AJ Cieslinski was a little late to the show, but he’s using every outing he can to prove that he belongs among the players of the Valley League.
Almost two weeks ago, the former New Oxford High School pitcher was called up to play for the Winchester Royals in a more than 100-year-old league that is sanctioned by the NCAA to develop current college baseball players.
Through two starts, Cieslinski has allowed 14 hits, a walk and four earned runs, five total through 11 innings. Despite a 3.27 ERA, second-best among starters on his team, his record is 0-1 heading into the final 15 games of the team’s 42-game schedule.
“It’s great competition and you can see some guys with top talent,” Cieslinski said. “It helps to develop your skills and will help me prepare to get looks for a better college.”
Cieslinski graduated from New Oxford in 2018 and went on to study history at Frederick Community College while pitching for the Cougars. During the first year of a two-year program, the right-handed hurler put up numbers to be proud of, dealing 62.2 frames with a 2.01 ERA. He finished the season with an 8-1 record, four complete games and a save. He walked only four batters while striking out 61.
In the summer he headed home to get more experience with the Jefferson Titans in the York-Penn League. Only a couple of starts into the campaign, he received a call from FCC coach Rodney Bennett with an offer he couldn’t refuse.
The Winchester Royals had lost some pitchers to injuries and inning limits and were looking for a few fresh arms to finish out the year. Cieslinski had never heard of the league, but it didn’t take much research to realize that it was a strong opportunity.
The VBL is funded in part by a grant from Major League Baseball and has produced more than 1,000 professional baseball players.
With the blessing of his men’s league team, Cieslinski jumped at the chance.
Three days later, Cieslinski was on his way to Winchester, Virginia to meet his new teammates and head coach Mike Smith. Cieslinski is living with a host family 15 minutes from Bridgeforth Field, the home stadium of the Shenandoah University baseball team during the college season and the Royals’ home through the summer.
The team is comprised of players mostly from Virginia and the surrounding states, with players from all levels of college play. Some of his teammates have traveled from as far as Oklahoma or California to play, though.
In Cieslinksi’s first start, he limited the Woodstock River Bandits to one run over six innings while striking out six. The second outing didn’t go quite as smoothly, but he’s grateful for the opportunity to work on his craft with some top talent.
“It’s a huge test. The hitters are a lot better than what I’ve faced,” he said. “At other levels you can get by not throwing as hard or not having the best off-speed stuff. In this league, even if you hit your spots well, they’re going to hit you. If you leave it anywhere near the middle, they’ll pull it over the fence so you need to make sure you’re making quality pitches.”
Between games, Cieslinski said he’s hung out with his host family. Other times he’s out mingling with teammates or building strength and endurance through training.
The regular season ends in late July, but the playoffs can go as late as August 9, according to the league’s website.
Since graduating high school, Cieslinski has put most of his focus into perfecting his changeup. Continuing to spot up his fastball around the knees, as he did with New Oxford, has allowed him to maintain dominance while playing at FCC, but he said he’s working now to change the batter’s eye level, mixing some high inside stuff with pitches that bite away from the plate.
Cieslinski is looking forward to another strong season with FCC, but knows he will need to make some decisions afterward. He’s hoping to study education and history at a four-year college after graduation. One day, he hopes to work at a school and, if the stars align, become a head baseball coach.
“I’m still trying to figure out what level I can play at,” he said. “I see myself in the PSAC league, playing for Shippensburg or Millersville, but it’ll all depend if I can get into a Division I or II school. We’ll see what happens with that.”
Adam Michael can be reached at email@example.com. Follow on Twitter at @GoodOldTwoNames