By Jeff Nations
STRASBURG -- Strasburg third baseman Cam Johnson got the idea in the fifth inning of Sunday's opening game of the Valley Baseball League championship series.
After stroking a two-out double in the bottom of the third inning that scooted under the fence in center field and cost him a sure RBI, Johnson must have had an epiphany.
Under the fence? Not so good.
Over the fence? That might work better.
Johnson connected for a two-run homer in the fifth off Waynesboro reliever Latten Galbraith to put the finishing touches on a 6-0 victory that leaves the Express just one win away from claiming the James W. Lineweaver Trophy as the VBL's champion.
"Our whole team has been swinging it really well, especially in the playoffs," Johnson said. "We've found ways to hit a lot of home runs and our pitching's been very, very good as well. Things seem to all be going for us right now."
Johnson's home run to left-center field was the third of the night for Strasburg. Anthony Payne connected on a solo shot in the bottom of the second off Waynesboro starter Jeff Conley and league Most Valuable Player Jordan Tarsovich did the same an inning later.
Tarsovich's homer put Strasburg up 2-0, but Conley had more trouble in store in the third. After allowing the home run, Conley hit Andrew Kubuski with a pitch and then gave up that unusual ground-rule double to Johnson to put runners on second and third. Ryan Welling followed with a clean single to center to plate both runs.
Express left-handed starting pitcher Patrick McGavin sailed through five innings, allowing just one hit and no runner past first base during that time. In the sixth, McGavin finally ran into some trouble when Patrick Mazeika reached on a two-out error, Anthony Iacomini battled for a walk and Quinn Griffith came up with a rare Generals hit to load the bases.
Brian Beard followed with a sinking liner to left, but Kubuski tracked it down for a running catch to preserve the shutout.
"We just didn't hit in situations," Waynesboro manager Mike Bocock said. "We didn't get the big play. We hit a line drive where they make a nice play in left field. If that thing gets down, that's at least two runs there."
McGavin ended up tossing six scoreless innings to earn the win, allowing two hits and three walks while striking out seven. McGavin dished out the credit to his teammates, especially Express catcher Anthony "Teddy" Payne.
"The first couple innings I was rushing my pitches," McGavin said. "But towards the middle and the end of the game, I felt more in a rhythm and felt more comfortable. I have to give Teddy behind the plate a lot of credit. He was calling for my curveball a lot, and that was the best pitch that was working for me. My fastball was working pretty good, but I also have to give the fielders credit because they made some great plays out there."
Strasburg manager Butch Barnes reluctantly pulled McGavin after the sixth because of a rising pitch count, and the Generals promptly rallied against reliever Matthew Fischgrund.
"It was going to be a tough decision on my part, but we were watching his pitch count the whole way," Barnes said. "But he battled for us."
Waynesboro's Alex Mortenson worked a lead-off walk, and one out later Kevin Fagan also walked before Jomarcus Woods slapped a single to right to load the bases. Fischgrund regrouped to get a big strikeout against Tyler Bocock, and then got a nice defensive play on Mazeika's grounder up the middle. Express shortstop Tyler McDonald ranged deep into the hole to pick up the ball, then flipped to second baseman Johnny Schiotis for the force. Schiotis snared the toss bare-handed to complete the inning-ending play.
Strasburg's Trace Vorbeck followed with a scoreless eighth and David Hafer closed it out with a 1-2-3 ninth.
"We just never got things going," Bocock said. "I think maybe, in a way, we underestimated our opponent a little bit. You never know. We've had a lot of success [against] the North. They came to play, and we need to turn it up a notch in order to win [tonight]."
Barnes said the Express will benefit from the work the bullpen turned in on Sunday, with the normal back end of that group -- set-up men Adam Emerson, Evan Kirsch and closer Daniel Bridgeman -- all getting a badly-needed day off.
"These guys, they rise to the occasion," Barnes said. "They've competed all year, and I wouldn't expect them not to compete today. We got a great pitching performance -- we used some different guys."
Ashton Fronsoe, a right-hander from Florida Tech, is slated to start for Strasburg tonight at Waynesboro's Linco Park at Kate Collins Field. Game time is 7 p.m. The Express will be shooting for their 10th straight win and first VBL championship in the franchise's three-year existence.
"It'd be huge, especially for such a new program as this is," Johnson said. "To be able to win a championship and bring it back to Strasburg, that'd be pretty awesome."
Contact Sports Editor Jeff Nations at 540-465-5137 ext. 161, or firstname.lastname@example.org>