STRASBURG – Strasburg isn’t quite out of the Valley Baseball League playoff picture with a week remaining in the regular season, but time is rapidly working against the Express.
Following Wednesday’s 3-2 win over Charlottesville, Strasburg was four games back of New Market for the fourth and final playoff spot in the North Division with nine games left. A postseason absence would be a step back for the Express, who have won two VBL championships and played for another over the past three summers, and outfielder/designated hitter Colton Schultz said before Wednesday’s contest that Strasburg has reached the point in the season where it’s “now or never.”
“Still pushing hard, but I guess you don’t wanna just have that on the forefront. But it’s definitely in the back of our minds that we gotta kind of get it going and hope some other teams don’t play as well as they have been here late,” Schultz, a rising junior at University of Alabama at Birmingham said. “But I guess at the end of the day just gotta let things work themselves out and control what we can control just from that aspect of things.”
Strasburg’s fate, manager Anthony Goncalves said before his team’s tilt with the TomSox, rests on the arms of a pitching staff that has posted some of the worst collective stats in the Valley League this season.
Chance Hroch, a right-hander from New Mexico State University, delivered just what the Express needed against Charlottesville, tossing eight innings while allowing two runs (one earned) on one hit and four strikeouts. But Strasburg needs more of that, plus a more stable late-inning presence from a bullpen that had allowed 13 runs (10 earned) in 18 2/3 innings over the previous four games before Matthew Martin’s scoreless ninth inning on Wednesday.
“It’s what I’ve been saying from the beginning of the year: whoever has the most pitching has a shot to win, and we haven’t lost anybody,” Goncalves said. “If you look at the lineup card, we have every guy here. There’s a couple guys that are home, position guys that are taking care of some school stuff, but they’ll be back in a couple days. We just need the pitching to click.
“If our pitching figures it out I see us hitting our way back in there,” he added. “And then in the playoffs, you’ve seen it the last couple years, whoever has the most pitching has a shot to win it.”
Wednesday’s win snapped a three-game losing streak, and the Express were just 2-5 in their last seven entering Thursday’s game at Staunton.
HOT BATS: Offensive production has been less of an issue for Strasburg in recent weeks, thanks in part to the play of a trio of outfielders – Schultz, Hogan Brown (VCU) and Kieton Rivers (Coastal Carolina) – who have enjoyed extended hot streaks at the plate.
Schultz, the team’s batting average leader, batted .443 (27-for-61) in a 15-game stretch that began on June 25 and ran through Wednesday’s win. Since the start of July, Brown and Rivers were batting .410 and .370, respectively, entering Thursday.
“Hogan’s a guy that had a really good spring season, obviously. He was a freshman All-American. And he didn’t do much once the season ended, so he was almost like Colton where he needed to get his timing down. And he just had the worst luck. I mean he was squaring balls up at guys or just his timing was off. He couldn’t get in a groove and the last couple weeks, he’s been hot,” Goncalves said.
“Rivers is a guy that had impressive numbers in the spring. It took him two games where he was 1-for-4, 1-for-5 with a bunch of strikeouts and then he started being aggressive early in the count. If you’re aggressive early in the count, you’re not gonna strike out, and he started barreling up balls.”
HOME COOKING: The Express have reversed the ill fortunes that plagued them at home earlier in the season, as they’ve gone 5-1 in their last six games at First Bank Park after winning just two of their first nine contests there to start the summer. That reversal is timely given that Strasburg plays five of its final eight games – including four of its last five – at home.
Strasburg plays New Market at First Bank Park on Friday with a chance to gain a game on the Rebels, and the Express host Winchester – which entered Thursday in third place in the North with only a half-game lead over New Market – twice next week.
Though Strasburg is allowing a whopping 9.1 runs per game at home this season, Goncalves said playing at First Bank Park “absolutely” helps the Express’ cause over the final week.
“In this ballpark offensively, everybody has the confidence,” Goncalves said. “No lead is safe in this ballpark – I can tell you that from the other side in games where we’re up eight or nine runs and then we give it up. But I think the guys are excited. … When we play here, we’re just a different team, and we have confidence.”