EXPRESS_BLALOCK

Strasburg’s Hunter Blalock is greeted by teammates after a fourth inning home run during a game earlier this season at Rebel Park in New Market.

After a 9-0 win over Winchester on July 8, Strasburg boasted the best record in the Valley Baseball League and held a five-game lead over Woodstock for first place in the North Division. The Express are now trying to survive an untimely slide and keep its grip on its division lead.

Since improving to 19-7 overall with that win over the Royals, Strasburg has lost six of eight games and saw its lead dwindle to a half-game earlier this week. Heading into Friday, that lead was back up to two games after Strasburg’s win over Harrisonburg on Wednesday (the Express were off on Thursday) and two straight Woodstock losses.

Strasburg’s skid included a five-game losing streak that ended with a pair of losses to Woodstock in a doubleheader last weekend.

Express manager Brock Moss said on Thursday that his squad “just kind of hit that summer lull.”

“It happens to every team at some point, it seems like, in the league. Just for us, unfortunately, we didn’t have it at the beginning. Unfortunately, we had it in this middle stretch of the summer here right before playoffs hit. Just weren’t playing very well for about a week. We had a chance to win two for sure, maybe three games, and we just didn’t get it done and it resulted in a five-game losing streak. We’re just trying to get back to work and play good in all facets of the game and hopefully crank out a couple more wins again.”

Strasburg’s offense has come back to life in the last three games, as the Express scored eight runs apiece in wins over Charlottesville and Harrisonburg – tallying 13 and 14 hits, 10 for extra bases in the two wins – and tallying 10 hits in a 7-3 loss to Waynesboro on Tuesday.

But the Express, which is averaging 6.3 runs per game this season, lost their way at the plate during their losing streak and averaged just 3.8 runs per contest during that stretch.

“Definitely during our dip, we couldn’t score once we got guys on,” Moss said. “We were pretty good about getting guys on but, for a perfect example, we had a nine-inning stretch where we loaded the bases three times with no outs and twice with one out, so five times total in nine innings we loaded the bases and we only scored two runs in those nine innings. Any time you’re getting ducks on the pond and you can’t score them, it’s just, I don’t want to use the word ‘demoralizing,’ but it makes it a lot harder to win and it kind of sets a tone there.”

Fourteen errors in its last eight games have compounded the issue for Strasburg.

POWER SUPPLY: Strasburg outfielder Tyler Johnson continues to mash this summer, and his homer against Harrisonburg on Wednesday night gave him nine on the season, tied for the most in the Valley League.

Johnson, a sophomore who played junior college ball last season at Eastern Oklahoma State College, is batting .320 with 21 RBIs and 23 runs scored in 28 games for the Express this summer.

He’s hit five of his nine home runs in the last eight games and has 11 RBIs – including a trio of three-RBI games – in that span. Johnson has five multi-hit games in his last nine contests, including three games with three hits and a four-hit effort in Wednesday’s win.

“He’s been on a tear,” Moss said. “He’s a game changing-type bat. He was a power-five player coming out of high school and it just didn’t work out at the school he was at. Went to junior college, had a monstrous year and ended up being a power-five player again. He’s fielding those offers right now and he’s gonna be there. But I definitely feel like he’s a guy if he’s maturing, takes care of business and keeps working hard, which I have no doubt he will because he’s that type of kid, he’s gonna have a chance to play professionally one day. The bat’s got a lot of whip. He’s got real strength, and when he really just has a good approach and is selective on pitches to hit he goes on a tear like he’s on right now. Hopefully, for us, he can continue that tear. It would be nice to have that bat stay hot going into the playoffs.”

STRUGGLES ON THE MOUND: Strasburg’s pitching staff holds the rare distinction of having thrown two combined no-hitters this season, but since four pitchers teamed up to hold Winchester hitless on July 8, the Express’ pitching hasn’t been quite so dominant.

Though Strasburg entered Friday with the second-best team ERA in the VBL (4.02), the Express held a 6.01 ERA over the previous eight games. Express pitchers have also walked 42 batters in 67 ⅓ innings spanning those eight contests.

Moss said Strasburg has lost four of its best pitchers since the start of the season – two of them to injury – including two of the team’s top starters and two key bullpen pieces.

“We’re down four of our better arms, and again just hitting that lull where guys are tired, it’s hard to stay focused, you’re trying to keep the team together just to get to the playoffs,” Moss said. “It’s just kind of everything combined and truth to the matter as well, we just haven’t pitched as good lately. We haven’t been very efficient, we’re starting to walk guys again and we’re throwing a lot of very hittable, hittable pitches up the zone. And kudos to the other team, they’re making us pay.”

INJURY REPORT: Moss said Strasburg lost starting catcher Nick Toney for the rest of the summer to an ankle sprain he suffered sliding into second base during the Southeast Collegiate Prospect Showcase on Monday in Clary, North Carolina.

Toney, a sophomore from Florida Atlantic, hit .286 with five homers and 18 RBIs in 20 games for the Express.

– Contact Brad Fauber at bfauber@nvdaily.com