By Brad Fauber
Strasburg Express first-year manager Ben Moore held a team meeting several weeks ago to discuss how he and his coaching staff could improve the team's experience over the final stretch of the Valley Baseball League season. During that meeting, Moore, who thinks many college baseball players today have become too robotic while coaches control nearly every aspect of the game, decided he was going to take a more relaxed approach and simply allow the Express to have fun.
It seems to have worked. Fighting for one of the final spots in the VBL playoffs with just a few short weeks to go, Strasburg won six games during an eight-game stretch last week to secure a spot in the postseason. The Express then used its final two games of the regular season on Saturday and Sunday to rest many of its players and have a little fun on the diamond.
Strasburg, last season's runner-up for the Lineweaver Cup, will be the sixth seed in this year's playoffs and will play No. 3 Front Royal in the best-of-3 quarterfinal series. Game one is scheduled for tonight at 7 p.m. at Bing Crosby Stadium in Front Royal.
"We've tried to keep the guys loose and have a bunch of fun the last two games," said Moore, who allowed Tyler McDonald to play all nine positions in a loss to Woodstock on Saturday and let many of Strasburg's pitchers hit in Sunday's loss to Charles Town. "I think we're going to be the loosest team in the playoffs, so that should work to our advantage."
The Express (21-22) had to spend much of the 2014 season crawling back into playoff contention after a slow start, but Front Royal (26-17) needed no such late-season push.
The Cardinals established themselves as one of the league's best teams early, starting 16-4 before cooling off considerably over the last several weeks. They have lost eight of their last 13 games, but did end the regular season with a 5-2 win over Woodstock on Sunday in a game that was shortened to six innings due to weather.
Front Royal sat atop the Valley League standings for most of the season before being overtaken recently by streaking Harrisonburg. The Cardinals dropped to the third seed in the Valley League playoffs after Waynesboro clinched the second spot with two victories on Sunday night.
"It was one of those deals where teams got hot after starting off slow and we started not playing well defensively," Cardinals first-year manager Brad Neffendorf said Monday. "Then offensively we went a little cold there for a while."
It probably didn't help that Front Royal has likely gone through more roster turnover than the average Valley League team this season, but Neffendorf didn't think the fluctuation of players had a hand in the Cardinals' recent struggles.
Despite the departure of a large portion of Front Royal's opening day roster, the Cardinals still have a strong core of productive players. Front Royal's potent lineup will continue to run through the trio of Hunter Newman (.324 batting average, seven home runs, 42 RBIs), Shell McCain (.333, four homers, 34 RBIs, 20 stolen bases) and Nick Sinay (.341, 28 stolen bases, 43 runs scored).
As a team, the Cardinals are second in the Valley League in home runs (22) and runs scored (240) and lead the league in stolen bases (112).
"I know they're not as strong as they were at the beginning of the season, the team that was winning eight of 10 ballgames, but ... the main core of guys is still there," Moore said. "I think the main thing that we have to do is make sure that Newman is not up in an RBI situation and keep Sinay off the bases."
Front Royal also boasts one of the league's best pitching staffs, and the Cardinals lead the VBL in team ERA (3.02). Neffendorf said left-hander Jake Harper (5-0, 2.22 ERA, 47 strikeouts in 52.2 innings) will start for the Cardinals tonight, with right-hander Keegan Long (4-2, 1.61 ERA, 41 strikeouts in 44.2 innings) tentatively scheduled to pitch the second game of the series at Strasburg on Wednesday.
Strasburg's offense ranks in the bottom half of the league in team batting average (.256), runs (208) and home runs (12).
The Express have dealt with some late-season roster turnover itself and will be without speedy outfielder Jose Bonilla-Treverso, who has returned home to visit family, for the rest of the season. But Strasburg's offense will be helped by the presence of catcher Anthony "Teddy" Payne, who returned to the team last Friday after missing a week of action following the death of his grandfather, Moore said. Payne is batting .336 with three home runs and 21 RBIs this summer.
"He's one of the guys that said 'I'm good to go, give me a day off so I can come in [to the playoffs] hot,'" Moore said. "He's a fan favorite. He's a team favorite. ... If I were to give a captain seat to anybody it would be him.
"I've never experienced how big a difference it makes to have one guy out of the lineup. We managed without him but him being back is really a good thing for us."
Moore said left-hander Brock Hunter (3-3, 2.35 ERA, 47 strikeouts in 42 innings) will start on the mound for the Express tonight. Right-hander Mike Vinson, who will join the Cotuit Kettleers in the Cape Cod League when Strasburg's season ends, will start game two. Vinson is 3-1 with a 2.15 ERA, 34 strikeouts and just five walks in 37.2 innings this summer.
As a team, the Express is fifth in the VBL in team ERA (3.80) and opponent batting average (.250), and first in strikeouts (359). Strasburg has also allowed 22 homers this season, the second-worst mark in the league.
"They're going to come out and play hard. They have some good arms that we're going to face in Hunter in game one and Vinson in game two. Those are two of the best starters in the league," said Neffendorf, whose team is 3-1 against Strasburg with three shutout victories this summer.
"They've played better baseball and it just shows that we have to come out and play our game," Neffendorf added. "I do believe that if we play our game that we are very tough to beat."
In the rest of the Valley League playoffs, top-seeded Harrisonburg will play No. 8 Covington, Waynesboro will play No. 7 Aldie and fourth-seeded Staunton will play No. 5 Charles Town.
Contact staff writer Brad Fauber at 540-465-5137 ext. 184, or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow on Twitter @BradFauberNVD