Long ball dooms Express in defeat

By Jeff Nations

STRASBURG — Stephen Kerr might have been the last one to know he’d hit a home run on Saturday.

The Charles Town Cannons’ leadoff hitter isn’t exactly a power threat — his last home run came as a senior in high school — and Kerr wasn’t expecting that to change during the Valley Baseball League playoffs against host Strasburg.

Surprise, surprise — Kerr ripped a game-opening solo homer to left off Strasburg Express starting pitcher David Hafer, one of four the Cannons would eventually launch in an 8-2 victory that puts Charles Town in the Jim Lineweaver Cup championship series for the first time ever. The Cannons will travel to Waynesboro for Game 1 on Monday night at 7 p.m..

Kerr set the tone with that first-inning blast, a rarity for the rising sophomore from Florida Atlantic. So rare, in fact, that he didn’t believe it was gone off the bat.

“I thought I missed it,” Kerr said. “I saw the left fielder running and I thought he was going to catch it, so I rounded first base pretty hard. Then I saw it bounce on the concrete, so that was kind of cool.”

That home run set the tone for Charles Town, but a five-run eighth sealed the victory. Naturally, home runs were again involved — Justin Esquerra had a solo blast and Charlie Pal added a two-run shot off Strasburg reliever Nick Gollin in that decisive rally.

“We can hit,” Charles Town manager Brett Fuller said. “We do have the ability to put runs on the board quickly, and fortunately we’ve been able to do that all year.

“… The plan before the game was, ‘Let’s put a run on the board each inning, and nine should be enough.’ We came up one short.”

Strasburg, aiming to force a Game 3 on Sunday, briefly took the lead after Kerr’s first-inning bomb when Joe Camp ripped a change-up from Cannons starter Stephen Solomon over the left-field fence for a two-run homer in the bottom of the first.

It was a rare mistake by Solomon, a soft-tossing right-hander from Belhaven College who’s been with the Cannons less than three weeks. Solomon ended up pitching all nine innings for the complete-game win, allowing just two runs (one earned) off four hits and a walk while fanning five.

“Sloppy,” as Solomon is known to his teammates and coaches, sure was sharp on Saturday at First Bank Park.

“He was crafty, moved the ball around well and just kept them off-balance,” Fuller said. “He was able to do that to them earlier this season. He’s had pretty big wins for us, and tonight was the biggest.”

Solomon, who largely shut down the Express in another start at Strasburg during the regular season, supplemented his fastball and slider with an effective knuckleball, and plus a change-up that worked other than Camp’s homer.

“I pitched here once before this year, so I knew I just had to keep the ball down, keep working and try to not elevate anything,” Solomon said. “You could see — we hit four home runs, they hit one, so once the ball’s elevated it’s not too hard to get it out.”

The Cannons tied the game in the top of the second on Kerr’s RBI infield single, and then went ahead in the third when power hitting designated hitter Andrew Yacyk sent a long blast to straight center field off Hafer.

“Sometimes we live by home runs — of course, we didn’t really hit too many of those this year — and sometimes we die by them,” Strasburg manager Ben Moore said. “They got us today.”

Hafer settled down to work six innings for the Express, allowing three earned runs off five hits and a pair of walks while striking out six.

Solomon simply wouldn’t let Strasburg back in it once he had the lead. Camp, who had two of Strasburg’s four hits, said the Cannons’ starter didn’t need to overpower to dominate.

“He was doing a good job of mixing up his pitches,” Camp said. “He used his fastball effectively and he was hitting his spots, that was definitely huge. Then the curveball, he was doing a good job of keeping it low all night so that kept us off-balance.”

Kerr finished with three hits and a pair of RBIs to lead the Cannons, Pal chipped in a pair of hits and two RBIs and Austin Bream added a 2-for-3 effort in the win.

“We did everything the same as we always do,” Kerr said. “I really can’t tell you what happened — we hit well as a team. We have probably the best hitting team in the league and today it all came together.”

The Game 2 loss ended Strasburg’s season and denied the Express a return spot in the Lineweaver Cup series.

“I’m proud of these guys,” Moore said. “Twenty-seven straight days on the road, we started 3-11 and 6-13, lost 11 or 12 guys especially here at the end and these guys kept showing up and kept fighting.”

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