Valley stars hit Top Speed

By ANDY WILCOX, Register Sports Writer

Three Napa Valley baseball alums are getting exposure that doesn’t come easily to athletes from a region known more for wining then winning. Vintage High grads Bud Accardo and AJ Borja and Napa High product Michael Crandell are playing for Top Speed Baseball, one of the top 19-and-under teams on the West Coast.

Top Speed – which plays most of its games in Marin County, the East Bay and Nevada – will make its closest visits to the Valley today and Friday when it takes on teams that handed it two of its four losses. At Solano Community College at 5 p.m. today, Top Speed (34-4-1) will look to avenge an 8-4 loss on June 11 against Pro Player Baseball, a Sacramento-based, 18-and-under team. At 5 p.m. Friday at Cardinal Newman High in Santa Rosa, Top Speed takes on the Bay Area Warriors and tries to avenge 2-0 loss on June 22.

Top Speed, in only its second year of existence, finished 39-13-1 last year under owner and head coach Stan Switala. The New York native pitched for Farmingdale Junior College and Eastern Michigan University, before throwing in the minor leagues with the Massachusetts Mad Dogs in 1999. After serving as pitching coach at Tamalpais High in Mill Valley, he re-entered the minors at age 30 with the Amarillo Dillas in 2007. Injury halted his comeback, though, and he’s been the head coach at San Rafael High for the last three seasons, bringing the Bulldogs from the basement to the middle of the Marin County Athletic League pack.

Accardo has benefited greatly from Switala’s instruction and connections. The starting second baseman is batting just .228 (18 for 78) but has two doubles and two triples, and his 19 RBIs have him tied for fifth on the 22-player team with Borja and another teammate.

He was recommended to Switala by Napa Valley College head coach Bob Freschi, after he hit .288 (19 for 66) for the Storm with four doubles, a triple, a home run, 11 RBIs, a .903 fielding percentage, and a fourth-best 44 assists.

Switala, in turn, recommended Accardo to Chad Porter, a friend and the head coach at Texas A&M International University. The NCAA Division II school in Laredo, which didn’t offer baseball until 2007, went 15-37 overall and 14-35 in the Heartland Conference this year.

“(Porter) contacted me about needing a second baseman. He was looking at my roster and stats and asked me about Bud,” Switala said. “He asked me if I thought Bud could play at the D-II level and if he was worth giving an athletic scholarship to, and I said ‘Absolutely.’ Sight unseen, Coach Porter offered Bud a 60-percent athletic scholarship. I told Bud to talk it over with (Freschi) before he made any decision and Bob told him he was happy for him and should take it.”

Switala said he gets more than 300 e-mails or contacts from college coaches to recommend players, and that he also helped NVC player Korey Gosselin get an athletic scholarship to Texas A&M International.

Also a scout for the New York Mets, he said Top Speed had more than 300 players try out this year.

Accardo has made fast friends on Top Speed, namely third baseman Will Wurth. Wurth, who played for NVC opponent Los Medanos College this spring, also landed a scholarship at TAMIU and will be Accardo’s roommate. 

“I’ve always wanted to go to a four-year college to play baseball but I never thought it’d actually happen, so it’s really exciting,” said Accardo, who plans to major in criminal justice.

Accardo, whose NVC squad finished 8-19 in Bay Valley Conference play this year, said Top Speed has improved the mental aspect of the game for him.

“Everything’s faster. You have to be quick to know what to do, but, the challenge is fun,” he said. “It’s really fun to be on a team that wins so much and it gives you a lot of confidence.”

One of Accardo biggest hits was a two-run single that broke a scoreless tie in a 7-4 win over the Alameda Black Sox in the semifinals of a Reno tournament on July 4.

Switala especially values Accardo’s defense.

“He has really increased his fielding skills to his glove side, and I have not seen anyone better at second base than him at making tough plays that most others won’t,” the coach said.

In the Reno tourney title game, Crandell sparked a four-run rally with a double in a 5-3 win over a Nevada foe. 

Crandell batted just .143 (3 for 21) at NVC this spring, with a triple, homer and two RBIs. Now he’s hitting .364 (12 for 33) with three doubles, a triple and 11 RBIs. He started the summer with the Napa American Legion 19’s, hitting three homers, before leaving to join Top Speed in late June.

“I really worked with Crandell on his hitting approach with a wood bat and he has taken in everything I have said and has been a big-time asset to our line-up,” Switala said.

Crandell shares catching duties with Los Medanos player Matt Arruda.

“It’s my first time using wood bats outside of a batting cage, and it’s making me a better hitter because there’s less room for error,” Crandell said. “I’ve really had to learn how to keep my hands inside the ball (closer to the body at impact), and I’m catching different pitchers every day.”

Crandell would like more than anything to follow in Accardo’s path, catch the eye of a four-year college, and be able to use aluminum bats again. 

“After using wood bats, I hit with an aluminum bat in the cage the other day and it was so much easier to hit the sweet spot, and the ball was just jumping off it,” he said. “I’ve played with Bud since we were 8 or 9 and it pushes me that he got a scholarship, to get that much better. He’s such a versatile player, and AJ is a sparkplug who gets on base and gets everything in the outfield.”

Crandell said he’d like to major in history, toward a career as a sports analyst, after another season at NVC next year.

“I’m looking forward to spring and seeing how much better I’ve gotten,” he said. “Coach Switala sparks that fire and makes us want to be better.”

Borja started the spring as a captain for Vintage , but had to leave the team in mid-April because he was academically ineligible. He was batting .350 with four triples at the time.

“I cut out all the extracurricular activities I was doing so I could focus more on school and get my work done,” said Borja, who played for the Monticello Empire League All-Stars in a 7-1 win over the Superior California Athletic Conference on June 8.

Meanwhile, he’d joined Top Speed for its May 31 opener. One of the youngest players on the team, and not used to the wood bats the team uses, he didn’t play much at first. 

“It was kinda hard at first because the bat has a smaller barrel. You have to focus on hitting in the right spot to get a hit,” said Borja, who is now batting .333 (21 of 63) with two doubles along with his 19 RBIs.

Switala sees Borja as a leadoff hitter at the college level.

“AJ is really learning to use his speed at the plate with great push and drag bunts that have become hits where the fielder does not even try to throw him out,” the coach said. “I was worried he would be a bit behind, but he stepped up big the first weekend he was with us in Reno and had a huge day and led us to victory against the best 19-and-under team in all of Reno.”

Borja said he’ll start his college career at Solano.

“The reason I chose to play for Solano was they’re the only school that talked to me about playing for them; I didn’t really want to walk on to a school,” he said, noting that the Falcons talked to him after the Crushers’ season opener at Rodriguez. “They saw me make three diving catches in the outfield, and they liked my swing. I didn’t know they were watching until (assistant coach Brett) Wedding came up to me afterward and said ‘I want you to talk to someone.’ ”

Borja said Solano has a special study for players, and that it should help him stay academically eligible there. Unlike Crandell and Accardo, he’s not sure if he wants to play for a four-year school.

“It depends on the situation, if I’m tired of going to school or not,” he said. “If I don’t have a career in baseball, I’ll probably stay around athletics and be a personal trainer or coach.”

He said Switala is a good role model as a coach.

“He’s really dedicated to winning,” Borja said. “If you’re not paying attention, he’ll make you run. He really pushes you. It helps to stay in the game.” 

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