By Brad Fauber
STRASBURG -- Brock Hunter had a little extra motivation during his start with the Strasburg Express on Monday evening.
Hunter's older brother, Barrett, was in attendance at First Bank Park to watch the Express take on Aldie in a pivotal late-season Valley League match-up, marking the first time in a handful of years that Barrett Hunter, a college basketball player, had sat down to watch his younger brother pitch.
That fact alone was enough to bring out the best in Brock Hunter on Monday evening.
The left-hander threw what he called his best outing of the summer against the Senators, as Brock Hunter tossed seven shutout innings to send Strasburg to a 3-2 win while helping the Express tighten its grip on a playoff berth.
"My brother came for the first time in a few years, so that was big. ... First time he's seen me pitch in a long time, so I had to bring my best stuff, honestly," said Brock Hunter, a McLean native and rising junior at Coastal Carolina University.
"It felt like [the ball] was coming out pretty well. ... It was coming out good, sinking. I thought I had my best stuff."
Hunter was untouchable early, as he struck out six of the first seven Aldie batters he faced on Monday. Hunter, who improved to 3-3 with the win, struck out a season-high 10 batters and allowed just four hits, a walk and a hit batter.
"They weren't hitting my fastball much. It was sinking and they were just swinging and missing," Hunter said. "I was just throwing away all game and it was just sinking away from them -- swinging and missing on fastballs and chasing my slider in the dirt about all game."
Strasburg (18-20) didn't back Hunter with a whole lot of offense against Aldie pitching, but the Express did hand its starting pitcher a nice two-run lead in the bottom of the first inning.
Center fielder Sky Overton and catcher Dustin Woody worked back-to-back full-count walks against Senators (16-23) starter Chad Martin to open the bottom of the first inning. Kevin Baron then reached to load the bases on a grounder to the hole on the left side of the infield that was scored a hit, as Aldie shortstop Garrett Vrbanic skipped an off-balance throw to second on an attempted force out.
Express cleanup hitter Howard Joe grounded into a 6-4-3 double play that scored Overton, and Luke Wurzelbacher's RBI infield single to the left side gave Strasburg a 2-0 lead.
That would be about the extent of Strasburg's offense before the Express added an important insurance run in the bottom of the eighth inning on Jay Lizanich's RBI infield single that gave Strasburg a 3-0 lead. The Express tallied just five hits in the victory, three of which were infield singles.
"We will go on a stretch of three games where we'll average seven runs and then we'll go a stretch where we'll average a run. That's just how we roll," Express manager Ben Moore said. "That run in the eighth seemed like it's just an insurance run and it's not that important, then you look up and it's 3-2 and that run's huge. Small things like that matter."
Aldie finally got some offense going in the top of the ninth as pinch-hitter Joseph Consolmagno worked a walk against Strasburg reliever Chase Wissman to open the frame, and a one-out single by catcher C.J. Brazil prompted Moore to bring in right-hander Sean Stephenson.
Stephenson induced a pop out before dealing a walk to Pat Wright to load the bases with two outs, and Reece Strong floated a two-RBI single to left field to cut Strasburg's lead to 3-2. Stephenson got Vrbanic to strike out looking for the game's final out.
"I just feel like luck hasn't really been on our side," said Aldie manager Eric Lemley, whose team has lost five straight and is clinging to the eighth and final spot in the Valley League playoffs. "... They're competing, they want to make the playoffs. I believe we've out-hit every team we've played during the losing streak we've been on, but like I told them, we've made more errors. ... You have to take care of the baseball to win games."
Strasburg, which is currently in sixth place in the league standings, gave itself a little breathing room with a week left in the regular season.
"That separates us a little bit. That's a big win for us," Moore said. "... Every win is big now because we're so close. I think the last-place team is only 2½ back from making it.
"Any win is big, but especially against [Aldie], a team you're fighting against, it's really huge."
Contact staff writer Brad Fauber at 540-465-5137 ext. 184, or firstname.lastname@example.org