Strasburg secured a spot in the Valley Baseball League championship series last Friday when it walked off with a win over Woodstock in the decisive Game 3 of the North Division finals. The Express have since played a waiting game.
With Mother Nature wreaking havoc on the VBL’s South Division, Strasburg did not know until Monday night who it would face for the Jim Lineweaver Cup when it hosted Game 1 of the best-of-3 on Tuesday. Charlottesville hosted Staunton on Monday night in the deciding game of the South finals, a series drawn out first by rain-outs in the South semifinals and again by another postponement of Game 2 on Saturday. The result of Monday’s game wasn’t available at press time.
At a point in the summer-league season when many players are heading home and eyes start turning to the start of school on the horizon, the Express sat through a three-day layoff that could at the same time be a gift and pose a threat to Strasburg’s championship hopes.
It’s the same situation another Shenandoah County team, New Market, faced a year ago when it had four days off before sweeping Charlottesville in two games for the VBL title.
“We’re gonna swing the bats here and try to get the bodies moving and hopefully combat the off days as best we can in terms of sitting around,” Express manager Brock Moss said on Monday morning. “But also at the same time, those off days are kind of a blessing in disguise, especially this late to be able to get time off for the guys and allow those bodies to kind of heal up. It’s a good thing and we’re gonna take it as a positive.”
Strasburg has already shown a bit of resiliency this postseason.
After sweeping Winchester in two games to start the playoffs, the Express were thumped, 18-7, by a surging Woodstock squad in Game 1 of the North division championship but rebounded to win the next two games.
In Game 2 last Thursday, Strasburg broke a 3-3 tie in the top of the ninth inning and saw Woodstock put the leadoff man on third base in the bottom half before holding on for a 4-3 win. In Friday’s Game 3, Woodstock erased the Express’ seven-run lead in the seventh and eighth innings before Strasburg won it, 11-10, in the bottom of the ninth.
“This group of guys, they love to win,” Moss said. “They never believe they’re out of a game and just at the end of the day they’re kind of willing to do whatever it takes to win, man. They play hard, they fight to the very last pitch and they just compete at all times. When you play hard and let the chips fall where they may, it kind of allows you to relax and play the game and not put too much pressure on yourself at any given time. Again, like I said, you can’t speak enough about the resiliency of these guys and the way they compete and play the game.”
Strasburg met Charlottesville and Staunton three times each in the regular season, going 2-1 against the Tom Sox and 0-3 against the Braves.
Moss said Tuesday’s Game 1 starter would be Furman University right-hander Mason Kenney, who is 4-1 with a 3.63 ERA and 27 strikeouts in 39 ⅔ innings for the Express this summer. Moss added that Strasburg’s coaching staff had not yet settled on a Game 2 starter on Monday morning, though he said the ball would likely go to right-hander Jordan Patterson (Hood College) on Wednesday if there aren’t any concerns about Patterson’s pitch count.
In 47 total games played this summer, Strasburg’s offense is averaging 6.6 runs per contest, has hit 60 home runs and is batting .285 collectively. The Express have scored 40 runs in five playoff games and are hitting .314 as a team with nine homers.
Three Strasburg players — catcher Holden Fiedler (.600 batting average, four RBIs), utilityman Bryson Horne (.478, three RBIs) and first baseman Sonny Dicharia (.471, three homers, nine RBIs) — are batting over .470 in the playoffs, and outfielder Tyler Johnson has hit 10 homers this summer.
No VBL team is spared from diminishing rosters at this point in the year, and Moss said he anticipates Strasburg will lose some players in the coming days, possibly before the VBL championship series ends.
“We’re gonna end up having a couple guys go home here, I think, in the next couple days,” Moss said. “But hopefully this roster can just kind of do what it’s done all year. When guys get shoved into a different role, they’re just ready to get going and step up and compete in a role for the team.”
Strasburg will travel for Game 2 on Wednesday and return home to First Bank Park — where the Express are 18-6 this summer, the best home record in the VBL — for an if-necessary Game 3 on Thursday. The Valley League season can’t run past Friday, which could create some problems for the championship series if rain-outs remain a problem.
Strasburg is making its fourth appearance in the Valley League championship series in the last five seasons and its fifth such appearance since joining the league in 2011. The Express won VBL titles in 2015 and 2016.
Moss said last week that he knew when he signed on to coach the Express the high expectations that come with managing the team, and he now has Strasburg within reach of its third championship.
“It’s a good feeling,” he said. “Obviously it’s an organization that’s got a great tradition and history so far since it came into existence in the league, so to be able to have the opportunity to keep that tradition alive is something that you can be proud of and hang your hat on.”