Express looking to make big playoff push in final week of VBL season

STRASBURG – The Strasburg Express have an uphill climb to make if they want to take the final playoff spot in the North Division of the Valley Baseball League.

STRASBURG – The Strasburg Express have an uphill climb to make if they want to take the final playoff spot in the North Division of the Valley Baseball League.

The Express, who have been in the VBL championship game the last three seasons, are three games out of the fourth and final playoff spot in the North Division. Strasburg has six games left, while fourth-place Winchester has four. The two teams are scheduled to play at Strasburg today.

Strasburg coach Anthony Goncalves said the team is still upbeat this week entering the final week of the regular season.

“The guys, they know what’s in front of them,” Goncalves said. “They’re just trying to finish off the week. They’re enjoying each other and hopefully, we can win some ball games. And if we do get a little bit of help, you never know what could happen.”

Due to rainouts, the Express, who won back-to-back VBL championships in 2015 and 2016, have the most games remaining of all the teams in the league. Over the weekend, the league announced it was adding two days to the regular season. The regular season was originally supposed to end on Thursday but will now end on Saturday. However, if any games are not played by Saturday night, they will not be made up.

Goncalves said they can’t control the weather, but he said his team’s slow start to the season is what put them in the hole they’re in now.

“When you get off to a bad start this is what happens,” Goncalves said. “We’re playing better the last couple of weeks. …We’re not worried about what other teams are doing. We’re just trying to play good baseball, good pitching and just get some timely hits.”

Goncalves said Strasburg’s pitching has been improving, despite its 6.75 team ERA. The pitching staff has been led by Chance Hroch (University of Charleston) who has a team-best ERA of 2.91 and 33 strikeouts in 37 innings pitched.

2015 Strasburg High School Graduate Garrett Richards (James Madison University) has 24 strikeouts in 24 innings and an ERA of 4.12. Goncalves said that both Hroch and Richards should get one more start each this week.

On Monday, the Express got a solid five-inning effort from starting pitcher Josh Wilson (Florida A&M) in a key 6-3 victory over Winchester.

Offensively, the Express have been pretty strong all season. Colton Schultz (University of Alabama-Birmingham) has led the way. He is batting .348 (39-for-112) with three homers, 24 RBIs and 28 runs scored.

The Express have had plenty of depth on offense with productive seasons from Kieton Rivers (Coastal Carolina University), Ryan Hogan (St. John’s University) and Justin Hayes (Norfolk State University).

“We have seven or eight guys that we put out there every single day that will give us a chance to win,” Goncalves said. “And then again we also have a couple other guys that we can mix in there that can bring different tools and different traits and help out.”

The Express (15-21) will need things to break their way if they are going to catch Winchester for the final playoff spot. However, if the start to the week is any indication things might be looking up for Strasburg.

On Sunday, the Express ended it’s 5-3 victory over Harrisonburg with a triple play. With the bases loaded and no outs, Strasburg right fielder Rivers made a stellar catch to start it off. Harrisonburg’s runners were caught off guard thinking that Rivers wouldn’t make the catch. He then threw to first for the second out. The Express then threw to second, but the runner at second was ruled safe. The Harrisonburg runner on third tried to score, but Strasburg shortstop Griffin Cheney (Georgia State University) threw home to catcher Jimmy Jeffries (University of Alabama Birmingham) who made the tag for the final out.

“I couldn’t believe it, finally the ball is bouncing our way,” Goncalves said of the triple play. “It sucks that it’s the last week, but that was something I had never seen before. That just tells you the kind of guys we are and how headsy they are. We’re starting to know each other and everything. That was a pretty cool way to win a ballgame.”

Strasburg’s scheduled home game with Winchester on Monday was moved to Winchester due to Strasburg’s field being unplayable. Goncalves said he hated giving up a home game, but it turned out pretty well for the Express. Strasburg won the game, which lasted only six innings due to rain. Strasburg’s game at Purcellville on Tuesday was postponed due to rain. Three of Strasburg’s final five games are scheduled at home, where Goncalves said they have played well this season.

Goncalves said that the team has only had a couple players leave this season due to injuries, and they could help the Express down the stretch.

He said that if the Express can make the playoffs, he likes their chances in the postseason.

“We’ll have the pitching,” Goncalves said. “Even though that’s been our weakness, we’ll have a number of guys. And whoever has the most pitching at the end of the day always has a shot.”