The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

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July 11, 2012

Stafford an all-star in final year with Miners

BECKLEY — Gray Stafford thought he would be in New York today, thousands of miles from his home away from home — away from home.

He was set to play in a wooden bat league there this summer, instead of suiting up for a third and final tour of duty with the West Virginia Miners. But when Isaac Ballou, Stafford’s teammate at Marshall and would-be Miners outfielder, was injured during batting practice the day before the season opener, Stafford’s phone rang.

“I was at Carowinds with all my friends when (manager) Tim (Epling) called me,” Stafford said. “Isaac Ballou got hurt, so he needed another position player.”

No one wanted Ballou to get hurt, obviously. But his absence opened the door for Stafford to have his best season yet for the Miners.

The West Virginia right fielder is batting over .300 and has been an unexpected power source for a Miners team that relies heavily on manufacturing runs. Tonight, Stafford will be rewarded for his stellar first half when he plays in the Prospect League All-Star game in Springfield, Ill.

“I’m really excited to go out to Springfield and represent the West Virginia Miners and even the East Division in the Prospect League,” Stafford said. “It’s been a goal of mine. I’ve been here for three years. I really wanted to make it and represent.”

Stafford will be one of six West Virginia players in the game, which will start at 8:05 p.m. Eastern time.

Third baseman Bradley Strong will start and is the only other position player from the Miners.

Pitchers Will Blalock, Hunter Brothers, Jake Johansen and Jared Messer will also be there. Messer is a repeat all-star selection.

Stafford has been with the Miners since their inception in 2010. The South Carolina native spends basically his entire year in West Virginia, as a third baseman at Marshall and then with the Miners through the summer.

Beckley has become a sort of third home for Stafford.

“My girlfriend lives here, so I was extremely excited to be back and be in this great situation,” he said.

“It’s pretty fun. I try to use it to my advantage with the younger guys. I’ve been here three years, just mess around with them. It’s really been a good experience, to be here three years and see the organization grow, and see (owner) Doug (Epling) and Tim learn and actually become better owners and coaches. They have done a tremendous job with the West Virginia Miners. It’s been great to be here three years and grow as a player and watch the organization grow, too.”

Stafford has had a big summer thus far. He is hitting .326, has nine doubles and 28 runs batted in. But it’s his eight home runs — Clay Prestridge is next on the team with two — which have been a pleasant surprise.

“We got here at the beginning of the year and Tim was telling us, ‘We’re not going to have any guys who will hit a lot of home runs, so we’re going to have to bunt and move guys over, hit doubles and hustle on the bases,’” Stafford said. “But I’ve been able to swing it a little bit, which is great for me. I’m excited to have great home run numbers. It’s definitely a big step; I only hit five at Marshall. To come out and swing the bat well has been a tremendous confidence boost for me.”

Tim Epling was supposed to manage the East tonight, but is unable to make the trip because of medical issues. Managing in his place will be Butler’s Anthony Rebyanski, but West Virginia assistants Danny Flores and Steve Crosier will be on the coaching staff.

The winning team will secure homefield advantage in the best-of-three championship series in August. The Miners will host the East Division championship game Aug. 8.

“Playing here three years, the crowd has always been awesome,” Stafford said. “As a team, we always want to come out and play hard for our fans and try to give back. Every time we come (back) into town, they are here. If we can get past that (divisional) championship and bring homefield advantage, that would be tremendous.”

Stafford will also compete in today’s Home Run Derby.

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