Over the first half of the Cal Ripken Senior Collegiate Baseball League season, the Herndon Braves have pitched and fielded fairly well. But the team’s biggest struggles have come at the plate. Chris Smith, the team’s manager, is hoping to see that area of the team improve as the summer moves on.
"We’re playing very good defense," said Smith. "We’re third in the league in fielding percentage. And other than giving up [too many] walks, our pitching is pretty good. [But offensively] the hitters are just striking out too much. We lead the league in K’s. Our approach at the plate isn’t very good with two strikes. We need to put the ball in play more."
The elite Cal Ripken league is for collegiate players who have high hopes of playing professional ball in the future. Wooden bats are used, as opposed to the college season where players use aluminum bats. Lots of professional scouts show up to the summer league games in order to take a good look at the vast talent which the Cal Ripken league showcases. Most of the Braves’ players are from throughout the East Coast.
Through June 29, Herndon carried an 8-11 overall record following a double-header sweep over the visiting Maryland Redbirds, 9-8 and 10-2, at Herndon High School. Two days earlier, Herndon defeated the Alexandria Aces, a talented, first year team and league member under general manager Pat Malone.
The Braves are nearing the midway point of their 42-game summer schedule. The regular season will run through most of July before the postseason tournament takes place beginning July 30. A late season league All-Star game is scheduled for Tuesday, July 22 at Povich Stadium in Maryland.
<b>RECENTLY</b>, Herndon came off a stretch of games where it played 10 times over nine days. Smith said his team has held up well physically, but that the mental grind of such a stretch can wear players down. But he said it is a good test for his players, who all hope to play an even more rigorous pro ball schedule one day.
Most of the Braves’ players stay with host families over the summer season. And a few stay with extended family or friends they know from the Northern Virginia area.
A handful of the Herndon players participated in the recent college World Series tournament that concluded just last week with Fresno State’s improbable national title.
Herndon plays five or six games per week. The team’s players are kept busy with pre-game workouts, the games themselves and rest.
"Basically, you’re playing almost every day," said Smith. "That sounds great until a stretch like [10 games in nine days]. The players handle it well, but there is a mental grind. They get [to the field] three or four hours before a game for batting practice. That’s what the big leaguers do."
Once the season ends, most of the players will prepare to go back to their respective colleges and universities in September. And, throughout the upcoming school year, they will play autumn ball and then spring baseball. For most of these players, baseball is a year round deal.
Smith said his players are fortunate to have good host families and a summer baseball organization that cares deeply for them. The Braves’ sponsor couple, John and Lisa Lombardozzi, help the team members adjust to their new surroundings and living arrangements. The players, Smith said, enjoy the host families they live with for the summer months.
"Our host families are great," said Smith. "Our kids like it here. They take charter busses to games and get fed on the bus."
<b>THE BRAVES</b> play their home games at Herndon High School. The crowds, which number at about 150 on good days, are lively and loyal. Fans can celebrate their birthdays at the park. Kids celebrating their birthdays enjoy eat pizza, hotdogs, cake and have the opportunity to meet the Braves’ players.
The team has special thematic days at the ballpark. This Wednesday (July 2) at Herndon, the Braves will celebrate Armed Forces Day. The first 50 fans at the game will receive American flags and all members of the armed forces will be invited to the field for pre-game ceremonies and the playing of the national anthem.
Many of the team’s fans are youngsters who have or are attending Herndon Braves’ youth baseball camps. The youngsters get a chance to learn the game and meet the Braves players, who help out with the camps. It’s only natural that the campers come to Herndon home games to support their new heroes.
"The kids like coming to see them play," said Smith. "The last two weeks we’ve had really good crowds."
Smith said his players are from such places as New York, New Jersey, North Carolina, South Carolina and Indiana. One team member is even from Russia.
A handful of the team’s players are local products, such as infielder Conor Mulle (St. Peter’s College) and pitcher Joe Devlin (Lynchburg College), who are both graduates of Broad Run High School. Other locals include former Westfield High graduate Val Arduini (Okaloosa-Walton college), former Langley High player Derek Anderson, a pitcher who is playing collegiate ball at Trinity College, and Lake Braddock High grad Lee Bolyard (Johns Hopkins).
The Braves players are hungry to excel, but still hit a wall at one time or another over the challenging summer schedule.
"These kids want to learn," said South Lakes High baseball coach Galvin Morris, who is the Braves’ assistant head coach. "It’s fun and they’re getting a good experience swinging a wooden bat and having to hit it in the right spot [on the bat]."
Said Smith, "We always tell them to play hard, play smart and to have fun."
The eight-team Cal Ripken Senior Collegiate Baseball League consists of eight teams. They are: the Herndon Braves, Alexandria Aces, Bethesda Big Train, College Park Bombers, Maryland Redbirds, Rockville Express, Silver Spring–Takoma Thunderbolts, and Youse’s Maryland Orioles.
The Braves play home games this week against the Alexandria Aces on Wednesday night at 7 and the Youse’s Maryland Orioles on Saturday. Check out the latest on the Braves at Herndonbraves.com.