By Chris Teale (Photo/Chris Teale)
On July 24, 2015, the Alexandria Aces beat the Bethesda Big Train 3-1 away from home, but the victory was not enough to secure a berth in the Cal Ripken Collegiate Baseball League playoffs due to a win by the Herndon Braves that same night.
As he and his teammates dealt with the disappointment of missing the postseason, in- fielder Alex Stephens said he knew almost immediately that he wanted to return to the Aces in 2016. For the redshirt junior from Morehead State University, it was about the standard of play in this summer league, among other factors.
“I had opportunities elsewhere, but this is a place [where] I came last year and had so much fun,” Stephens said. “I learned a lot and became a better player, and I love [head coach David] DeSilva and the coaching staff. I’ve been at other summer ball leagues where I didn’t have fun and didn’t enjoy myself, and I’m sure a lot of kids can say the same thing. It’s just like a school — you’ve got to find the right fit. I think with Coach DeSilva and this team, it’s the right fit for me.”
Stephens returns to the Aces roster with another member of last year’s team: pitcher Billy Lescher, who has just completed his sophomore year at the University of Pennsylvania. The West Potomac High School alumnus said last year it was a perfect arrangement for him personally, as he can come home and still hone his skills on the diamond.
“When I got to school in the fall, I was talking to one of my coaches, because we all
play summer ball on the [Penn] team,” Lescher said last summer. “He said that playing at the Aces was a possibility, and I was like, ‘That’s awesome, because I can live at home and play college baseball.’ It was a great deal.”
Lescher arrived at the Aces in 2016 after playing 11 games for the Quakers as a sopho- more, including seven as the starter. He earned a 5-3 record overall with a 5.31 ERA, and tallied 39 strikeouts in his 42.1 innings of work. The right- hander also pitched a complete game against Yale on April 3, giving up 5 hits and 2 runs while striking out 10.
Penn did not make the postseason, finishing 19-22 overall and 10-10 in the Ivy League, but Lescher said local fans will notice some improvements in his game from last year. As a freshman, he made two appearances for his college team as a relief pitcher and appreciated the experience of summer ball.
For the Aces in 2015, Lescher appeared in 10 games, of which three were starts. In 19 innings, he gave up 7 runs and struck out 19, finishing with an overall record of 1-1.
“Last summer was a big help for me experience-wise, because I didn’t play a lot as a freshman at school,” he said. “I came down here, I got some good innings, I started developing more and when I got back to school it got me in a good position to play. I think I’ve gotten stronger. My velocity has gone up, which is nice, and I think I have better control of my off-speed pitches and my fastball command.”
Injury restricted Stephens to 19 games for the Aces in 2015, but he still finished fourth overall among Alexandria hitters with a batting average of .275. Stephens then returned for his junior year at Morehead State, where he played 58 games for the Eagles as they finished with an overall record of 32-27. That included a 17-13 clip in Ohio Valley Conference play, and while Morehead State was eliminated in the conference tournament by Belmont, the second-team All-OVC honoree said he noticed plenty of improvements in his game.
“I think obviously you always mature as time goes on, especially after a full season of college baseball,” Stephens said. “Last year, I got hurt and only played half the season, so playing a full season, I learned how to battle the ups and downs better. I learned some consistency and better plate approach. I moved up in the lineup this year for my college team to the top of the order, so I saw a lot less pitches to hit and I had to make adjustments. I think I became a better player in that regard.
“And also, fundamentally, my arm strength and my speed has improved since last year, but my mentality has stayed the same: just playing hard and having fun.”
At the time of writing, the Aces are 6-7 in league play, with about a month left in the regular season and plenty of opportunities to move into a playoff spot. DeSilva said before the start of the season that both players should see an opportunity to improve on last year, when Alexandria missed the playoffs.
“Both played big parts last year for us, and they’re going to do the same for us this year,” he said. “I think both of them can walk in with a bit of a chip on their shoulder in Alexandria. Alex has already told me [before the season] he’s looking forward to winning a championship this year, so I think those guys want to come in and do some good things after a bit of a disappointing season last year.”