By Brad Fauber
WINCHESTER -- The fate of the final two playoff spots in the Valley Baseball League's North Division remains a complete toss-up with the end of the regular season just days away, but Strasburg took a big step towards strengthening its playoff positioning on Wednesday night.
Facing a Winchester squad that holds the worst record in the Valley League, the Express made the most of Wednesday's doubleheader at Bridgeforth Field by sweeping the Royals. Strasburg won the first game 4-1 behind a strong starting pitching performance by James McDade, and followed that with a 9-6 win in the nightcap. Both games were played to seven innings.
The sweep puts Strasburg (20-22) in a tie with Aldie for the third and fourth playoff spots.
"It was extremely important for us. I know a bunch of us want to make the playoffs and we expect to make the playoffs," said Express designated hitter Patrick McGavin, who went 2-for-5 with two RBIs in Game 2. "This was an important day. We had two great pitchers going and I knew they were going to give us great games each. And that's exactly what they did."
After McDade shut down the Royals (11-30) in the opening game, Strasburg quickly put the pressure on Winchester's offense to keep itself in the game in the second contest.
McGavin delivered a one-out RBI double to give the Express a quick 1-0 lead in the top of the first inning off Royals starter Willi Martin, and Strasburg added two more in the frame on a wild pitch and an RBI single by Cameron Johnson.
"It was big because that always kind of puts them on the spot -- they kind of die out a little bit, don't have the same intensity," Johnson said of gaining the early lead. "It was huge for us."
Winchester did little to help itself in the early innings, as erratic pitching and very sloppy defense helped give Strasburg a 7-2 lead after three innings. Royals pitchers combined for five wild pitches and six walks in the first three innings, while the defense committed five errors in that span.
Martin, making his first start of the season, lasted just 2 1/3 innings while allowing seven runs (three earned) on just three hits before giving way to reliever Steven Welcher in the third.
Strasburg starting pitcher Matthew Fischgrund went 4 1/3 innings, allowing five earned runs on 11 hits.
The Express extended its lead to 8-2 in the top of the fifth on McGavin's RBI single before Winchester clawed back into the game with three runs in the bottom of the fifth inning to cut Strasburg's lead to 8-5 on RBI hits by Jake Cintolo, Brad Fieger and Dustin Woody.
But the Express added an insurance run in the sixth on an RBI single by Tyler McDonald.
In Game 1 of the doubleheader, Strasburg took a quick lead on a two-run homer by Erik Armstrong in the first inning and added two more runs in the fourth on RBI hits by Armstrong and Johnson.
Strasburg has three games remaining and currently holds a 1½ game lead over Front Royal -- which lost to Charles Town on Wednesday -- for the fourth and final playoff spot.
"We go out each night and play each game as hard as we can play it, and try to take care of business," Strasburg manager Butch Barnes said.
Contact sports writer Brad Fauber at 540-465-5137 ext. 184, or firstname.lastname@example.org