Playoff picture taking shape for local teams as end of VBL season nears

The Valley Baseball League regular season ends on Tuesday, and the four local teams – Front Royal, New Market, Strasburg and Woodstock – find themselves in differing positions in the North Division playoff race.

Of that group, Strasburg is in the most favorable position having already locked up a playoff spot and sitting in prime position for the North’s top seed, while Front Royal, though not yet guaranteed a postseason berth, appears destined for a return to the playoff field. New Market, meanwhile, is in a tight battle with Purcellville for the fourth and final playoff position in the North, and Woodstock has likely been eliminated from postseason contention with its 7-2 loss to Front Royal Thursday night.

Strasburg, last year’s VBL champion, had a chance to clinch the North’s top seed Thursday night with a win and a Winchester loss, but the Express (26-11) failed to hold a five-run lead in a road loss at Waynesboro in a showdown with the South Division leaders. The Express hold a four-game lead over Winchester and both teams have five games remaining.

Express manager Butch Barnes stressed the importance of clinching that No. 1 seed after leading the North for nearly the entire summer.

“I don’t think you wanna lose ground here,” Barnes said after Wednesday’s win over New Market. “I mean, I know we don’t wanna take a step back and I think that would be taking a step back, having the lead from the start and then to lose it in the last week? Nah, that’s not where you wanna be as a team.”

Barnes added that if and when the Express clinch the top spot, the team must find a proper balance between resting players and keeping them in a winning rhythm.

“Every competitive sport talks about it, after you clinch it do you play to stay hot or do you rest?” Barnes said. “Well if you rest you can get a little rusty, so somehow we’re just gonna try to treat it as OK, we’re gonna give you your normal day off or a day off – some guys haven’t had a day off. They’ve had, early in the season, maybe one. They’ve played 30-some games in a row, that’s pretty tough.”

New Market (15-23) entered Thursday with a chance to gain a half-game on Purcellville (15-22) – which was off Thursday and has five games remaining – and blew a 3-1 lead against Winchester in the top of the ninth inning in an eventual extra-inning loss. The Rebels, now a half-game out of a playoff spot and losers of four straight, have four games remaining, including a game at Purcellville on Saturday evening.

New Market, which fell to Purcellville in extra innings last Sunday, is 3-2 against the Cannons this season.

“It’ll be a dogfight here down the stretch,” Rebels manager Zac Cole said Wednesday.

Cole emphasized the need for strong pitching to close out the regular season in support of one of the VBL’s most productive offenses.

“If we pitch well we typically play good enough defense and we swing it, typically, good enough that we can win if we pitch well. That’s kind of been our deal all year, especially in the bullpen,” Cole said. “If we throw well in the bullpen we’re gonna be tough to beat, and when we don’t throw well in the bullpen things like (Wednesday night’s loss to Strasburg) happen. That’ll be what determines our fate ultimately.”

Front Royal (19-19) has floated around .500 for much of the season and is in third place in the North with a 3 1/2-game lead over Purcellville with four games to play.

Following the Cardinals’ win over Woodstock on Tuesday, Front Royal manager Victor Gomez said key word for his team has been “finish.”

“That’s the word we’ve been using all year long. It was one of the first words we talked about the very first day I met these guys when we sat down and talked, is we’ve gotta finish,” Gomez said. “You finish days, you finish weeks, you’ve gotta finish the season. … We’re not in (the playoffs), we’re not playing it like we are. We’ve still got the foot on the gas. We’ve gotta keep going.”

With Thursday’s loss, Woodstock is 4 1/2 games out of fourth place with four games remaining and would need to win out and have both Purcellville and New Market lose their remaining games to reach the playoffs. Barring any game cancellations, that scenario is impossible due to Saturday’s scheduled meeting between the Rebels and Cannons.

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

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