We have the potential to be good, but that does nothing unless you’re able to use it.”
Potential is a word thrown around often with Grottoes, which is arguably the youngest team in the league this year featuring seven high school players in its starting lineup at one point early in the season.
“We’re insanely young and yet, we’re only a couple of games out of second place,” Swink said. “They’ve progressed at a level that even I’m impressed by and I’m not easily impressed. … Just learning the game and adjusting to the speed, it’s impressive.”
While the Cardinals’ youth is noteworthy, it’s the veterans of the team that Swinks calls “the backbone” and have carried them throughout their up-and-down season.
Nicely, Merica, Woolford and Fort Defiance graduate David Wood have been the team’s top hitters and also provided a leadership in the dugout that has benefited everyone.
“Those guys are all quality players and can carry you through a bunch of games,” Swink said. “Not to mention Josh Pittman, Brady Cockerham and Ty Lam. Those guys all have three or more years in the league and it shows. They don’t get rattled and that’s the biggest difference between the veterans the youngsters. The veterans don’t get rattled.”
One of the most important positives of the team is its pitching and it has been a strength so far.
Merica called this year’s pitching staff the best he’s seen in his time with the Cardinals.
“I think we’ve been able to run someone out there every game that we truly feel is going to keep us in the game and give us a legitimate shot to get a win,” Nicely said. “I think it will continue to be one of our biggest strengths if we can just make the plays behind them and put some runs up for them.”
Pittman and Lam have been the aces for the Cardinals with identical 3-1 records and 2.97 ERAs, but Spotswood alum Eli Lam also has 21 strikeouts in 14 innings of work while Dustin Garst has struck out 18 in 21.1 innings on the mound.
As a team, Grottoes ranks second in the RCBL with 172 strikeouts and is fourth with a 5.12 ERA.
“Our pitching has been consistent all year long,” Swink said. “I haven’t had to worry about who I’ve had on the mound. Even our pitchers further down the depth chart have given us quality innings.”
Another bonus is Swink, the player said, who has been with all of them since they joined.
The players praised him for his honest approach with them and ability to critique while also doing so in a respectful way.
“He’s always offered to help with any part of the game that you want help with if you ask and he’s pretty straightforward when he talks to you about things,” Merica said.
“He does a great job of doing everything he can to get best out of all of the guys day in and day out,” Nicely added.
Merica said the team’s attitude recently has been much better than it was during the rough stretch to start the season and said it’s likely why they have seen a difference.
While Swink and the players couldn’t put together a specific reason for why the year has been so up and down, they were able to pinpoint what they can do to improve it.
Whether it’s bringing more energy to the field or having more quality at-bats, Swink said there is plenty of small improvements that can be made before the postseason.
Once they do that, he said their fate will become more clear.
“When we put those things together,” Swink said, “that’s when we’ll really be ready to make a run at this thing.”
In other happenings around the RCBL this week:
Veteran Heating Up For Clover Hill
Drew Easter, the longest-tenured player on Clover Hill’s roster, is heating up lately.
Last week, the veteran infielder was an impressive 8-for-12 with three runs scored and a pair of RBIs over a trio of wins for the Bucks.
For the season, Easter is hitting .300 with four doubles, two homers and 12 RBIs.
Injuries Derail Montezuma
After a promising start to the year, Montezuma has been bit by the injury bug.
The Braves have lost three pitchers to season-ending injuries. The team’s starting shortstop has a sprained wrist. The second baseman has a strained ligament in his foot and the first baseman has left to return to graduate school for the fall.
The result has been Montezuma dropping six straight entering Wednesday and falling to seventh place in the RCBL standings.
Wood Steady For Cardinals
Former Fort Defiance first baseman David Wood, a 2011 graduate, has emerged as one of the best players for Grottoes this season.
Wood, who did not play baseball in college, has had multiple hits in five of his last six games and ranked second in the league in batting average entering Wednesday.
For the year, Wood is hitting .426 with nine doubles, a home run and 12 RBIs.
Bucks Train Is Rolling
Clover Hill has been in first place all season and it isn’t changing soon.
The first-place Bucks entered Wednesday on an eight-game winning streak.
Clover Hill started the season 8-0, lost two of its next three, but have now went back on a streak that only strengthens the belief that they are the overwhelming favorites for this year’s RCBL title.
Judy Tosses No-Hitter
Despite a heavy rain, John Judy provided a stellar pitching performance for Broadway last week.
Judy, a veteran player for the Bruins, tossed a rain-shortened, six-inning no-hitter on Sunday in Broadway’s 7-0 win over Elkton. He finished with no runs allowed on no hits while striking out eight. He is 3-1 on the season and has 43 strikeouts and a team-best 3.13 ERA.
Clover Hill Pitching Staff Unmatched
The veteran pitchers of Clover Hill are carrying the team once again this season.
Former Turner Ashby player Waring Garber, Buffalo Gap alum Nick Corbin, Harrisonburg graduate Kevin Chandler and another TA alum, Corey Armentrout, have all been key for the Bucks during their remarkable 17-2 start to the year this season.
As a team, Clover Hill leads the league with 198 strikeouts in 167 innings pitched and boosts a remarkable 2.10 ERA. Stuarts Draft is second with a 4.65 ERA.