Express one win away from consecutive VBL titles

Strasburg's Ryan Johnson fires a pitch during Thursday night's game against Waynesboro. Rich Cooley/Daily

STRASBURG – Ryan Johnson received a text message from Strasburg Express assistant coach David Kopp a couple days before Game 1 of the Valley Baseball League championship series against Waynesboro on Thursday night.

The relief pitcher had yet to see action in the playoffs for the Express, and Kopp wanted to make sure the left-hander knew his time would come. It did on Thursday.

Johnson was thrust into early action in the third inning against Waynesboro, tasked with quelling a powerful General lineup that had just put up four runs in the second. Johnson provided the Express with five-plus innings of relief while limiting Waynesboro to a pair of runs, Strasburg’s own offense continue to produce and the Express gained the upper hand in the best-of-3 series with a 7-6 win at First Bank Park.

Strasburg will try for its second straight VBL championship tonight in Game 2 at Waynesboro, set to start at 7 p.m.

“Ryan Johnson just filled shoes that nobody could fill,” Express manager Butch Barnes said.

Strasburg's Brandon Quaranta is congratulated at home plate following a three-run homer in first inning action against Waynesboro on Aug. 14 at First Bank Park. Quaranta is back this season as the Express try to win their third straight championship. Rich Cooley/Daily

In a game featuring two teams who tied for the best record in the VBL during the regular season, Strasburg held a 3-0 lead before Waynesboro struck back for four runs in the second inning off Express starter Jared Silva, a two-out rally that included a two-RBI triple from Brent Sakurai and a two-run single by Sam Palensky.

Silva’s struggles with his command – he walked four in his two innings of work – prompted Barnes to make the early switch. Johnson found himself in trouble in the top of the third after hitting a batter and giving up a double to Kyle Jackson with one out, but the lefty induced a pop-up in the infield before ending the frame with a strikeout to escape damage.

He retired eight in a row before Jackson’s leadoff single in the sixth.

“Coach Kopp told me in the bullpen before I went out, he said, ‘This is your game, you know, go out there and win the ballgame,” Johnson said. “… I was just trying to fill up the strike zone and let the defense work, and the defense did a phenomenal job tonight.”

Johnson surrendered four hits and a walk over his five-plus innings of action while striking out five in the winning effort. Both runs he allowed came on a two-run home run by VBL home run leader Zach Sterry that followed a two-out walk in the seventh.

Strasburg second baseman Jeffrey Scott attempts a double play ball as he forces out Waynesboro's Andrew Bullock during first inning action at First Bank Park on Thursday night. Scott's throw came too late to make the double play. Rich Cooley/Daily

“I’d say just commanding my off-speed, curveball and changeup, for strikes low in the strike zone, and just getting ahead early,” Johnson said of his success Thursday.

“(Sterry) was up on the plate and I hung a curveball a little bit, but I’ve gotta tip my cap to him. He’s showed he has some pop this summer. He’s hit a lot of home runs and I mean the two-run bomb didn’t beat us.”

The Express, who improved to 22-3 at home this summer, raced out to an early lead off Waynesboro starter Brett Sasse with three runs in the bottom of the first.

Erick Delgado was hit by a pitch with one out to begin the rally, and Carter Pharis looped a single into left field while getting jammed on a 2-2 pitch. Outfielder Brandon Quaranta continued to punish opposing pitchers by ripping a three-run homer into the bullpen beyond the left-field fence.

Quaranta, who hit six homers in 20 regular season games, is batting .520 (13-for-25) in the playoffs with five home runs and 12 RBIs.

Waynesboro second baseman Sam Palensky goes over top of Strasburg's Carter Pharis during a pick off attempt at second base in third inning action Thursday night. Pharis was safe on the play. Rich Cooley/Daily

“I can’t even describe what he’s doing right now. It’s amazing,” said Pharis, who led Strasburg’s 10-hit attack with three hits, including a pair of doubles, and three runs scored.

Strasburg reclaimed the lead for good with three more runs off Sasse (3.1 innings, five earned runs, seven hits, two strikeouts) in the third inning, when Pharis started a two-out rally with a double down the left-field line, the first of four straight Strasburg hits.

Quaranta (2-for-3, four RBIs) followed by scorching a grounder that took a high hop off the chest of Waynesboro third baseman Trey Stine and skipped into the outfield for an RBI single. Dylan Ingram lined an RBI double to left, and an error on Michael Curry’s (2-for-4) single to left allowed Ingram to score for a 6-4 Express lead.

Strasburg added another run in the fifth when Pharis led off with a double to center, moved to third on Ingram’s fly out and scored on a wild pitch.

“I got into some good counts, just tried to put some good swings on it and luckily it found some barrel on each one of those,” said Pharis, who has hit safely in 13 straight games.

Quaranta came on in relief of Johnson with a runner on first and none out in the eighth inning and struck out the final four batters he faced to lock down the win for the Express.

“What a competitor,” Barnes said of Quaranta. “… Besides a baseball player and just being a competitor, what a wonderful young man. And that’s what I get to learn doing this, is that you get to learn things about some of these guys that other people in the stands don’t see. He is the epitome of a teammate. He does what he needs to do when he needs to do it, and he tries to pick teammates up.”

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