Express, Cardinals set for VBL playoff action

STRASBURG – Strasburg has followed up its 2015 Valley Baseball League championship performance quite nicely so far this summer.

The Express established themselves as one of the premier teams in the VBL from the start of the 2016 season, and spent nearly the entire summer perched atop the North Division standings. Strasburg finished the regular season with a record of 30-12 – a mark tied with South Division winner Waynesboro for the best in the VBL – and established a franchise record for wins in a season.

Strasburg, the North’s regular season champ, will now aim to keep that momentum rolling when it hosts No. 4 Purcellville on Thursday to kick off a best-of-3 series to open the first round of the VBL playoffs.

“It’s a new season,” Express first baseman Dylan Ingram said following Tuesday’s win over Purcellville in the regular season finale. “None of the ‘most wins in franchise history’ – whatever that stuff is – matters unless you go out there and do what you need to do Thursday. We’re just going in there with the same approach that we’ve had all year – pitchers are gonna try to throw strikes and attack the zone and we’re gonna try to score as many as we can and hope it comes out good.”

That approach has worked well for the Express this season, as Strasburg led the league in team batting average (.291), on-base percentage (.386), hits (421) and doubles (88) through 42 regular season games. The Express were also second in runs scored – averaging 6.7 runs per game – and slugging percentage (.426).

Designated hitter Brandon Quaranta, a midseason arrival, leads the Express with a .375 batting average (30-for-80) to go along with six home runs and 24 RBIs in 20 games. Ingram (.319) leads Strasburg with seven homers, and his 30 RBIs are tied for the team lead with third baseman Carter Pharis (.342, five home runs) and shortstop Erick Delgado.

On the mound, Strasburg ranked fourth in the VBL in team ERA (4.09) in the regular season and second in both opponent batting average (.245) and strikeouts (343). Starters Ben Dum (4-0, 1.42 ERA in seven starts) and Peyton Plumlee (5-0, 2.45 ERA in nine appearances, six starts) lead Strasburg’s rotation, while relievers Abraham Almonte and George Eubanks each sport a 2.25 ERA. Almonte has also struck out 35 batters in 16 innings.

Express manager Butch Barnes said Tuesday night that he had not settled on a starter for Thursday’s playoff opener against Purcellville, although on Wednesday afternoon the VBL website listed Strasburg’s starter as newcomer Garrett Richards, a 2015 Strasburg High School graduate and rising sophomore at Danville Community College. In Richards’ first start with the Express last Saturday, he allowed just two hits over eight innings in a 7-1 win over Woodstock.

Strasburg enters Thursday’s matchup having won nine of its last 12 games, including an 11-5 win over Purcellville (19-23) on Tuesday that snapped a five-game winning streak that powered the Cannons to a playoff spot.

The Express are 5-1 against Purcellville this season, including 3-0 at home, and have outscored the Cannons 47-33 in those six games. Strasburg, which will travel to Purcellville on Friday for Game 2 before returning home for an if-necessary Game 3 Saturday, is 18-3 at home this summer.

On the other side of the North Division bracket, No. 3 Front Royal will travel to Winchester for a 7 p.m. Thursday contest for its playoff opener.

The Cardinals (21-21), winners of three of their last five, have floated around .500 for most of the season after opening the year 4-0.

“We’ve been in a lot of ballgames, whether we won or lost them,” Front Royal manager Victor Gomez said. “We’ve definitely been in ballgames late. I got a close group of guys, good group of guys that care about each other. They play hard for each other. I know they’re excited. You got to care about the guy sitting next to you in order to make something special out of the postseason. I think we got a pretty good group here. I’m just excited to see what we can do.”

Front Royal has boasted the VBL’s most consistent pitching staff all season, and ended the regular season leading the league in team ERA (3.23) and opponent batting average (.217) while striking out 337 batters, the third-best mark.

Though the Cardinals have lost Erne Valdes, the rotation still includes right-handers Stephen Xirinachs (5-2, 2.73 ERA) and Blake Whitney (3-2, 3.88 ERA), with Brandon Valentin (0.76 ERA), Jacob Ramos (1.00 ERA) and Mitch Stophel (2.14) locking down the bullpen. Xirinachs was listed as Front Royal’s Game 1 starter on the VBL website Wednesday.

That success on the mound has helped Front Royal counteract an offense that ranks last in the VBL in batting average (.232) and slugging percentage (.340) and next to last in runs scored (4.8 per game).

Front Royal and Winchester (23-19) split six regular season meetings this summer, with both teams scoring 36 total runs in those games. The Cardinals are 12-9 at home and 11-10 on the road, and will return home Friday against the Royals – who have lost four of their last five – before traveling back to Winchester on Saturday if necessary.

“We’ve been consistent enough on the road and consistent enough at home. We haven’t separated ourselves in any particular ballparks,” Gomez said. “So for us it’s just nine innings and go out there and try to win as many pitches as we can. If we can win enough pitches throughout the game, we should be happy with the result at the end.”

In the South Division playoffs, Waynesboro will take on Staunton (15-27) in the first round, while Harrisonburg (27-15) plays Covington (22-20).

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

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