Nealey pitches Express to win

STRASBURG — Strasburg used a strong starting performance by pitcher Colby Nealey Thursday night and held on to trip Covington 3-2 in Valley Baseball League action at First Bank Park.

The victory ended a five-game losing streak for the Northern Division-leading Express, in running its record to to 15-11 to stay a half-game ahead of second-place Front Royal (15-12), which also won.

“It’s nice to break the streak,” said Nealey, who earned his first decision (1-0) of the season.

Nealey had started four games prior to Thursday’s contest. In going seven complete innings, Nealey, a right-hander from Washington State University, held the visiting Lumberjacks scoreless. He gave up seven hits, but struck out eight and walked two.

He was relieved by Tyler Bauman, who went two innings, and then closer Maustin Otterstatter, who picked up his first save of the season.

The Lumberjacks picked up two runs in the top of the ninth off Otterstatter, but just one of those digits were earned. Otherwise, Otterstatter gave up two hits and struck out one.

The 6-foot-2, 220-pound closer had pinch-hitter Brian Gonzalez line out to shortstop Bradley Dixon to finish the game.

The loss was the Lumberjacks’ seventh in the last eight games. Their record dropped to 10-17 in the Southern Division.

“I don’t worry about Colby,” said Strasburg manager Stephanos Stroop. “He throws strikes. He may give up a hit here or there, but he has great composure. He gets hitters to hit grounders, and that’s what he did tonight.”

Nealey used a devastating curveball that broke away from hitters, which had the Lumberjacks swinging wildly as his throws dropped off the proverbial table.

“That’s what I use,” Nealey said. “At first I had them swinging early, but, after a while, they started to read it and I had to throw strikes to the glove.”

The game started off inauspiciously for Nealey, who came in having worked 25 1/3 innings. He had allowed 27 hits coming in, allowing 19 runs, 17 of which were earned. He had struck out 18 and just allowed a pair of bases on balls before facing Covington.

Nealey started off the game a bit wildly and the Lumberjacks put their first two base runners aboard in the first two innings. But, with the bases loaded in the top of the second, Nealey had Lumberjacks designated hitter Blake Sides hit into a 5-2-3 double play. He struck out Michael Alescio to end the inning.

After that, he sailed through the next five frames.

“Truthfully, I think that double play kind of turned the game,” said Nealey. “After that we got some timely hits and my guys backed me up in the field. It feels good.”

The Express committed two errors on the night, but, more importantly, they turned three double plays — all of which came in handy when the game got close.

On top of that, Strasburg made several outstanding plays in the field to keep up the momentum.

“I thought we played well in the field, we had those two double plays, and we also made some key stops in the field,” said Stroop.

Dixon and first baseman Daniel Midyett each contributed two hits for the Express. Dixon and right fielder Drew Avans drove in a run each.

Covington loaded the bases up in the top of the second, but Nealey pitched his way out of the jam.

Strasburg also filled the bases off starter and loser Josh Hudson (0-1), but the Covington pitcher also worked his way out of trouble.

In the bottom of the fourth, Strasburg’s Brennon Kaleiwahea got on by error (Covington committed four for the game). Having moved to third with two outs, Kaleiwahea came home when Dixon beat out a bunt. It was 1-0 Strasburg.

In the top of the seventh, after throwing error by Dixon on a tough grounder, third baseman Josh Cushing fielded a short hopper on his knees and made a throw from there to retire the side.

Strasburg manufactured a run in the bottom of the seventh when leadoff hitter Donovan May was hit by a pitch by reliever Daniel Epstein. Epstein was replaced by Joseph Marco. May stole second — his second theft of the night. He moved to third on a wild pitch and when Covington catcher Alescio tried to throw him out at the third, the ball went over the head of Peter Crocitto. Strasburg held a 2-0 advantage.

In the bottom of eighth, Strasburg’s Daniel Midyett led off with a double to right and came home when Lumberjacks left fielder Jason Baytop dropped a tough catch and the threw wildly home to let in the Express’ third run of the game.

In the top of the ninth, the Lumberjacks got things going. Crocitto got on via an error, then moved to second on a single buy Demetrius Morrer. After a strikeout by Otterstatter, pinch-hitter Kyle Pangallo walked to load the bases. Baytop slammed a sacrifice fly to left to score the Lumberjacks’ first run. Then Sebastian Gonzalez lifted a single to left to drive in the second run. After a walk, Otterstatter got pinch-hitter Gonzalez to line out to end the game.

“It’s a long season. You have your ups and downs. It was good to win this one,” said Stroop.