STRASBURG, Va. - Strasburg picked up its first Valley Baseball League playoff victory in the team's history Sunday.
One day later, the Express added the first playoff series triumph in the franchise's short history to its list of milestones.
For the second straight night, Strasburg used a three-run home run to swing momentum in its favor and topped visiting Charles Town 4-3 Monday in the best-of-three series to advance to the North Division championship series.
Charles Town's Kraig Kelly slides safely into home on a wild pitch as Strasburg Express pitcher Adam Emerson tries to put on a tag during seventh-inning action Monday night in the Valley Baseball League playoffs. (Photo by Rich Cooley)
The Express will now await the winner of the Woodstock-Aldie series, which is tied at 1-1 after Aldie picked up a 6-5 win over the River Bandits Monday night.
"It's exciting for these guys and exciting for the fans," Express manager Butch Barnes said. "We get to play somebody; we just don't know who yet. I'll be honest with you - anybody can beat anybody on any given night. It all depends on matchups and executions, and right now we've been executing really well."
The loss ended the season for the Cannons, playing in their first year after moving from Luray, Va.
Strasburg executed well in all facets of Game 2 against the Cannons, but the Express did benefit from a little bit of luck in the top of the ninth inning.
Express reliever Daniel Bridgeman entered the game in the inning in a save situation with Strasburg up a run.
The inning began harmlessly enough for Bridgeman, as the righty from Radford University promptly got back-to-back strikeouts to open the frame.
Then things got interesting.
With two outs, Cannons leadoff man Emmanuel Marrero worked the count to 2-2 before lacing a line drive just out of reach of Strasburg second baseman Johnny Schiotis. The ball rolled all the way to the fence in right-center, and Marrero raced all the way to third base, where he slid in safely ahead of Schiotis' relay throw.
However, Schiotis' throw sailed high over the head of Express third baseman Cameron Johnson, and Marrero leapt up from his slide and took several steps toward home plate, anticipating an opportunity to score on Strasburg's misfire.
Fortunately for the Express, the ball caromed off the dugout wall and rolled right to Johnson on the bag at third, and Johnson tagged Marrero out to end the game.
"I was just thinking jump as high as I can and try to put a glove on it. It was literally a perfect bounce," Johnson, who was also 3 for 5 with a double at the plate, said. "I already had the ball when (Marrero rounded third), so I was kind of shocked at that moment and I was able to get him before he got back."
"(Marrero) made a good slide and he was safe on the base. I think he just got up and thought he had a little more room to work with to make a play," Cannons manager Bobby Rauh said. "He was just playing hard and trying to make a play to tie the game. That's all that was."
The dramatic ending seemed only fitting for a game that was close throughout, with both teams holding leads and neither side gaining an edge of more than two runs.
Charles Town was the first to strike, as cleanup man Cody Hoffner delivered a two-out RBI single to center field off Strasburg starter Ashton Fronsoe in the top of the first inning to plate L.K. Thompson and give the Cannons a 1-0 lead.
That lead wouldn't last long, however, as Strasburg manufactured a run of its own in the bottom of the inning off Cannons starter David Rumsey to tie the score.
Jordan Tarsovich worked the first of his four walks (three intentional) to start his team's rally and moved to third on a single by Patrick McGavin. Erik Armstrong then belted a long sacrifice fly to left field to score Tarsovich.
The Cannons regained the lead in the top of the third as they managed another run off Fronsoe on an RBI single by newly acquired catcher Matt Gandy.
Rumsey held Strasburg scoreless over the next three innings while working out of bases-loaded jams in the second and fourth innings.
The Express finally broke through in the bottom of the fifth on a big three-run homer by Tyler McDonald.
Rumsey (4 IP, nine hits, five walks, four earned runs) began the inning by striking out Johnson before issuing a walk and a single to put two runners on with one out. McDonald then gave Strasburg the lead for good when he sent Rumsey's 2-2 offering well over the fence in left field.
"I fell behind and I went with my two-strike approach, not trying to do too much. Just get the hands to the ball and good things happen," McDonald said. "As soon as it hit the bat, I knew it was gone."
Fronsoe pitched six innings for Strasburg to get the win, allowing just two earned runs on five hits and two walks. He also struck out three.
Charles Town managed a run in the seventh on a wild pitch by Express reliever Adam Emerson, but Evan Kirsch and Bridgeman combined to shut out the Cannons over the final two innings.
"Our pitching has been really good, and has been all year. When we get to the back end of our bullpen, we're really strong. And our guys believe in that," Barnes said. "We know it's a nine-inning game so we're just trying to keep it close ... keep us in striking distance."