By Brad Fauber - firstname.lastname@example.org
STRASBURG -- It may not have been the prettiest pitching performance ever thrown on a baseball diamond, but Strasburg's Matt Solter gave everything he had on the mound when Front Royal came into town on Tuesday night.
Solter, a sophomore from Furman University, threw eight innings for the Express in an 8-3 win over the Cardinals, allowing three earned runs on seven hits and striking out nine batters, and he did all of that while throwing a career-high 144 pitches -- not bad for a guy who has typically been Strasburg's ninth-inning arm.
"It was definitely, probably the gutsiest performance of my career -- I just threw a ton of pitches," Solter said. "I left a few balls up and [Front Royal] knocked them out of here, but I have a great defense behind me and had run support throughout the night. It's a lot easier to pitch when that happens."
The Cardinals (13-25) were able to take advantage of a few of the mistakes that Solter did make, smashing a trio of solo home runs, but Front Royal couldn't string enough hits together when it needed to Tuesday. Solter stranded eight Cardinals runners, including a bases-loaded threat in the top of the third inning and the tying run in the eighth.
Front Royal has now lost six straight games, and have been outscored 63-22 over that span. Defense has been the Cardinals' weak spot of late, and they committed four errors in Tuesday's loss.
"We just need to throw the ball correctly," said Cardinals manager Clayton Kuklick. "They're not throwing errors, it's simply throwing the baseball and being focused on the task at hand, which we aren't doing very well."
Solter benefited from some timely hitting by his Express teammates as Strasburg always seemed to get the big hit when it needed it.
Express center fielder Zach Wiley got the offense going for Strasburg (15-23) in the bottom of the first inning with a two-out home run to left field off Front Royal starter Trevor Graham, and George Smith Jr. added a sacrifice fly in the second inning to give Strasburg an early 2-0 lead.
The Cardinals, answered with a run in the top of the third when James Alfonso hit his first homer of the season -- a solo shot with one out off the storage shed in left-center -- and David Atwood added a one-run home run in the fourth to tie the game at 2-all.
But Strasburg responded in the bottom of the fifth with a run on a single by Jay Lizanich to reclaim the lead for good.
"I knew the guys behind me would come back and pick me up," Solter said. "It's easy to bounce back from something like that when I've got these guys behind me."
Ryan Welling hit a sacrifice fly in the bottom of the sixth to score Albert Faz on a close play at the plate to give Strasburg a 4-2 cushion, but Front Royal kept things interesting by striking again in the top of the eighth.
Front Royal native Keaton Neeb, who was 0-for-3 entering his fourth at-bat off Solter, finally got a pitch he could drive on a 2-1 offering and sent a towering solo home run over the left-field wall to cut Strasburg's lead to 4-3.
"I was being kind of impatient all night instead of waiting on a pitch I could drive," Neeb said. "I finally got something I could handle and put a good swing on it.
"That got us to within one run, but then it seems like we do this every night -- we get within one run and then we give it right back to them."
The Cardinals did just that in the bottom half of the eighth inning.
Heath Durand, the fourth pitcher of the evening for Front Royal, worked himself into a jam to start off the inning by issuing a pair of walks and a bunt single to load the bases with none out.
Strasburg's Josh Gardiner then hit into what should have been a routine fielder's choice, but Cardinals first baseman Alfonso sailed his throw wide of home plate, allowing Smith to score to give the Express a 5-3 lead.
Durand retired the next two batters on an infield pop-out and a strikeout, but Strasburg's Terry McClinton put the game out of reach with a bases-clearing double down the left-field line to give Strasburg an 8-3 lead heading into the top of the ninth.
Zach Olson came on to work the ninth inning to get the save for Strasburg. Graham was given the loss as he worked 41⁄3 innings before leaving the game due to injury.
The Express have won five of their last six, and will need to continue its hot hitting as it faces Winchester in its next two games.
"We've had some timely hitting, and some decent pitching," Express manager Butch Barnes said of Strasburg's recent success. "I think we're playing pretty well, especially for the end of the season."