Summer Collegiate : : Story
Monday, July 11, 2011

Valley League reaches midway point

Allan Simpson        

HAYMARKET, Va. -- Inspired by the play of all-star outfielders Mac Williamson and Dodson McPherson, and the dominant work of the league’s best pitching staff, the Harrisonburg Turks have been the talk of the Valley League this summer.

Williamson (Wake Forest), a Boston Red Sox draft pick in June, has been the league’s unquestioned star, hitting .377-9-33. He leads the 12-team circuit in homers and RBIs, and is second in batting. McPherson (Wingate, N.C.) is second behind Williamson in homers, and third in RBIs.

The Turks (23-8), ranked sixth nationally in the latest Perfect Game summer-league Top 25 rankings, have also posted a league-best 3.03 ERA, mainly on the strength of superior seasons by junior righthanders Aaron Luchterhand (Arkansas Tech) and Eric Meyerchick (Saint Joseph’s, Ind.), and sophomore righthander Patrick Christensen (La Salle).

Luchterhand, an Australian, leads the league with a 1.08 ERA, while Meyerchick is tied for the lead in wins (5) and second in strikeouts (41). Christensen ranks second with six saves and may be the league’s hardest thrower.

All five Harrisonburg players were slam-dunk choices for the Valley League All-Star Game, played Sunday in Haymarket, but were never a factor as the North upended the South, 6-4.

None of the three Turk pitchers was used in the game, while McPherson went 0-for-5 with three strikeouts. Williamson went 2-for-3 with a pair of singles, but was largely an afterthought after winning the event’s Home Run Derby in impressive fashion prior to the game.

Junior second baseman Sam Dove (Georgia Tech) was a sixth Harrisonburg player selected to play in the game, and homered in the first inning (his first home run of the season) to give the South a brief 1-0 lead, but the performance of the Turk players overall was insignificant as the Harrisonburg-led South went down to defeat.

Those half-dozen Harrisonburg players will have a chance to redeem themselves tonight as the Valley League engages in the second half of its two-day all-star extravaganza, taking on the Cal Ripken League all-stars.

That game, appropriately, will be played in Harrisonburg, and Turks manager Bob Wease, who will serve as the head coach for the Valley League all-stars, will no doubt roll out his three all-star hurlers, all sufficiently rested, with area summer-college league bragging rights on the line.

The Cal Ripken League beat the Valley League 2-1 in 2009 in the only prior all-star game between the two leagues. Last year’s game was rained out.

Despite his lowly status as a 46th-round pick of the Red Sox in this year’s draft, the 6-foot-4, 240-pound Williamson has been the unquestioned star of the Valley League this summer. He has also emerged as the league’s best prospect.

“He can do it all,” said Wease, whose involvement with the Valley League and the Harrisonburg franchise dates back to 1960. “He can hit, he has power, he can run and his arm has come around to where it is now above-average from right field.”

For Williamson’s part, this has been a breakout summer.

“I had a good spring at Wake Forest,” he said, “but I have become a more-complete hitter this summer. I’ve fixed some things with my swing that I struggled with in the past.

“Obviously, I’m also playing on a great team here in Harrisonburg, with more protection in the lineup, and I’ve gotten better pitches to hit. But overall I’m swinging the bat better than I ever have.”

It’s taken Williamson time to master the art of hitting as he was primarily a pitcher at North Carolina’s Wake Forest-Rolesville High, before hurting his shoulder as a senior. He underwent labrum surgery as a freshman at Wake Forest, and was red-shirted. He hasn’t pitched since.

Williamson hit .279-7-37 with 12 stolen bases as a red-shirt freshman for Wake Forest in 2010, and followed up by hitting .273-12-49 with 11 stolen bases this spring. He did, however, manage to lead the Demon Deacons in all three-triple crown categories, but also with 58 strikeouts.

At .377 for Harrisonburg, Williamson has not only added significantly to his batting average this summer, but has curbed his strikeouts (21 in 27 games).

Though he was a lowly pick in this year’s draft, Williamson was actually called by a number of clubs early in the draft, inquiring whether he would take slot money if drafted in the eighth to 10th rounds. He rejected all overtures and tumbled to the 46th round.

The Red Sox have followed him closely this summer in the Valley League as the stakes to sign him continue to rise, and they may be challenged to get a deal done by the Aug. 15 signing deadline. He has already turned down a significant six-figure bonus offer.

Not only has Williamson become a more complete hitter this summer, but it’s readily evident that he has become a complete player.

“My arm is finally there now,” Williamson said. “It would hurt once in a while a year ago, but I’m two years out now, and it doesn’t hurt any more.

“My game has really come together. Not only does my arm feel good, but I’m getting good reads now in right field. But the biggest difference has been my bat.”

Williamson’s speed is also a weapon, particularly for a player his size. Though he didn’t participate in the pre-game 60-yard dash, he has been clocked in the past at the distance in 6.55 seconds.

The numbers Williamson has posted this summer speak for themselves, although some scouts attending the all-star game indicated they still need to be convinced that Williamson can hit high-velocity pitching and off-speed stuff consistently, after struggling in both areas in the spring.

“I know I still have to perform to have a chance to sign this summer,” Williamson said. “But I’m in a pretty good position if I don’t as I still have two years to go in college.”

Williamson’s raw power, easily the best in the league, was on prominent display in the Valley League home-run derby as he launched numerous long, towering blasts to win the competition. In all, he went deep 13 times.

It didn’t come without a struggle, though, as Williamson needed to put on a late burst in the preliminary round just to reach the championship round, and another charge in the championship round just to force a playoff. In the end, he beat Strasburg first baseman Brad Zebedis (Presbyterian), 2-1, in the two-man playoff.

With only one homer to his credit vs. nine outs (of a possible 10 outs) in the preliminary phase of the competition, Williamson launched five consecutive balls out of the park to finish first overall with six homers. Zebedis hit just two, but that was enough to force a showdown with Williamson in the championship round.

Zebedis, who leads the league with a .442 average, came to life in that phase by homering five times, and was the on the verge of winning the competition as Williamson had homered just three times with a single out remaining. But he hit two bombs to tie it, 5-5, forcing a playoff. He quickly and decisively won the event in the extra session.

Both Williamson and Zebedis will put their raw power back on display again tonight as the Valley League stars take on the Cal Ripken stars in another Home Run Derby that will precede the all-star game.

Impressive as Williamson was in winning the Valley League’s Home Run Derby Sunday, Winchester outfielder Brady Wilson won the 60-yard dash competition in a very fast 6.22 seconds.

Scouts were taken aback by Wilson’s time, and requested the track be re-measured to make certain that the distance had been measured off properly. Assured that it was, Wilson was asked by scouts to run again, and posted a near-identical 6.25 clocking, narrowly beating out Woodstock outfielder Tanner Leighton (The Masters, Calif.) in the run-off.

Wilson, a sophomore from West Virginia, said it was the first 60 he had run this year, and his previous career best was 6.4 seconds. A back-up second baseman and outfielder for the Mountaineers as a freshman in 2010, Wilson hit just .204-1-10. Given a chance to play regularly in the outfield this spring as a sophomore, he responded by hitting .330-2-27 but didn’t take full advantage of his blazing speed by stealing just 12 bases in 14 attempts.

Leighton (23) and Wilson (21) rank 1-3, respectively, in the Valley League in stolen bases this summer, and their speed was a factor for the victorious North team in the all-star game. Wilson was just a reserve outfielder and didn’t enter the game until the fourth inning, but he and Leighton had two hits apiece and stole three bases between them. 

Valley League Notebook

•  Two of the game’s more obscure all-stars earned MVP honors for their respective teams. Woodstock outfielder Michael Vinson (Delta State, Miss.) went 2-for-2 with two RBIs for the North, while Waynesboro outfielder Martin Sartin (Nebraska-Omaha) went 3-for-4 with a double and home run for the North.

Vinson entered the game in the fourth inning as a pinch-hitter and his run-scoring single, on a pop up lost in the twilight, proved to be the game-winning run. Sartin had only one prior home run on the season and was hitting in the 9-hole for the South.

•  With Harrisonburg resting its three all-star game pitchers, including Christensen, whose fastball has been a steady 92-93 mph this summer, the best velocity turned in by a pitcher in Sunday’s all-star game was 92 mph—achieved by Luray righthander Jake Boyd (Stetson) and Chris Devenski (Cal State Fullerton). Devenski was a 25th-round pick of the Chicago White Sox in this year’s draft. Only four pitchers of the 15 used in the game even reached 90.

The most effective pitcher in the game was Luray lefthander Andrew Armstrong (Ohio State), who struck out all three South batters he faced in the third inning on breaking balls, including Williamson.

The crafty Armstrong, whose fastball peaked at 86 mph, has fanned 40 while walking just three in 25 innings this season for Luray.

•  Scheduled South starter Cameron Ward (Limestone, S.C.) didn’t throw a pitch in the game as he was scratched when it was determined that he had pitched the previous night in a regular-season game for New Market. That necessitated using Covington righthander Garrett Cole (no, not the UCLA righthander picked No. 1 overall in this year’s draft) for the first two innings. Cole, from Division II Massachusetts-Lowell, topped out at 88—some 10-12 mph less than the other (Gerrit) Cole.

•  Starting North catcher Luis Arrizurieta (Barry, Fla.) was charged with two errors in the first inning, both on catcher’s interference plays when the batter made contact with Arrizurieta’s catching glove. Both were done with such force that Arrizurieta left the game with an injured left hand.

NEXT: A report on tonight’s Valley League vs. Cal Ripken League All-Star Game.

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