STRASBURG – Strasburg had become accustomed to being one of the best teams in the Valley Baseball League, winning back-to-back titles in 2015 and 2016 and playing in a third straight championship series last summer. After an uncharacteristically poor start to the 2018 season, the Express appear to be rediscovering their winning ways.

After picking up a 9-7 win over Woodstock on Tuesday night, Strasburg has won five of its last seven ballgames and is closing the gap on the fourth playoff spot in the North Division. The Express are 9-15 overall heading into Friday’s rematch with the River Bandits after beginning the season 4-13.

“We’re starting to play games now,” Express manager Anthony Goncalves said following Tuesday’s win, referring to the slew of rainouts that peppered the season’s first month, “and offensively we’re starting to kind of click. … That’s our strength, is offense, and we’re starting to figure out, our pitchers are now, what their role is and everything. Out of the pen, we’ve got three or four solid arms. Now we’ve just gotta keep it going.

“I told the guys, it’s a new season. Next game and let’s just run away.”

Though it was a win – over a Woodstock team that dropped to 3-19 with the loss – Tuesday’s victory still showed that Strasburg has plenty of room for more improvement. The Express had 13 hits and rallied from three different deficits but also committed two errors, had two runners picked off, stranded 11 men on base (eight in scoring position) and blew their own two-run lead in the eighth inning when reliever Trevis Sundgren – making his sixth appearance in 11 days – surrendered a trio of unearned runs.

“Our issue has been we could score two runs, we give up three runs. We could score one run; we give up three runs. That’s just summer ball,” Goncalves said. “… A lot of these pitchers, they don’t come out of the pen, and we have three or four guys who have that role, but with restrictions, you can’t throw them back-to-back. And defensively what we’ve done a better job of is the first two weeks we always had a bad inning. The last seven games we stopped that, that’s why we’ve won. We’ve played better in the last seven games.”

MIXED SUCCESS: Strasburg High School graduate and James Madison University senior left-hander Garrett Richards got the start for the Express against Woodstock and experienced a bit of good and bad on the mound.

Richards tossed five innings and left the game with the game tied 3-3 after allowing three earned runs on seven hits and striking out four. Though he didn’t walk a batter, he threw three wild pitches and needed 92 pitches to get through his five frames.

Richards also was late covering first base on Ramon Garza’s infield single in the top of the fourth inning, and the Woodstock shortstop eventually came around to score in the inning.

“To be honest, I think he hit three spots all game. I’m not kidding, and you could ask him,” Goncalves said. “But he battled. We needed innings out of a starter … and he went out there and got it done. He kept us in the game. That’s kind of our motto is keep us in the game until the bats get going. But he’s been fine all year. We brought him out of the bullpen (on Monday). That’s something maybe we’ll change up. Maybe we’ll bring him out of the pen a couple days before his start instead of the day before his start. But Garrett’s been good. He’s our little ringleader to get the guys going.”

For the season Richards is 0-1 with a 4.23 ERA and 16 strikeouts in five appearances (four starts) spanning 17 innings.

PICKING UP STEAM: The heroes of Monday’s walk-off win over Staunton stayed hot for the Express on Tuesday against Woodstock.

On the heels of a 4-for-5, two-homer effort Monday’s win, designated hitter Colton Schultz picked up three more hits in four at-bats on Tuesday night – including an infield single up the middle that drove in the tying run to set up Hogan Brown’s go-ahead two-run double in the eighth – to push his summer average to .358. Schultz has hit safely in nine straight games and has five multi-hit games and 11 of his 17 RBIs in that span.

Center fielder Justin Hayes, who delivered a walk-off grand slam to beat Staunton, added two more hits and an RBI in the win over the River Bandits to stretch his hitting streak to 11 games. Hayes has hit safely in 21 of 23 games this summer and is batting .337 with 18 RBIs.

“(Schultz) and Justin Hayes, they just keep it simple,” Goncalves said. “That’s why I have those guys now hitting three and four. They’re not your typical three-four hitters; they’re just guys that they’re consistently putting the ball in play. … Him and Justin have probably been our hottest, most consistent guys.”