Express clinches spot in VBL playoffs

STRASBURG — Strasburg joined Front Royal and Aldie as playoff teams from the North Division of the Valley Baseball League on Friday night by edging the Cardinals, 5-4, at First Bank Park.

The Senators (21-20) lost to Winchester (19-20) on Friday and host Woodstock (19-22) on Saturday, while the Cards (21-20) clinched a spot with a victory at home Thursday. The Express is 21-19, having won five of its last seven.

“This is late in the season and what you see around the league is guys getting tired or hurt who are leaving. We’re the exact opposite — we have guys who want to hang around. I think we’re good enough to go a ways,” said Strasburg reliever Danny Rafferty, who took the win.

Rafferty worked four innings of relief, coming in for Express starter Tyler Hott, a Strasburg High grad now playing his trade at Shenandoah University. Not only did Rafferty allow just a run, but he struck out three and walked just one.

As important, the left-hander was able to strike out Front Royal’s leadoff hitter Tre Porter to end the game. Front Royal had a runner on third. Rafferty was also able to get Front Royal slugger Edgar Lebron out on a sacrifice earlier in the inning.

Lebron slugged two homers for the visitors, his first pair of the season.

“I was able to get to know him and talk to him at the All-Star game. To be truthful I got him out on three straight changeups,” said Rafferty. “My arm is strong because I haven’t pitched all that much. I play outfield at [Bucknell] and I’ve played some in the field here.”

Rafferty was able to share his heroics with teammate Trevor Rucker, who went 3-for-4 against Cardinal starter Randy Dobnak and relief pitcher Pat Coffin. The shortstop scored two runs and drove in another.

Interestingly, Rucker, a junior at Southern Arkansas, was lifeguarding a week ago in his home state of Arkansas.

“I got a call and they said they needed an infielder, so I came. I love it here. My teammates have accepted me and it’s a good chance for me,” Rucker said.

Strasburg has games left at Winchester on Saturday and then home with visiting Staunton on Sunday to close out the regular season. Obviously, the Express is still in the running for first place in the North.

Seedings will be unknown until early next week as Winchester, which was battling Woodstock for the fourth and final spot out of the North, has several games to go.

“It’s just nice to know we made it,” said Rafferty.

Front Royal closes out its season at Charles Town on Saturday.

The Cardinals got on the scoreboard in the visitors’ half of the first. With one out, Drew Small laced a ball to center for a single. Chase Lunsford followed with a walk. Greg Lambert’s double plated Small with the game’s first run.

The Express came back to tie it at 1-1 in the bottom of the first. With two outs, Daniel Midyett slammed a single to right. He moved to second on a wild pitch and teammate Rucker drove him home with a double to left.

Front Royal came right back in the next inning with a second run; this one due to Lebron who planted a Hott curveball into the trees behind the leftfield fence. It was 2-1 Cardinals.

Strasburg started its fourth when Rucker picked up his second straight hit, a single. He stole second and, after a walk to Drew Johnson, moved to third on a fly ball.

Rucker then scored on Dobnak’s second wild pitch and Johnson moved to third. The game was tied 2-2 after four complete.

Dobnak went 5 2/3 innings, allowing four earned runs and six hits. The Card hurler struck out six before coming out with two outs in the sixth. Pat Coffin finished the game for the visitors.

Lebron clubbed his second home run — a solo shot — in the fifth to return the lead to Front Royal, 3-2.

Strasburg started a rally with two outs in the sixth. Rucker and Johnson slapped back-to-back singles. The two executed a double steal and then Dobnak walked Josh Cushing.

The Express tied the game when Rucker came home on a Front Royal error. At 3-all, Dobnak walked in the Express’ fourth run. Now trailing by a run, Front Royal moved to bring in Coffin in relief of Dobnak. He could not stop the bleeding. He passed Strasburg pinch-hitter Chris Akmon to bring in the Express’ third run in the inning. The home team held a 5-3 lead.

Front Royal sliced a run off that cushion with two outs in the top of the eighth. Off reliever Rafferty, Drew Small singled to center and then Lambert slapped his third hit — a double to left — to score Small for a 5-4 ledger.

Front Royal kept coming. In its half of the ninth, it put on pinch-hitter Jacob Carney (Stephens City, Shepherd) with a walk. Carney moved to second on a wild pitch and then to third on Lebron’s sacrifice grounder.

Rafferty fanned leadoff man Porter of Sherando High School and Shepherd University. The ball brushed off catcher Brennan Kaleiwahea, but the backstop made the throw to first to end the game.

Lebron had the two round-trippers in three official at bats, accounting for two runs and two RBIs. Also, for Front Royal, Lambert accounted for three hits in four at-bats and two RBI. Lambert collected two doubles. Small also went 2-for-3.