Alexandria Aces pitcher Max Knowles got into trouble several times in the early innings of a July 7 game against the Bethesda Big Train, but the left-hander always found a way to escape. Despite allowing six base runners through the first three innings, Knowles had not surrendered a run to one of the top teams in the Cal Ripken Collegiate Baseball League.
Knowles, who entered the contest leading the league in wins and strikeouts, appeared to settle down in the fourth inning, retiring the first two Big Train hitters.
But that’s where the Aces’ good fortune ended.
The next batter smashed a comebacker to the mound, which glanced off Knowles’ pitching hand as he reached for the ball. The batter was retired, 1-6-3, but Knowles’ night was finished as he headed to the bench with a bruised hand that swelled by game’s end. With Knowles out of the game, the Big Train exploded for five runs in the next two innings and cruised to a 7-0 victory at Four Mile Run Park in Alexandria.
THE DEFEAT extended the Aces’ losing streak to eight and summarized their season — flashes of success have been overshadowed by the team’s inability to produce consistently. Entering the July 7 contest, three Aces were leading the league in four individual statistical categories, but the team was near the bottom of the standings. Infielder Nick Allen (George Mason sophomore) was atop the league batting average leaders, catcher Will Davis (Pennsylvania senior) led the league in RBIs and Knowles (North Carolina Wesleyan senior) was the league leader in wins and strikeouts. But after the game, Alexandria was 9-19 and sixth place in an eight-team league.
"It’s not a chemistry thing," Knowles said, also taking time to sign postgame autographs for youngsters with his swollen left hand. "Everybody’s out there playing 100 percent, giving everything they’ve got. We’ve had some bad breaks. We’re hitting it hard, we’re just hitting it right at people.
"The pitching staff and everybody, nobody’s turning on each other. We’re still together. We’re just having a hard time putting a whole game together."
While Knowles, the only Ace to play for the team each of its three seasons of existence, might have been sticking up for his teammates, head coach Eric Williams wasn’t as positive when discussing the Aces’ struggles.
"It comes to personal accountability and responsibility for your detail, your job when it comes to this game," Williams said. "It’s a team game. As much as we have a few guys leading some stat categories, it’s still a very tough game to win with just one or two dudes leading state categories when the others aren’t making changes or making an effort to make changes.
"There’s a fine line between: when do you start getting overly excited about it and when do you just say, ‘Well, kid’s not going to change in two months, why don’t I work on somebody who wants to change.’"
WHILE THE ACES are sitting near the bottom of the league standings, Knowles, Davis and Allen each earned a spot on the CRCBL All-Star team with their performances during the month of June and the first half of July. As of July 13, Knowles leads the league with 40 strikeouts, is tied for the lead in wins with four and is tied for third with a 1.41 ERA. Listed at 5 feet 10, 190 pounds with a fastball consistently in the low-to-mid 80s, Knowles hardly embodies what most think of as a "strikeout pitcher."
"I’m real big on [being] able to throw [all of your pitches] for strikes," Knowles said. "You need to be able to throw any pitch for a strike at any count. Hitting is just timing and pitching is just disrupting timing."
Williams said the Clinton, N.C., native has what it takes to continue pitching after college.
"Max is a professional," Williams said. "He studies people, he is a pitcher. He can pitch at the next level, without question. … He can locate all of his pitches very well. He’s not afraid to throw any of them at any count, at any time. The likes of him, they’re not really seen around this league. You usually see a guy who’s either going to blow it by you or have one pitch that’s really legit and suffer in some other instances. [Knowles] doesn’t do that. He doesn’t suffer with any of his pitches."
DAVIS IS TIED for fourth in the league with 18 RBIs and tied for third with two home runs. He’s also batting .318 with six doubles and one triple.
"He’s another one who just comes out and plays 110 percent every inning, every second, every time he’s here," Williams said. "He swings the bat. He swings the bat when he’s tired, he swings the bat when he’s not tired. He gets good pitches to hit. He locates stuff well. He hits the ball well, plain and simple. He works hard at it."
Davis, who along with Knowles are the only two Aces to return from last season, said a lack of veterans on the team could have something to do with the team’s struggles.
"A lot of guys are pretty young," Davis said. "This might be their first or second season playing summer ball. It’s hard coming off a college season when you played so many games and then you come out here and you’ve got to play every day, especially during this heat wave. I think things start to get tough and people start to look for excuses. Its kind of tough for us right now.
"It’s something Max and I, as veterans, have dealt with ourselves. [We’ve] made the excuses and kind of found out that doesn’t really work for you. It’s time to put up or shut up, basically."
Davis said he focuses on doing his job and hopes the success of individuals starts to translate to victories.
"Baseball’s a team game," he said. "You can have guys individually getting on base a lot, getting base hits, but right now we’re not stringing it together. We’ll have someone get on base, then [we’ll have] strikeout, strikeout, fly out.
"I never get too high on myself. I’m always expecting falls come from grace. If I go out there and do my job it’s great, but you’re trying to get the W. It’s kind of like [Washington Nationals pitcher Stephen] Strasburg: that guy is out there, he’s throwing every [fifth] day but in the end they’re not getting the full team win."
Allen leads the league with a .370 batting average, collecting 30 hits — including 26 singles — in 81 at bats.
"Nick’s a good, quality hitter, he’s got some good speed and he’s got some good baseball sense," Williams said. "Those three things help him quite a bit in the batter’s box."
Alexandria has won consecutive games after losing the Big Train and continues to sit in sixth place at 11-19. After a pair of road games, the Aces return home for a 7 p.m. meeting with the Southern Maryland Nationals on July 17.
"My point to the guys is still the same deal: if you decide to come together as a unit, you could easily be in a whole different position in this league right now than surfing the bottom," Williams said. "I’ve been telling them that since day one."