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Gaithersburg joins Cal Ripken league as season begins

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Published on: Thursday, June 06, 2013

By Holden Wilen

With the beginning of summer comes the start of summer baseball leagues focused on giving collegiate athletes an opportunity to develop and shine in front of Major League Baseball scouts.

Montgomery County is home to four of the 12 teams in the local Cal Ripken League: the Bethesda Big Train, Rockville Express, Silver Spring-Takoma Park Thunderbolts, and new addition to the league Gaithersburg Giants.

Alex Thompson, interim commissioner of the league, said the Cal Ripken League started in 2005, very competitive and at this point is a slight notch below the Cape Cod League in terms of prestige nationwide. One of the major differences for players is the league only allows the use of wooden bats.

“The summer leagues allow the scouts to really see what guys on the college level can really swing the wood and make solid contact with wood,” Thompson said. “They can also see which pitchers can really work around it. It is a more pure game. It has almost become a must for a college prospect. If you are a college player and you have got a shot of going on to play pro ball you almost have to play summer ball now. It is not just so you get seen with the wood bat, but also just so you can keep your profile up.”

Sal Colangelo, head coach for the Bethesda Big Train, said the beginning of summer baseball “is like Christmas in June.” Last season the team finished third in the league with a 25-16 record, and lost in the league championship game. Colangelo said he expects his team to be solid again this year and compete for a playoff spot. The top six teams in the league make the playoffs.

“I think my lineup, offensively, will be pretty physical and they are going to be able to run,” Colangelo said. “Pitching wise, I have got some guys with some power arms and some guys that are finesse. I think overall, top to bottom, our club is going to be a little bit better than it was last year.”

There is not one best player on the team, Colangelo said, but offensively he expects Coastal Carolina University first baseman Johnny Cole and Tallahassee Community College shortstop Ryne Willard to lead the attack. Pitching wise, Colangelo said a couple of players for fans to look out for are University of Maryland lefty Zach Morris, and San Diego State University closer Bubba Derby, who collected 10 saves in 28.2 inning pitched with a 3.45 earned-run average this spring.

Another team looking to repeat the success of last summer is the Rockville Express, which finished first in the league last year with a 30-11 record. The team is coached by Rick Price, who is in his second year with the team and was named the Maryland State Association of Baseball Coaches 2012 Amateur Coach of the Year.

The Express are led by Slipper Rock University shortstop Will Kengor, an all star last year, and Cornell southpaw pitcher Michael Byrne. Kengor hit .448 with 15 doubles for Slippery Rock this spring and drove in 28 runs. Byrne finished the season with a 1.09 ERA for Cornell and held opponents to a .160 batting average.

One team which has struggled the last couple of seasons is the Silver Spring-Takoma Park Thunderbolts, which finished last in the league in 2012 with a 9-33 record. Despite last season’s struggles, head coach Doug Remer remains positive about 2013.

“The thing about this league is there is turnover every year,” Remer said. “You do not have the same players every season except for a couple of guys you want back. Anybody can win which makes it kind of interesting when it comes to finding the good players we did for the summer.”

Two of the team’s top returning players from last season are Montgomery College and former Good Counsel infielder Jake Taylor, and Towson pitcher Paul Beers. Taylor led all of Division III baseball with 16 homeruns this spring. Beers is looking to prove himself to other schools as Towson shuts down its baseball program, Remer said. Beers finished the spring with a 4.88 ERA and 1-6 record.

“A lot of these guys have been successful before, maybe not this year at their schools, but in the past and they want to show what they have,” Remer said. “It is about getting them together and understanding we are here to showcase your skills but if you do not win ball games and do not work together as a team then you will not get the notice that you deserve. These are all good players, which is why they are here.”

The fourth team in Montgomery County, the Gaithersburg Giants, is making its debut in the Cal Ripken League. The Giants, coached by Gaithersburg High School head coach Jeff Rabberman, will play their games at the newly renovated Criswell Automotive Field at Kelley Park. Rabberman said playing in the Cal Ripken League is a big step for the Giants.

“The Cal Ripken League is one of the best summer collegiate leagues in the whole country,” Rabberman said. “We have an idea of what we are stepping into and it is just going to be absolutely outstanding. We will see where the chips fall and where we are at. I am excited about the guys we have on our ballclub and know what kind of character they have. I think we are going to go out and be competitive every night and make the city of Gaithersburg proud.”

In their inaugural season in the league, the Giants will look to two former Good Counsel players for leadership: Catonsville Community College first baseman Brandon Grove and Salisbury pitcher Kyle Hamby. Grove led Catonsville, the 2013 Maryland junior college champions, with nine of the team’s 16 homeruns, 49 runs batted in and a .373 batting average.  Hamby will be one of the team’s closers. This past spring he notched three saves for Salisbury and posted a 1.35 ERA while striking out 26 batters in only 20 innings pitched.

One of the challenges for all coaches in the summer league, Thompson said is finding a balance between developing players and winning. While all the Montgomery County coaches agreed they want to win, they all recognize the importance of showcasing players to the scouts.

“If I had my choice between winning a league championship or getting 10 kids drafted in the next couple years I would probably take the 10 kids getting drafted because they are fulfilling a dream,” Rabberman said. “That is one thing that is more important than anything else, these kids getting seen. There is the community and wanting to win and being a successful franchise in this league but getting these kids seen by the major league scouts and getting them drafted and putting them in a situation where every kid wants to be in playing baseball, how does it get better than that?”

Along with the community feel at the games, Thompson said one of the main reasons for fans to attend games is the chance to see a future Major League Baseball star in the making.

“Fans are looking at somebody who could move into that prospect status if they get drafted,” Thompson said. “They follow their careers and remember watching them play college ball in Bethesda, Glen Burnie or Silver Spring. They will be able to say they saw them.”

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