Cleveland’s slam boosts Cardinals to win

By Jeff Nations

STRASBURG — Ryan Cleveland had modest goals on Wednesday night.

The Front Royal Cardinals first baseman stepped to the plate with the bases loaded in the third inning just looking to poke a fly ball to the outfield against Strasburg Express starting pitcher Mike Vinson.

That’s it — just a fly ball.

Cleveland got his fly ball, and it kept right on flying over the center-field fence for a grand slam that capped a six-run outburst that propelled the Cardinals to a 7-5 victory at First Bank Park. The win kept Front Royal alive in the Valley Baseball League best-of-three first-round playoff series, with Game 3 slated for 7 p.m. on Thursday night at the Cards’ Bing Crosby Stadium.

“With bases loaded and one out, you’re just trying to hit a ball to the outfield somewhere, get a sac fly and score a run,” Cleveland said. “The pitcher was doing his job. He got me behind on the count and it got to the point where I was having to battle, pretty much. I was sitting on fastball, he threw a fastball — I hit it. If you make a good swing on it, good things can happen.”

Front Royal loaded the bases in the third with one out, then broke through for the game’s first run when Hunter Newman scored on an error. Omar Cotto then singled home another run. That brought up Cleveland, who crushed a 2-2 pitch from Vinson for the seeming back-breaker.

It wasn’t, as the Express proved in the bottom half of the inning with a five-run rally of their own. The Cardinals, who committed six errors in Tuesday’s Game 1 loss, ran into more defensive trouble in the bottom of the third with a pair of errors, The second, when shortstop Josh Keim misplayed a ground ball with the bases loaded, plated Strasburg’s first run. Kevin Baron followed with a sacrifice fly RBI off Cardinals starting pitcher Keegan Long, then Howard Joe doubled to drive in another run and Luke Wurzelbacher followed with a two-run double.

“We came back out and we scored five in the bottom half, so we didn’t go away,” Strasburg manager Ben Moore said. “It turned into a one-run ballgame. Vinson came back out and threw two shutout innings after that, and give credit to their starting pitcher. He came back out and threw shutout innings, too. And then their reliever was absolutely lights out.”

Both Long and Vinson survived that dreadful third inning to pitch effectively late into the game. Long worked into the seventh before giving up a leadoff single to Tyler McDonald in the bottom half of that inning. Logan Longwith came on to record three quick outs to escape the inning and finished up the final two innings to earn the save. Longwith, a righty from Tennessee Wesleyan, retired all nine batters he faced to close out the win.

“Logan is a guy who’s been up to 95 mph this year,” Neffendorf said. “When he’s in the zone, especially in this lighting, it’s tough to see. He has an electric arm.”

Sinay gave the Cardinals a bit more breathing room with an RBI single in the sixth off reliever Hunter Abbe, but Nick Gollin came on to throw 3 1/3 scoreless innings for Strasburg. Vinson took the loss, working five innings while allowing six hits and six runs (five earned) with five strikeouts.

“I thought Vinson threw well,” Moore said. “A lot of their hits, to their credit, two-strike approaches and they fought them off, muscled them for singles. So they were earned base hits, but they weren’t barreled base hits. Then he left one pitch up, and the guy capitalized on us.”

Long got the win, working six innings and allowing five runs (one earned) while fanning four.

Joe Camp had two hits to lead the Express. Zarley Zalewski paced the Cardinals with three hits.

“What I was happy to see tonight, regardless of what happens tomorrow, we bounced back in an elimination game on the road,” Neffendorf said. “We had 11 hits, which we haven’t had in awhile, we had some good pitching — Keegan threw really well.”

Neffendorf said Canisius College righty Mike Elwood will start tonight’s game, while Moore plans to go with Coastal Carolina righty Tom Durkin. The bullpens are well-rested, as well, leaving both managers with options.

“Our goal today was to get to the next day, tomorrow it’s get to the next series,” Neffendorf said.

Contact staff writer Jeff Nations at 540-465-5137 ext. 161, or jnations@nvdaily.com