By Dennis Atwood - email@example.com
STRASBURG -- The host Strasburg Express used a new asset in shutting out the Woodstock River Bandits, 4-0, in a Valley Baseball League contest between Shenandoah County rivals Friday night at First Bank Park.
The new asset was right-handed starting pitcher Michael Helbig, who no-hit Woodstock through five innings and completed 7 1/3 shutout frames, scattering three singles, walking two and striking out two for the win to open his Valley League record book with a 1-0 entry.
Helbig, a Randolph-Macon junior, needed 30 pitches, reached three-ball counts on three batters and issued two walks in a shake-out first inning. Then he found his groove, needing only six, eight, eight, and 11 pitches to retire the side in order in the second through fifth innings.
Helbig tossed 97 pitches, 65 for strikes, during his stint.
Woodstock lead-off batter Jordan Chovanec hit a one-out single in the sixth to break up Helbig's no-hitter.
"I had the mentality to come out here and put my team in a position to win, and it worked out -- everything went in the right direction today," Helbig said.
"I had just one bullpen session, and light throwing yesterday. My last game at Randolph-Macon was the first weekend in May. But I've been playing in a Richmond-area league with college guys."
"[Helbig] did a heck of a job," Express manager Butch Barnes said. "He showed that you don't have to be overpowering. He pitched to contact. He got a lot of ground-ball outs. When you get an outing like that, you're supposed to win."
Matt Verdillo relieved Helbig and issued a walk to Justin Weaver, then Michael Vinson grounded out with Chovanec and Weaver advancing to third and second, respectively, before Ethan Williams struck out.
Josh Wright came on to pitch the ninth and repeated the eighth-inning pattern as Cody Harris led off with a grounder to deep shortstop, followed by a walk to Tyler Mims.
Wright then got Cole Martin to ground into a 4-6-3 double play and retired Adrian Rivera to preserve the shutout for Strasburg.
Woodstock starter Taylor Rakes had a seven-inning outing that would be a winning effort on many Valley League nights.
Rakes retired the Express in order in the first, second, fifth and sixth innings.
But Rakes made a mistake in the second as Strasburg designated hitter Terry McClinton led off with a first-pitch liner that cleared the right-field fence by about three feet, his third home run of the season.
Rakes retired the next three Express batters in order, then was victimized by two Woodstock errors in the fourth.
With one out, Zach Wiley reached on an error by shortstop Cody Harris, followed by a McClinton single that moved Wiley to second.
Both runners moved up on a ground out by George Smith Jr.
Erik Armstrong followed with a grounder to shortstop, but first baseman Michael Vinson dropped the ball and Wiley scampered home with the unearned run, making it 2-0, Strasburg.
The Express (12-22) got to Rakes in the seventh as Smith led off with a single to deep short.
One out later, Jackson Boyd ripped a first-pitch blast to straight-away center, clearing the 365-foot sign for a two-run homer, his third round-tripper of the year, to extend Strasburg's lead to 4-0.
Rakes fell to 1-3 by giving up four runs, three earned, on only five hits, with no walks and four strikeouts.
Stephen Green pitched the eighth for Woodstock (15-19) and yielded McClinton's third hit of the night, a single, but otherwise got a fly out and two strikeouts.
McClinton, a junior at USC-Beaufort, went 3-for-4 with the solo homer to lead Strasburg's efficient attack and raise his batting average from .267 to .283.
"I was sitting on a fastball, and I just tried to get my foot down early," McClinton said of his homer. "I had good scouting reports, especially from Wiley, who hits in front of me.
"I got off to a real slow start, because I was red-shirted after breaking my right wrist in my third game in college, so I had to sit out seven games."
The shutout on four hits by Strasburg was a quick reversal of momentum for Woodstock, which broke a three-game losing streak with a 16-2 blowout of Front Royal on Thursday night.
The Express has had notable success against Woodstock, improving their record to 4-1 over the River Bandits in their seven game head-to-head season series, equally their current 4-1 record against the Haymaket Senators in that seven-game series.
With Luray's loss, Woodstock remains tied with the Wranglers for second place in the North Division.
Strasburg closed to within a half-game of fifth place Front Royal as the Cardinals lost at Haymarket.
The River Bandits and Express each have 10 games remaining on the regular-season schedule in their quest to finish in fourth place or higher to qualify for the postseason.