By Jeff Nations
STRASBURG -- It would appear that Caleb Ross does not miss his mountain home so very much this summer.
The rising Marshall University sophomore, from Barboursville, W.Va., could have gone a long way Tuesday toward making it an early summer in the Valley Baseball League. A bad outing might well have done the trick for the Front Royal starter.
Instead, Ross turned in a terrific day for the Cardinals, flirting with a no-hitter before settling for a complete-game shutout in Front Royal's 3-0 victory.
"If we get pitching like that, we're going to win a lot of ballgames," Cardinals coach Jake Weghorst said. "What I like about Caleb is his last start was not good at all. Last week he got bumped out of the game pretty early, leaving everything up. You know, he worked on stuff during the week and he comes out here and does this. It shows that he put in the time and got back on the right track."
Front Royal (19-22) entered the night just out of the playoff picture, holding down fifth in the VBL's Northern Division with only the top four making the postseason. But after Ross stifled the Express for nine innings, the Cardinals made that slight climb back into the playoff hunt. With only three games left in the regular season, Ross won't get to make another start for Front Royal unless the Cardinals extend the season.
"Hopefully we'll make the playoffs, and I'll get a couple starts in there," Ross said.
If not, Ross will have a super final memory of pitching for the Cardinals. Ross needed just 98 pitches to shut down Strasburg (18-21), allowing just three hits and a walk while fanning six.
Ross was at his sharpest early, completely shutting down the Express to protect an early lead. Ross had a no-hitter going into the bottom of the sixth inning. Strasburg's Andrew Kubuski spoiled that with a one-out single to left to avoid a hitless night.
"All of his pitches were working," Kubuski said of Ross. "He did a real good job of keeping us off-balance. We'd be looking for one pitch, and he'd throw us the change-up or a curveball when we were looking for a fastball.
"... We got all of our outs out of the way today. Hopefully the bats will be working better."
Front Royal jumped on Express starter Ashton Fronsoe early, notching single runs in the first and second innings. Aaron Moore drove in the first with an RBI groundout, and the second came on Garrett Flynn's RBI single.
The Cardinals scattered a few hits after that, but could do little else against Fronsoe. The right-hander went seven strong innings, allowing six hits and two runs (one earned) while striking out a pair.
"We've been striking out over 10 times a game, so I was just happy that we were putting the ball in play and making the other team make plays against us," Weghorst said. "If we keep doing that -- I know we're not going to throw shutouts every game -- but if we keep [getting] quality pitching and being aggressive at the plate, we have a chance to make a push here late."
The Cardinals tacked on a bit of insurance in the eighth, with help from Strasburg's third error of the night. Moore drew a two-out walk from Express reliever Adam Emerson, then stole second. Emerson struck out Randy Tallhamer, but the ball got away from catcher Ryan Welling as Moore was racing into third.
Welling fired to first base to try and nab Tallhamer, but his throw sailed high and Moore came in to score the third run.
Strasburg finally mounted a threat in the bottom of the ninth, when Jordan Tarsovich and Terry McClinton delivered back-to-back singles with one out. That prompted a visit to the mound for Ross, but the lefty stayed in and got Anthony Payne to ground into a game-ending double play.
"I just told myself to stay confident in my pitches, just let them hit it, let them put the ball in play and let the defense work," Ross said.
Strasburg manager Butch Barnes said Ross was sharp, and his hitters helped out with some bad at-bats.
"We're still in the hunt for that third or fourth spot," Barnes said. "Everything's jumbled together."
Weghorst knows his team is right there, too, and the Cardinals are starting to play like a team not waiting to pack up their gear just yet.
"For the first time in a long time, we were very loose in the dugout," Weghorst said. "The guys looked like they wanted to be here, they were having fun and we won a ballgame. It was a good night."
Contact Sports Editor Jeff Nations at 540-465-5137 ext. 161, or email@example.com>