Summer Collegiate : : Story
Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Valley League vs. Cal Ripken League

Allan Simpson        

HARRISONBURG, Va.—There is constant debate and jockeying for position among the nation’s varied assortment of summer-college leagues, some 30 in all. Every league believes its league is superior to the next.

While it’s a given that the Cape Cod League is the grand daddy of all summer leagues, simply based on the superior talent it is able to attract, and that the Northwoods and Coastal Plain are generally regarded as the next best leagues, there is a pool of 8-10 leagues scattered around the country that fit into the next tier, and there isn’t one that doesn’t believe that its league isn’t the best.

How to distinguish the strength of one league from another, though, is all a matter of conjecture as, unlike college baseball where teams routinely cross over and play teams from other conferences and there is a legitimate national championship to contest, teams in summer leagues rarely play teams from other leagues. And, obviously, there is no true national championship to settle the issue on the field.

One of the rare occurrences where one summer league took on another took place here Monday night when the Cal Ripken League and Valley League, both considered next-tier leagues, squared off in the third annual Mid-Atlantic Classic, with area bragging rights at stake.

For one night at least, the Cal Ripken League made its claim as being the superior of the two leagues as it scored a convincing 6-3 victory over its regional counterpart.

The Ripken League, in only its seventh year of existence, maintained its unbeaten record in the Classic over the older, more-established Valley League, in its 88th
 year of existence (the last 42 as a sanctioned summer-college league), as it also scored a 2-1 victory in the inaugural event in 2009 before last year’s Mid-Atlantic Classic was rained out.

“We’ve got the best of them in both games so far,” said Tim Norris, coach of the Cal Ripken squad, “but our leagues are pretty even, really. If we played 10 games against each other, it could quite easily come out 5-5. We may have been the better team tonight, but I think that’s only because our pitchers may have thrown a few more strikes.

“While we wanted to win and build up our league’s reputation, it was just one game and more important to us that everybody played, everybody pitched. All our reserves got into the game, and they ended up making the difference.”

The game turned in the sixth inning with the score tied 2-2, when seven players entered the game as pinch-hitters for the Ripken League. Five responded with base-hits to produce three runs, resulting in an insurmountable 5-2 lead.

Andrew Parker, who turned down an opportunity to play in the Valley League this summer for a chance to play a second season with the Cal Ripken League’s Maryland Orioles, drove in two of the three runs with a single, and that hit led to his being named his team’s most valuable player.

Parker (Towson) came on to hit for starting catcher Hunter Renfroe (Mississippi State) in the sixth and caught the balance of the game.

If there was an obvious difference between the two summer leagues, it might have been in the quality of the catchers on the two teams. Parker delivered the game’s big blow while Renfroe, the Cal Ripken League’s season home-run leader with seven, may have been the most impressive position prospect on his team’s roster. He drew impressive reviews from scouts in attendance for his power potential and impressive raw arm strength behind the plate.

The Ripken League all-stars had an edge in pitching, too, as nine pitchers, working an inning apiece, combined to limit the Valley League stars to just three hits while striking out 10. Four of the nine peaked out at least at 90 mph, topped by 6-foot-4 righthander Ben Lively, a rising sophomore at Central Florida, whose fastball was clocked as high as 92. Lively worked a scoreless third inning.

The Valley League also utilized nine pitchers, but may have been at a disadvantage as it staged its annual league all-star game the previous night in Haymarket and many of the same pitchers who threw in that game were trotted out again Monday (the Cal Ripken has its own all-star game slated for July 19).

The Ripken League, in fact, did most of its damage in the first inning against Valley League starter Andrew Armstrong (Ohio State), scoring twice to grab an early 2-0 lead, and in the sixth inning, scoring its three decisive runs off Jake Boyd (Stetson), to snap a 2-2 tie. Both of those pitchers had been extremely effective a night earlier, but were nowhere near as sharp Monday.

The crafty Armstrong struck out all three batters he faced Sunday with precise command of his fastball and breaking ball, but his wildness did him in Monday as he walked two, served up a wild pitch on a swinging third strike to outfielder Sean Godfrey (Ball State) that enabled him to reach base, and Godfrey eventually scored the first run of the game on an errant pickoff move by Armstrong.

In 25 regular-season innings for Luray, all as a starter, Armstrong had walked just three while striking out 40, but he obviously had not been used on back-to-back nights this summer.

Boyd leads the Valley League with seven saves as Luray’s closer, so is used to working on consecutive days, but he was a different pitcher from one night to the next on this occasion.

In a scoreless inning Sunday, Boyd’s fastball peaked at 92 mph, equal to the best velocity of any pitcher in the Valley all-star game. A night later, the pitch topped out only in the high-80s, and he failed to last an inning as the Ripken all-stars touched him up for five hits and three runs. He was the losing pitcher in the contest.

Valley, Ripken Leagues rank well

The top teams in both the Valley League and Cal Ripken League are both prominently represented in Perfect Game’s weekly ranking of the nation’s top 25 summer-league clubs. The Harrisonburg Turks, 23-8 in the Valley League, are ranked No. 6 nationally, while the Bethesda Big Train, 25-7 in the Cal Ripken League, are No. 8.

Both teams were represented by six players apiece in the Mid-Atlantic Classic.

The Big Train’s contingent included Renfroe, the Cal Ripken League home-run leader, and third baseman Adam Barry (Cal State Northridge), who tops that league in batting average (.402) and RBIs (27). Between them, they went 0-for-4.

Outfielder Mac Williamson (Wake Forest), who tops the Valley League in homers (9) and RBIs (33), went 1-for-4 with a harmless sixth-inning single, and struck out in his other three at-bats.

While the Ripken team was coached by Norris, who is the head coach of the third-place Maryland Orioles, the Valley League team was coached by Harrisonburg’s Bob Wease, who has owned the Turks since 1990 and been the team’s coach for 10 years. The 67-year-old Wease, who owns a car dealership in Harrisonburg, also played for the Turks from 1960-70, before it became strictly a league for college players.

Wease was also the losing coach in Sunday’s Valley League all-star game.

The newest PG Top 25 summer-league rankings will appear Wednesday.

Williamson, Farrar stand out from crowd

By all accounts, there was no player on either team in the Mid-Atlantic Classic that should come close to matching the 2011 exploits of infielder Cory Spangenberg, who capitalized on a strong showing in the Valley League last summer to become the 10th
 overall pick in this year’s draft.

Spangenberg led the Valley League in batting at .399 a year ago, while in the process of transferring from Virginia Military Institute to Florida’s Indian River State JC. He is the highest pick in the 2011 draft to sign to date.

The most-closely followed Valley League player in the game by about 20 scouts in attendance was the 6-foot-4, 240-pound Williamson, who was drafted in the 46th
 round in June by the Boston Red Sox. The Red Sox have had two scouts in the Valley League for the last week monitoring Williamson’s progress as the team weigh his demands of a significant six-figure bonus offer.

Williamson has enjoyed a breakout season in the Valley League, but wasn’t at his best Wednesday. He homered 13 times in winning the Valley League Home Run Derby Sunday, but failed to go deep even once in the Home Run Derby between the two leagues Monday, and then struck out three times in the game.

The most impressive Ripken League prospects were on the mound, perhaps none more than lefthander Ryan Farrar, a rising junior at Virginia Commonwealth. Farrar struck out the side in the eighth inning with his deceptive delivery, along with a fastball in the 88-90 mph range and a 78-80 mph breaking ball.

The 6-foot-2, 170-pound Farrar struggled in the spring for the Rams, going 0-1, 7.04, working mostly in relief, but has enjoyed an impressive summer for the Maryland Orioles, going 1-0, 1.42 with three saves. In 19 innings, he has walked just two and struck out 30.

“He didn’t put up very good numbers in the spring at VCU,” Norris said, “but he has really figured it out this summer. He was the most impressive arm that we ran out there tonight.”

Bandbox doesn't live up to reputation in HR Derby

Harrisonburg’s Veterans Memorial Park, which is the home field during the summer for the Valley League’s Harrisonburg Turks and during the college season for James Madison University, has a reputation for being a bandbox.

That reputation was well-earned after JMU went wild on the opening weekend of the 2011 college season, launching 23 home runs and scoring 91 runs in an opening weekend four-game sweep of Bucknell. In the first inning of the first game, the Dukes went deep six times and went on to lead the nation’s Division I colleges in runs (541) and slugging average (.517). They finished third in the nation with 80 homers.

Given that history, along with near-100 degree temperatures and a steady breeze blowing out to left field, all the ingredients were there for a lively pre-game Home Run Derby. But that didn’t materialize as only 10 home runs were hit by the 10 players entered in the competition.

Southern Maryland’s Mike Mandarino (Cumberland, Tenn.) homered four times in the preliminary round to move to the two-man final, but didn’t produce a home run in the championship round as Brad Zebedis (Presbyterian) won the competition by producing just a single home run.

No home runs were hit in the all-star game, as well, as the winds kicked up by a threatening storm had subsided.

With dimensions of 330 feet down both lines and 400 feet to dead center, Veterans Memorial Park is not unlike many college and summer-league stadiums. If anything, the power alleys are a little cozy.

“It’s more of a launching pad that it is a bandbox,” one scout said. “It really depends on which way the wind is blowing.”

Atlantic, New York Collegiate All-Star Games

Two other summer league all-stars games were played Monday night, both in New York state.

In Brooklyn, North Fork first baseman Matt Carroll, a 6-foot-6, 235-pound rising sophomore at San Jose State, drove in three runs as the East rallied to beat the West 5-4 in the annual Atlantic Collegiate League game. Carroll’s key blow was a seventh-inning single that plated the tying and winning runs.

In Oneonta, the West beat the East 8-6 in the New York Collegiate League all-star game. The star performer for the West was Webster second baseman Chris Bostick, who had a double and triple, and drove in three runs. Bostick, a 44th
-round draft pick of the Oakland A’s in June out of New York’s Aquinas Institute, has committed to play collegiately at St. John’s. Despite being a recent high-school graduate, Bostick has set the NYCBL on fire this summer, leading the league with a .483 batting average.

NEXT: Allan Simpson’s report on Wednesday’s Prospect League All-Star Game in Beckley, W.Va.

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