Express to take on Braves in VBL finals

For the second time in three years, the Strasburg Express is competing for the Valley Baseball League championship.

The Express, who last vied for the James W. Lineweaver Cup in 2013, locked up a spot in this summer’s championship series with a 14-3 win over Front Royal in Sunday’s decisive Game 3 of the semifinal round, a victory that also earned Strasburg the title of North Division postseason champions.

Strasburg will travel to Staunton tonight to face the South Division champion Braves at 7:30 p.m. before returning home Wednesday for Game 2 of the best-of-3 series. Game 3, if necessary, will return to Staunton on Thursday.

The Express, who made their Valley League debut in 2011, are seeking their first VBL championship in their short history.

“Overall for the franchise, it’s an exciting progression to see how quickly they’ve become competitive in the Valley League,” Express first-year manager Stephanos Stroop said Monday afternoon. “I think it just speaks to the quality of the organization. That starts at the top with Mr. [Jay] Neal, and then Parker Neal does a good job of recruiting. [Former manager] Butch Barnes does a great job helping out as well.”

Strasburg, which garnered the second seed in the North Division playoffs behind top seed Front Royal, earned a spot in this week’s championship series by sweeping Aldie 2-0 in the quarterfinals before picking up a 2-1 series win over Front Royal this past weekend.

Staunton, the South Division’s top seed, made its way to the championship round after beating Covington and Waynesboro. The Express went 0-2 against the Braves during the regular season.

The Express didn’t know which opponent they would face for the Lineweaver Cup until late Monday night when Staunton topped Waynesboro in walk-off fashion, but Stroop said earlier Monday that either opponent would present a “quality ball club” and the key to the championship series would rest on the pitching.

“The key, really, for any of these teams is just the war of attrition with arms,” Stroop said. “… It’s whoever can survive with the most healthy arms and can get the most out of their starters, [that team] has probably got the best chance to win.”

Strasburg’s pitchers have been sharp in the postseason after finishing 11th in the 12-team league in team ERA (4.42) at the conclusion of the regular season. In five playoff games, Express pitchers have a collective 2.80 ERA and have limited opponents to a .244 batting average with 41 strikeouts in 45 innings.

Stroop said left-hander Drew Avans, a sophomore from Southeastern Louisiana University, will get the start on the mound for the Express tonight. Avans, who also plays right field for the Express and has a .409 batting average in 22 postseason at-bats, was 3-2 with a 3.25 ERA in seven games (six starts) during the regular season. Avans got the start in Strasburg’s playoff opener against Aldie on July 28 and went six innings and allowed one earned run on three hits, five walks and three strikeouts to earn the win.

Strasburg’s offense has also seen an increase in production since the start of the playoffs. As a team the Express are batting .287 with 36 runs scored in five postseason games after batting .264 collectively during the regular season.

Third baseman Drew Johnson emerged as one of the best hitters in the Valley League with a .333 average, three home runs and 28 RBIs for Strasburg in the regular season, and he’s continued that trend with a .467 batting average in 15 postseason at-bats. Outfielder Jeremy Musser is batting .462 with eight RBIs in 13 playoff at-bats for the Express.

Stroop said Strasburg’s push into the VBL championship series is the latest high in what he described as a “roller coaster” summer for the Express, which suffered through a midseason slump that caused them to lose their grip on the North Division lead late in the year.

“For this year’s squad, personally, it’s a testament to their ability to stay even keeled over the course of the summer,” Stroop said. “…We started off really hot and then the middle of the summer we kind of hit a lull. We started out 14-6 and then we proceeded to go 2-13 and ended up finishing up the last nine to 10 games finishing the season strong and that kind of carried over in the playoffs. I’m just happy for the kids to grow and develop and represent the community in the best light.”

Contact staff writer Brad Fauber at 540-465-5137 ext. 161, or bfauber@nvdaily.com