Strasburg and Woodstock have spent all summer in a race to see which team is the best in the Valley Baseball League’s North Division. One of those two squads will walk away with a division title this week.
The two Shenandoah County rivals opened a best-of-three series in the North Division finals in Strasburg on Tuesday evening (results were not available at press time), with the series winner advancing to the Valley Baseball League championship series against the South champ later this week.
This season marks the first time Strasburg and Woodstock have met in the playoffs since Strasburg joined the VBL in 2011.
The Express have been a mainstay in the division championship series and are making their sixth trip to the North Division finals in the last seven years. Woodstock, meanwhile, hadn’t made the playoffs since 2015 prior to locking up the second seed in the North this summer while posting its first winning record since 2013.
River Bandits first-year manager Mike Bocock, who has won a record seven VBL titles as a head coach for four other organizations, has Woodstock on the cusp of a championship series berth just a year after winning only five games in what was one of the worst seasons in Valley League history in 2018.
“I think they’re elated,” Bocock said of members of the Woodstock organization and the Bandits’ fan base on Tuesday morning before his team made the short trip to Strasburg for the start of the division championship series. “They’ve worked hard. I’ve been with a couple organizations and stuff in the league and I still think (Woodstock general manager) Porky Bowman is the hardest-working guy in the league. They’re humble people. They’re good people, and I’m excited to put a team out there and win for them.
“I think that they in turn have – it takes more than just guys on the field to win in the Valley League. I know I keep saying this, but I mean it: it takes the host families, the organization, everything involved to get a winner in the Valley League. I know that Jay Neal in Strasburg, they’ve found the recipe, they know what it’s like. And I’m happy to bring that recipe to Woodstock and Porky and them. I’m enjoying it. I’m very proud to be a Woodstock River Bandit.”
Strasburg missed out on the playoffs in 2018 but has had tremendous success since its inaugural season in 2011. The Express won the North Division pennant this season for the second time in the past four years, and they’re hunting their fifth trip to the VBL championship series.
First-year manager Brock Moss said on Tuesday morning that there is “absolutely” a certain set of expectations that come with being a member of the Express organization.
“I knew that coming into the hiring process that whoever they hired next, there were expectations that they were gonna compete not only for a North Division title but a Valley League title as well,” he said. “That’s been pretty clear from the start and now that we’ve had the opportunity to meet those expectations, it’s a pretty good feeling.”
Strasburg and Woodstock were the clear leaders in the North all summer, evidenced by the six games that separated those two teams from the rest of the division at the end of the regular season and the quick work both teams made of their opponents in their respective first-round playoff matchups on Sunday and Monday.
The Express held off a Woodstock surge down the stretch to win the North Division pennant, though the River Bandits held a 4-2 mark against Strasburg in the regular season.
“We were trying to win the pennant. We didn’t,” said Bocock, whose team finished a game back of the Express in the pennant race. “Congratulations to Strasburg, they earned it. But we’re coming after them. I mean, they’re a good team and we’ve been playing well. Since June 29, we’re 17-5. We’re probably one of the better teams in the league since June 29.”
The county rivalry aspect – less than 12 miles separate the two towns – adds more intrigue to the North Division finals for fans and the local members of both organizations.
“I’ve learned in a quick period of time that it is a rivalry,” Bocock said, “and I think there will be a lot of people there at the games the next couple nights. I think both teams will represent the North as well as can be expected.”
“I’m an outsider making this comment but you have two teams that are 10 minutes apart,” Moss said. “I definitely think that it kind of helps in terms of fan base and the ability to kind of have an extra, I guess, atmosphere, positive-type atmosphere. Hopefully, that does. It’ll definitely be fun to go out and play in front of 600, 700 people if we have that opportunity.”
Strasburg tallied 18 runs in two games against No. 4 Winchester to open the playoffs, posting wins of 8-4 and 10-8 to sweep the best-of-three series.
Woodstock opened the playoffs with a 10-8 win over New Market on Sunday and completed the two-game sweep by scoring five runs over the final three innings on Monday night to rally for a 5-4 win.
Game 2 of the North Division finals will take place at Woodstock at 7 p.m. Wednesday, with an if-necessary Game 3 set for 7 p.m. Thursday at Strasburg.
In the South, Staunton upset top-seeded Waynesboro – which led the VBL with a 31-11 record in the regular season – in two games, while Charlottesville and Covington met in a decisive Game 3 of their first-round series on Tuesday night for the chance to take on Staunton in the South finals.