By Jeff Nations
FRONT ROYAL -- Brandon Harvell might be late to the party, but he sure made sure the Strasburg Express celebrated on Thursday night at Bing Crosby Stadium.
Harvell, a late-season replacement who plays collegiately at Longwood University, stroked a go-ahead home run in the top of the 10th inning against Front Royal to lift the Express to a 3-2 victory in the deciding game in the best-of-three Valley Baseball League playoff series. The victory moves Strasburg on to the semifinals, where the Express will Charles Town tonight for the opener of another best-of-three series.
Harvell, the team's new left fielder and No. 9 hitter who joined the squad less than two weeks ago, made that happen by turning on a two-strike fastball from Kevin Becker-Menditto and sending it over the left-field wall to give Strasburg it's first lead of the night.
"Batting in the nine-hole, he'd struggled all night and that guy (Becker-Menditto), I think the last time he faced him he struck out twice the other night," Strasburg manager Ben Moore said. "He made a mistake and Brandon capitalized on it. It's an unexpected home run from a kid like that, but that kid in pressure situations just pays off."
Front Royal had its chances late, but left the bases loaded in both the ninth and 10th innings without pushing across a run. Express reliever Sean Stephenson, who worked the final three innings for the victory, struck out Nick Sinay swinging to end Front Royal's season.
The Cardinals led most of the game, starting in the third inning with Hunter Newman's two-out solo home run off Strasburg starting pitcher Tom Durkin. That was the only blemish for Durkin, who worked five innings to keep Strasburg close.
The Express couldn't muster much of anything against Front Royal starter Mike Elwood, who pitched into the seventh before running into a bit of trouble when he hit a batter and another reached on an error, but reliever Dyllan Brownmiller doused the rally by striking out Tyler McDonald.
Front Royal added another run in the seventh, when the speedy Sinay led off with a single and moved to second on a throwing error, then took third on a wild pitch before Newman delivered an RBI single.
Strasburg tied it with a pair of runs in the eighth, helped by a pair of errors by Cardinals third baseman Zarley Zalewski. That was particularly galling for Cardinals manager Brad Neffendorf, who's seen his squad struggle defensively late in the season.
The Cardinals loaded the bases in the ninth against Stephenson, but the right-hander induced a first-pitch comebacker to the mound from Shell McCain to preserve the lead.
"Durkin an unbelievable five innings in a Game 3 situation like that, then [David] Hafer comes in and that's the best he's thrown all year, and he picked a perfect time to do it," Moore said. "Then I told our staff and I told our guys, if we're going to lose this game we're going to do it with our best pitcher on the mound and that's Sean Stephenson."
Neffendorf thought the Cardinals' eighth-inning struggles cost the team just as much as those missed bases-loaded opportunities.
"It doesn't come down to that, though," Neffendorf said. "It comes down to we didn't take care of the baseball in that eighth inning. We did minimize it and went into that last inning tied 2-2 and we gave ourselves a shot. Yeah, we had some chances to win it there but we don't have to get to that point if we take care of the baseball."
Contact staff writer Jeff Nations at 540-465-5137 ext. 161, or firstname.lastname@example.org