By Jim McElhatton (Photo/Mark Briscoe)
The Alexandria Aces had just finished their most grueling stretch of the season, playing seven games in the four hot, muggy days leading up to the Cal Ripken Collegiate Baseball League all-star break.
After splitting three doubleheaders in three days, the Aces lost a tough home game last week to the DC Grays 4-3.
"It's been hot, and it's been a grind, a really tough stretch," said Aces head coach Dave DeSilva. "It's been showing a little bit on the field, and we've had a few guys go down with injuries."
The Aces seemed poised for a prolonged losing streak. But the injury-depleted squad went 3-2 in the next five games, including an 11-2 blowout of the Silver Spring-Takoma Thunderbolts that tied the franchise’s single-season 20-win record.
Their next game, a 2-1 win Sunday over the Rockville Express in the first of a doubleheader split, gave the Aces a new season record for wins with nine games left to go. Brett Kennedy got the win, giving up one run in six innings, while closer Tyler Fries dropped his ERA to 0.69 by shutting down the Express in the seventh inning.
“While [the record] is an excellent accomplishment and I’m proud to be a part of it, our work is not done,” DeSilva said after Sunday’s victory. “We need to keep our foot on the gas and continue to play solid baseball. We’re injury-depleted and grinding through the last couple of weeks, but each day brings a new challenge and we look forward to rising to the occasion.”
After the Grays game, and as the Aces got closer to capturing the franchise victory record, team co-founder Pat Malone reminisced about the season and the history of the young clubhouse.
He and co-founder Don Dinan, a Washington attorney, had known each other as patrons of the Hawk ‘n’ Dove, a Capitol Hill bar and neighborhood institution frequented by members of Congress, staffers and lobbyists. Over the years, they became friends.
“What happened next is one day at the Hawk, I say to Don, ‘Hey, what about bringing college summer ball to Alexandria?’” Malone said. “He said, ‘Great idea, let’s work on it.’”
Seven years after the barroom brainstorming session, the Aces are 21-14 — good enough for a second-place tie in the 12-team Ripken league. The team, which is run by a nonprofit organization, just sent six players to the all-star game.
In the early years, the Aces experienced the same sort of on-field struggles as any expansion team, but Malone credited DeSilva as well as last year’s head coach, Corey Haines, for helping to turn the team into a playoff contender.
“He created a lot of goodwill in the community and got the team on a good path,” Malone said of Haines. “And Dave has been doing just an excellent job.”
After guiding the Aces to a 20-20 record last year and the team’s first playoff appearance, Haines moved on and so the team promoted DeSilva — formerly his assistant — to the top job.
“It was a great experience,” said Haines, who attended last week’s game against the Grays. “You get to meet players from all over the country and form relationships with these guys, and you follow them over their careers and hopefully watch as the make it to the big show.”
The “big show,” of course, is the major leagues. And players from the Ripken league can and do advance that far. Last year, the Kansas City Royals selected former Aces pitcher Kyle Zimmer with the fifth overall pick. He just won in his debut with the team’s AA minor league affiliate.
In the same draft, the Washington Nationals took former Aces pitcher Michael Boyden in the 31st round.
For now, however, DeSilva isn’t thinking about what may happen years from now — or years ago for that matter.
“All the credit goes to these players who come out every day in the rain or 100-degree heat ready to play,” DeSilva said. “We’ll stay focused on the next game and look to finish strong as we position ourselves for a playoff position.”