Two days after leading the Strasburg Express to the 2021 Valley Baseball League title, manager George Laase said “it’s still surreal.”
Laase, who has been a mainstay in the VBL since joining the league as a player in 2003, left the Staunton Braves two years ago to take over as the manager of the Express. In his first season at the helm (COVID-19 forced the cancellation of the 2020 Valley League season), he guided Strasburg to its third championship and the first since the Express won back-to-back titles in 2015 and 2016.
Strasburg’s 2-0 championship series victory over Waynesboro — which culminated in a 4-0 win on the Generals’ home field on Saturday night — capped what was a clean sweep through the playoffs for the Express, who went a perfect 6-0 in the postseason after winning the North Division’s regular-season race by a half-game with a 26-15 record.
“It was a lot of validation because these are some of the best players in the nation. Some of them are gonna go on and play in the major leagues, and to be able to coach them and pass the game onto the next generation is just a gift from God,” Laase said on Monday. “I can’t thank the Strasburg organization enough — (President/CEO) Jay Neal, (General Manager) Parker Neal, Matt Neal and the Board of Directors — and the support the community gave us this year has just been incredible. It’s what summer baseball is supposed to be.”
The Express, who have reached the VBL’s championship series six times in the last eight seasons, opened the 2021 playoffs with a two-game sweep of New Market and did the same to a streaking Winchester squad in the best-of-three North Division championship series.
Waynesboro, which had shocked VBL frontrunner Charlottesville with a sweep in the first round of the playoffs and beat Staunton in three games to reach the VBL championship series, didn’t fare any better than Strasburg’s North Division foes.
The Express opened the championship series at home on Friday night with a 7-3 win, getting a solid start from Daniel Ouderkirk (a Spotswood High grad and West Virginia University redshirt sophomore), 3⅔ scoreless innings of relief from Trevor Sharp and Geo Rivera and a five-RBI performance from Graham Brown, who homered twice and doubled in the win.
Brown, who has transferred from Potomac State to Coastal Carolina, finished the postseason with 11 hits in 25 at-bats (a .440 average), three home runs, 10 RBIs, nine runs scored and four stolen bases.
“Probably one of the biggest impacts during the playoffs was Graham Brown,” Laase said. “... That guy was on a different level when he’s locked in. He really carried us through the first couple games of the playoffs.”
Though Strasburg is known for a power-hitting offense that capitalizes on the cozy confines of First Bank Park, Laase said it was pitching that proved the biggest asset to the Express’ postseason run this summer, and it certainly proved pivotal in Saturday’s title clincher.
Strasburg seized the lead quickly in Game 2 when Brayton Brown led off the game with a triple and scored on Tripp McKinlay’s RBI single, and the Express added another run in the sixth before Cameron Clonch and Zach Ketterman clubbed back-to-back solo homers in the seventh.
That proved to be plenty of run support for Strasburg, which saw Dalton Skinner — who was making just his second start of the summer — toss five shutout innings before Matthew Kleinfelter, Robert Kelley, Matt Poston and Ryan Ammons each three a scoreless inning of relief in the 4-0 win.
Laase credited Butch Barnes — Strasburg’s director of baseball operations and former manager who also took on the role of pitching coach this summer — for lining up the Express’ pitching staff in preparation for the playoffs. Strasburg, which pitched to a collective 4.40 ERA and led the VBL with 434 strikeouts in 41 regular-season games, had a 3.50 ERA and 70 strikeouts in 54 playoff innings while holding opponents to a .193 batting average.
“We had some frontline guys that were dynamic, like Rhett Lowder from Wake Forest and Daniel Ouderkirk from West Virginia,” said Laase, who added that pitchers like Jacob Cravey and James Madison University’s Donovan Burke gave “major-league performances” all summer. “They did a great job, and we had some unsung heroes throughout the way that I think if you predicted at the beginning of the year that they weren’t gonna be major players, but they actually factored in and played a major part.”
Among those “unsung heroes,” Laase said, were Sharp, Rivera and Skinner, who was still looking for a new school as the VBL season neared and ended up with an offer from the University of Alabama at Birmingham in time to join the Express for the summer.
“When the time came, we knew that (Skinner) was gonna be a guy that you could trust to call on to pitch the championship-clinching game because he had the chip on his shoulder,” Laase said. “A lot of these players that didn’t go to the major conferences, they played with a little bit extra because they needed to prove to themselves that they belonged with anybody on the field. And they did.”
Strasburg’s offense stayed true to its formula in 2021, as the Express led the VBL in homers (51) and slugging percentage (.423) during the regular season and belted 11 home runs and scored 59 runs in six playoff games.
“Our hitting was out of this world,” Laase said.
Third baseman Ryan Galanie, Laase said, had an MVP-caliber year after batting .383 with seven homers, 26 RBIs, 42 runs scored and 19 stolen bases during the regular season (he hit .480 with a homer, four RBIs and 10 runs scored in the playoffs), and outfielders Chad Fairey (11 home runs) and Brown (10) finished one and two in the league in homers. McKinlay joined that trio as the non-pitchers to earn All-VBL honors for the Express, and Laase added that Eric Toth brought a confident bat to Strasburg’s lineup as well.
“When you put that lineup together and you can mix in a couple different integral parts, you knew that the players were going to play hard. It’s just a matter of trying to make sure they get enough reps,” Laase said. “Keeping them happy and managing the egos was a major factor into our success this year and a lot of the success goes to how well the players meshed and how much they had a vision of staying and winning it for the town and for each other.”
On a personal level, the VBL title meant a great deal to Laase. He reached the league semifinals as a player in 2003, he said, lost in the championship series as an assistant coach the following year and was Staunton’s manager in 2015 when the Braves fell to Strasburg in the finals.
“I’ve been chasing it for a while and to get the opportunity to finally bag one has been a dream come true,” said Laase, who lives in Grottoes, teaches and coaches at Staunton High School and noted that the only obstacle to him taking the Express job two years ago was the amount of travel it would require.
“A lot of credit goes to (my family) for being the backbone of support and for allowing me to chase the dream of winning a championship, and just being a coach,” he said. “There are a lot of people that get you to where you’re at today and I’m thankful for everybody that gave me the opportunities and I’m thankful for the struggle, because without the struggle you don’t appreciate the good times as much.”