STRASBURG – The rally fell just a little short for the Strasburg Express Wednesday night.
Seeking its first Valley Baseball League championship in the team’s five-year history, Strasburg pushed across three runs in the seventh and eighth innings but it wasn’t enough to top visiting Staunton in Game 2 of the VBL championship series at First Bank Park. The Braves held on for a 5-4 win, forcing a decisive Game 3 in Staunton at 7 p.m. tonight after the Express beat the Braves in Game 1 Tuesday night.
“Over the course of our whole season, and especially in the playoffs, the last three innings have been really good for us,” Express manager Stephanos Stroop said. “We were a little flat early in the game but I felt like we would pick it up at some point. I’m happy with that.
“A team like that is not going to go down without a fight,” he added of Staunton, the South Division regular season champion.
With Strasburg’s offense struggling to produce runs early, Staunton built a 5-1 lead before the Express found life in the seventh inning. Brandon Harvell, Strasburg’s No. 9 hitter, doubled to lead off the bottom of the seventh and later came around to score on a sacrifice fly by Daniel Midyett.
Then things got interesting in the eighth inning. Trevor Rucker (2-for-4, two runs) led off the frame with a single off Braves reliever Aaron Hooven and a subsequent walk by Jeremy Musser forced Staunton manager George Laase to turn to Garrison Vandeventer.
Pinch-hitter Brennon Kaleiwahea followed immediately with an RBI single up the middle that glanced off the glove of diving second baseman Ryan Crile to cut Strasburg’s deficit to 5-3. An error on a sacrifice bunt attempt loaded the bases for the Express with no outs, prompting Laase to turn to closer Devin Gould, who saved six games during the regular season.
“We had to kill the rally and the only way you can kill a rally is you’ve got to bring in your stud on the back side [of the bullpen],” Laase said. “Devin has stepped up, he’s given us some great innings this year. … We can’t afford to ever go out and not get beat with our best pitcher on the mound.”
Gould induced a pop out at home plate by Harvell for the inning’s first out and, after a four-pitch walk to Donovan May that allowed another Strasburg run to score, got a strikeout and a groundout on a come-backer to escape further damage with a 5-4 lead intact.
Gould retired the Express in order in the ninth inning to pick up his eighth save this summer.
“He’s got a very strong arm,” Stroop said of Gould. “I’ve heard good things about him, so I knew it would be tough. He just went right after our hitters and he beat us.”
The Express, who finished with seven hits, struggled at the plate through the first half of Wednesday’s game as they mustered only three hits and a lone run against Staunton starting pitcher Blake Ream and reliever Parker Johnson through the first six innings.
Ream, who pitched a seven-inning no-hitter against the Express in Strasburg’s regular season finale on July 26, held the Express to one hit on Wednesday, although he did deal four walks and left after only four innings due to a high pitch count. Dustin Woody broke Strasburg’s hitless streak against Ream with an RBI single in the second inning.
“The last time we faced that starter we didn’t hit him well,” Stroop said. “Maybe we just struggle with that one particular guy, but once we got to their bullpen we started to put together some better swings, put some runners on base.”
Strasburg also struggled in the field, a flaw that has troubled the Express for the entire season. The Express committed five errors in the loss, including two in a four-run fourth inning for Staunton that proved to be the decisive swing.
William Kinney and Jordan Howard delivered RBI singles for Staunton in the fourth, and a throwing error with two outs allowed two additional runs to score and give the Braves a 4-0 lead.
Kinney, leadoff man Jack Schaaf and Kurtis Brown each had three hits for the Braves, who had 11 total, all singles.
Strasburg starting pitcher Wade Arduini took the loss as he pitched six innings while allowing four runs (two earned) on nine hits, one walk and a strikeout. Tony Landi pitched three innings of relief and allowed an earned run on two hits.
If Strasburg is going to win its first-ever VBL title, it will have to do so on the road at Moxie Stadium, where the Express picked up a 10-8 win over the Braves Tuesday night.
“It’s the last game no matter what,” Stroop said. “Nobody wants to go out with a poor effort, so it will be exciting.”
Contact staff writer Brad Fauber at 540-465-5137 ext. 161, or email@example.com