There’s always next year

I was still trying to be hopeful Sunday night after the loss to the Covington Lumberbacks that put our Waynesboro Generals team on the brink of elimination from the 2009 Valley League playoff race.
Team owner Jerry Carter, out of character, for those who know him, was the realist among us.
“We’re still in this,” I insisted, spelling out how we could still go 3-1 or 4-0 the rest of the way and catch the ‘Jacks by the regular-season finale Thursday night, though admittedly a lot would have to go our way for that to happen.
“I just want to win one game,” Carter said, and then added that he’d had this sinking feeling that a loss the next night at Rockbridge that would break the Rapids’ long losing streak could very well be in the offing, and what would that do for us?

The 1-0 loss at Rockbridge foretold by Carter put us on the brink of elimination, and Tuesday’s 16-8 clunker at Staunton sealed the deal, with Cleveland Indians organization-bound starter Rob Sabo taking the tough-luck loss, giving up 10 runs, eight of them unearned, in two and a third innings as the Generals committed five errors.

The good news – Sabo, a sophomore righthander from Kent State who was taken by the Indians in the 38th round of the June Major League draft, was able to stay healthy, which is really good news, actually, when you consider his voyage to professional baseball, which included two lost seasons in 2007 and 2008 after suffering a torn labrum.

“Just stay healthy” is the message for the next two nights as we play out the string. The ’09 campaign had started with high expectations, on the heels of back-to-back-to-back playoff appearances and the memory of the 2007 league championship not that far off into the distance. We came out of the gate smoking, sitting at 7-2 through a week and a half of play and reaching #6 in the PGCrosschecker.com national summer baseball rankings.

A three-game losing streak brought us back to earth, and then came what I look back on now as a sort of death blow for the season, a 10-9 loss at Staunton on June 30 in a game that we had led 9-5 entering the seventh inning but lost when Braves’ cleanup hitter Todd Brazeal hit a long two-run walkoff homer in the bottom of the ninth off our lights-out closer Chris Enourato.

A win in Staunton that night would have had us a half-game behind Staunton for the South Division lead. We would never be closer to the division lead thereafter, and now the Braves are sitting pretty having clinched the South en route to another playoff run.

Andy Chalot is no longer with us as our manager, having resigned last week at the tail end of a six-game losing streak that has since turned a stretch of 12 losses in 13 games. The hitter that our offense was built around, A.J. Kirby-Jones of Tennessee Tech, is back home nursing an arm injury after having hit a grand total of one home run for us this summer after hitting 20 dingers at Tech in the ’09 college season.

Mike Hernandez is still here in spite of enduring the worst run of luck I’ve seen a pitcher have to go through in years. The rising Butler sophomore righthander has a deceiving 1-6 won-loss record – I say deceiving because Hernandez has put up an otherwise impressive set of numbers on the mound, sporting a 3.75 earned-run average and allowing opponents to hit just .245 against him this year and walking only 11 batters in 50.1 innings pitched.

Hernandez would have good reason to want to wash his feet of the whole experience, but far from doing that, he’s already looking back on what a great time he had, and it’s not over just yet. “It’s kind of weird that it’s starting to wind down,” he told me the other night during a rain delay in a home game against Staunton. “Maybe it’s just because it’s my first year here. I’m really going to miss the guys. We’ve been around each other for two months. It’s going to be weird not to see them on a daily basis.”

What I liked hearing from Hernandez was that even in the midst of the long tough stretch the team’s attitude was “lights out.” “We’ve got some fire left in us. It’s just not going our way right now,” Hernandez said in our rain-delay chit-chat.

Generals webcast cohost John Leonard and I filled more time on the air during the rain delay in the Staunton game talking with All-Star shortstop Alex McClure, the team’s leading hitter and table setter at the top of the lineup all season long, and heard the same message from McClure. “We’re playing hard. We’re not trying to lose, that’s for sure. It just seems we can’t catch any breaks,” said McClure, a rising junior who is transferring out of Vanderbilt to a new school as yet undetermined.

Even with the team’s struggles and the loss of the field manager in the midst of the struggles, McClure will look back on his first season in the Valley fondly. “Oh, yeah, it’s been a fun summer, definitely,” he said. “I mean, getting the chance to play in the All-Star Game, too, was definitely an opportunity to play in front of the scouts. You get your occasional oh-fer every so often, because of the quality of the pitchers here or whatever. But yeah, it’s been a lot of fun. You get to play every night, so you can’t complain.”

McClure’s father, Gary McClure, has an interesting perspective to bring to bear as far as Valley League baseball is concerned. The elder McClure is the head coach at Austin Peay, and he has sent several players to the Valley over the years to get seasoning.

“If they want to be good players, they’ve got to play the game. I’ve had a lot of players out there, and they’ve all had a great time, they’ve all gotten better. Kids have to play this game if they want to get better. You can only practice so much,” said McClure, who had not seen a Valley League game until attending several games to watch Alex play this summer, and came away impressed with the quality of play in the league and the quality of the experience for his star shortstop.

“Waynesboro has been everything that he’s wanted and everything that we could have wanted as parents,” McClure said. “They do an unbelievable job taking care of these kids here. People really reach out their hand, welcome them. They have great host families.

“He couldn’t feel any more at home. People come out and support. It’s been great for his mother and I knowing that he’s here,” McClure said.

We’re not going to win a league championship. That’s hard for me to take at the end of my first season as general manager and part-owner of the Waynesboro Generals. But it’s not the end of the world, and in fact is far from it.

We’re going to have a kid signing a contract with the Cleveland Indians this week. How awesome is that? And my guess is we’re going to see more out of some of our other kids in the minors and eventually the majors. I’d be surprised if we don’t see the likes of McClure and our catcher-DHs Tony Caldwell and Rob Krall and ace pitcher Ricky Marshall getting a shot at The Show.

That Mike Hernandez kid impressed me, too. I’m upset at the misfortunes that had him go 1-6 for us this year, and I talk to him, and the kid’s all smiles about his future.

There’s always next year.

 

– Column by Chris Graham

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