By Jeff Nations
STRASBURG -- With the Valley Baseball League season rapidly drawing to a close, the Strasburg Express are playing with the urgency of a team battling for its playoff life.
Locked in a three-way battle with Front Royal and Aldie for the third and fourth spots -- only four make the playoffs -- in the North Division, each game grows more crucial for the Express.
Winchester is even further off the pace, still 5 ½ games out of fourth following Friday night's matchup with Strasburg at First Bank Park.
Fighting for their lives? Every night, the rest of the way.
The Royals outfought the Express for an 10-inning, 7-6 victory that kept that playoff dream alive a night or two longer.
"If we had lost tonight, it would have been really tough for us," Winchester manager Kyle Phelps said. "As it is now, I basically think you've got to go undefeated the next eight games to put yourself in a spot to even have a chance."
Winchester (11-25) twice blew leads before locking down the victory with a single run in the top of the 10th inning on J.D. Long's sacrifice fly RBI to right field with the bases loaded against Strasburg closer Daniel Bridgeman, who inherited much of that trouble from David Hafer.
Strasburg (16-19) nearly came up with another rally in the bottom of the frame. Patrick McGavin stroked a one-out double off Royals reliever Gavin Free. Andrew Kubuski followed with a liner that Long snared at shortstop. Free appeared to then pitch around current VBL batting leader Jordan Tarsovich, walking him on four pitches. Then he walked Terry McClinton to load the bases. Free recovered to strike out Anthony Payne to end the game.
"I think we had multiple chances," Express manager Butch Barnes said. "We just didn't execute. We can't blame anybody. We had a couple times where we could've gotten bunts down and moved up the runner, and we didn't get it down."
Strasburg left the bases loaded in both the ninth and 10th innings, although Erik Armstrong's bases-loaded walk from Winchester closer Ryan Tierney forced in the tying run in the ninth.
Winchester came out swinging against Express starting pitcher Tyler Shreve, taking a 3-0 lead before making an out on Tyler Rocklein's three-run home run over the center-field fence.
Strasburg rallied for a single run in the third, then plated three in the fourth against Royals starter Talan Roepcke. Trace Vorbeck had the big blow with a two-run double to left, and Kubuski followed with another run-scoring double to put the Express up, 4-3.
"That's a good hitting club over there," Phelps said. "Talan threw another great game for us. Last time out, he went into the eighth and tonight he pitched into the seventh. That's great when our starters can go into the seventh and eighth innings. It takes a lot of pressure off our bullpen."
Roepcke did stick around long enough to see his team retake the lead in the top of the sixth after a truly deflating fifth inning, when Kubuski gunned down back-to-back runners at second on would-be doubles by Winchester's Jordan Peterson and Brad Fieger.
In the sixth, though, Wesley Hoover , Joshua Buczek and J.D. Long all delivered run-scoring singles to put the Royals back up by two.
Strasburg's Payne got one run back with a groundout RBI in the bottom of the seventh, setting up the late-inning heroics by both teams. In the end, Strasburg came up one rally short.
"We just couldn't get that timely hit we keep talking about," Barnes said.
Contact Sports Editor Jeff Nations at 540-465-5137 ext. 161, or email@example.com>