His summer didn’t start with the same success he’s having now.
But to be fair, Chase DeLauter’s competition then was as good as it gets.
“Going a month out of the college season without facing live pitching to facing a Major Leaguer was not easy,” DeLauter, the James Madison standout slugging his way through the Rockingham County Baseball League for Broadway, said with a grin.
Before DeLauter returned to Harrisonburg for RCBL action and prior to MLB opening its summer camps ahead of the shortened 60-game season the big leaguers are in the midst of now, Minnesota Twins starter Randy Dobnak needed to pitch against live hitters for preparation, according to DeLauter.
DeLauter, a Martinsburg, W.Va. native, and Dobnak, a graduate of Alderson-Broaddus University in West Virginia, would meet regularly as they both waited for their hiatus from organized baseball to end.
The coronavirus halted the stellar start DeLauter had to his Dukes career, with the 6-foot-3 freshman batting .382 to go along with a homer and 14 RBIs over 16 games. Dobnak was in spring training when MLB paused in mid-March.
“Of course he didn’t have the same adrenaline he would have in a game,” DeLauter said of squaring off with the Twins’ right-handed hurler. “But he was probably 92 to 94 with a sinker, slider and a changeup. There were a couple of days when he’d strike me out a couple of times. And then there were a few times I got doubles and singles, but I never took him deep.
“But I think going from facing him into the RCBL was a little easier.”
On Thursday, the Broadway Bruins clinched their first RCBL regular-season title since 1931, and DeLauter had plenty to do with it.
He captured an RCBL Triple Crown by topping the league in hitting (.545), home runs (13) and RBIs (39). DeLauter homered more frequently than he struck out, too, while averaging a home run every 5.07 turns at bat and a strikeout every 13.20 turns at bat.
“I just think he’s always hit and is always doing the things he needs to do,” JMU baseball coach Marlin Ikenberry said. “Did I think he could have that many home runs in that few at bats? I don’t know, but I was curious to see how he’d evolve.”
DeLauter said he’s never hit for power in the past like he’s doing currently while leading Broadway, the No. 1 seed, into the RCBL postseason, which begins this weekend. But he admitted he’s never tried to alter his approach at the plate in order to swat the ball over the fence like he’s done this summer either.
“Honestly it wasn’t about my swing path,” DeLauter said. “It was really about where I was catching the ball. I wanted to catch it more out in front [of the plate] to get more carry.”
It’s something DeLauter had been introduced to when he first arrived at JMU last August.
“[JMU hitting coach] Alex Guerra and I, actually, we talked about it a good bit in fall and spring,” DeLauter said. “But the big thing was me not changing my swing to do it, so that’s what I didn’t do. Then I hit well in the spring, but I wasn’t catching the ball how I wanted. When I went opposite field that’s how I wanted to hit ‘em, because then I wanted generally to create more power when I pull the ball. So I’ve learned how to connect the ball more out in front with the same angle.”
He said he’s even concentrated on it when he swings on his own or during batting practice, so he can seamlessly apply it during RCBL games. By hitting the ball out in front of the plate, DeLauter said, more backspin is created when the ball hits the bat, causing the ball to travel further.
DeLauter hit two home runs in a single contest three different times during the RCBL regular season, and his 13 homers came off of 12 different pitchers including one against Dukes teammate Hunter Entsminger, who pitches for New Market. DeLauter even had a two-run walk-off blast to mercy rule New Market last week.
“It’s unbelievable,” Broadway assistant coach Bob Wease said. “The other night it’s the seventh inning and we’re up 10-2, and of course there’s a slaughter rule in the County League, but there’s a man on and Chase is batting with two outs. I turned to the other dugout and I said, ‘I just want to tell you guys that the game is over. Pack it up, because we’re going downtown right now,’ and on the next pitch he hits it over the scoreboard.”
DeLauter said: “Tyler [Ault] told me if he got on, then I better end the game, and so I was going up there and sitting on a fastball, swinging for the fence. The pitcher threw me a fastball and I knew if he threw me a fastball I’d hit it over.”
The Collegiate Baseball freshman All-American choice this past spring and former West Virginia Gatorade Player of the Year from his time at Hedgesville High School wasn’t the constant threat to knock the ball out of the ballpark he has developed into.
In fact, DeLauter originally pledged to JMU as a pitcher.
“When I committed to JMU, I was about 5-[foot]-8 and 155 pounds throwing like 80 mph,” DeLauter said. “And that was before they were going to let me hit, so I actually committed as a [pitcher only].
He said then came the growth spurt he always anticipated. DeLauter said his dad is 6-foot-3 and his grandfather is even taller.
“My junior year of high school I ended up being around 6-0, 180 pounds and hitting better,” DeLauter said. “So JMU was like ‘maybe we’ll let you hit’ and then the summer before my senior year I shot up to 6-3 and gained 20, 30 pounds and hit better and they’re like ‘OK, we’ll let you be a two-way player.’”
Throughout the abbreviated college season, DeLauter played the outfield on Fridays, Saturdays and in mid-week contests, and pitched on Sundays. JMU was the only school willing to let him do both, he said, which led him to select the Dukes’ offer over others from Pittsburgh and West Virginia.
“When you look at him as a two-way player,” Ikenberry said, “you look at the left-handed arm and then you look at him as a left-handed hitter, and as I tell every two-way player, ‘You do it as long as you can until someone tells you that you can’t.’ And he’s proven to everybody that he can do both.”
DeLauter said the pitching hasn’t come as easy at the college level, though.
This past spring, he was 0-3 with a 7.98 ERA for JMU. This summer for Broadway, he’s 1-1 with a 3.60 ERA and 19 strikeouts over 15 innings.
“It’s getting better,” DeLauter said. “It’s just a couple of mechanical things that change for me when I go from the bullpen to live, so once I sync all that down then I should be good. In the spring I was even struggling through my bullpens, but now I’ve got my bullpens down and it honestly just depends on how I’m feeling. If I can replicate my bullpens to my games, I’ll be fine.”
Whether or not DeLauter’s pitching skills ever catch up or surpass his hitting prowess shouldn’t matter though, Wease, a former associate scout for the Chicago White Sox, said.
The RCBL’s best player in 2020 has a future to look forward to.
“I’ve seen a lot of ballplayers,” Wease, the longtime coach of the Valley Baseball League’s Harrisonburg Turks, said. “I’ve coached Clint Robinson, David Eckstein, Juan Pierre, Mo Vaughn, Steve Finley, Chris Hoiles and it goes on and on and on, and what I see of Chase is he’s the best looking 18-year old I have ever seen in my life.
“And that’s going out on a limb and saying a lot, but I watch him swing the bat, watch him run and his attitude. Everything about him is good from his attitude to his hustle. Everything you see on the baseball field is what you want out of him. He’s the best looking prospect I’ve seen in a long time. I think he’s going to end up as a first baseman in the big leagues.”
DeLauter said he’s already been invited to play next summer in the Cape Cod League – the premier summer collegiate league. He’ll have opportunities to stay closer to home, too, in the Valley Baseball League, perhaps with Wease’s Turks or the Strasburg Express, who DeLauter was supposed to play for this summer before the VBL campaign was canceled due to the pandemic.
No decision about next summer has been made yet, but DeLauter said, “Everyone knows the Cape is the top-notch place to go and if you have an opportunity to go, there’s nothing better.”
Even further down the road in the summer of 2022, following his junior year at JMU, he’ll be MLB Draft eligible.
But DeLauter isn’t thinking about that yet. He said he’s got an immediate quest of winning the RCBL title to finish first.
“That’s the goal,” he said. “And I know it means a lot to the other players. Us JMU guys haven’t been here very long, but I know for the other guys it means a lot to them and to the people around here.”