By: Shelby Dermer (Cannons' broadcaster and beat writer)
The Purcellville Cannons ended the regular season by winning five of their last six contests to make their first year in Loudoun County a playoff-bound campaign, finishing the season with a 19-23 record and edging the New Market Rebels by one game for the fourth seed in the north division of the VBL playoffs.
Their opponent in the quarterfinals of the postseason is the defending VBL-champion Strasburg Express, a series that is set to start on Thursday night at First Bank Park.
Here is everything you need to know about the first-round matchup between the Cannons and the Express:
Coming off their first-ever VBL title in 2015, the Strasburg Express began their season with an 8-game winning streak from June 4th to June 13th that gave them a 9-1 record in their first 10 contests and they never looked back, cruising to a franchise-best 30-12 record, tied with the Waynesboro Generals for best in all of the Valley League.
Led by manager Butch Barnes, who coached the Northern division in the VBL All-Star game on July 10th in Harrisonburg, Strasburg kept the gas pedal down the entire season, finishing the year with a 9-2 record in their final 11 games.
At the plate
Strasburg comes into the playoffs holding a team batting average of .291 with a total of 421 hits, the most in all of the VBL while ranking second in runs scored with 280, second only to Waynesboro. The Express tallied double-digit run totals 10 times this summer, including a season-best 17-run explosion in a win at Woodstock on June 25th.
The threats Strasburg possesses can be seen throughout their lineup, starting with All-Star third baseman Carter Pharis, who ended the regular season hitting .342 with five home runs, 30 RBI and a team-best 53 hits. Starring as a double-threat at the plate and on the pitchers' mound, Brandon Quaranta joined the Express at the half-way point of the season on June 30th and immediately found himself as an everyday starter. In a 20-game stretch to conclude the regular season, Quaranta led Strasburg with a .375 batting average, six home runs and 24 runs knocked in.
First baseman Dylan Ingram earned an All-Star bid, too, and has lived up to the hype, hitting a team-high seven home runs and finishing tied with Pharis for the most RBI with 30.
Quaranta, Pharis and Ingram join teammates Tommy Richter, Erick Delgado and Michael Curry as the six starters in Strasburg's lineup that finished the regular season with a batting average that eclipsed .300.
From the leadoff spot, All-Star outfielder Haiden Lamb has been a threat as a hitter and as a base runner. Lamb finished the season hitting .277, scoring 30 runs and stealing 17 bases. He was only thrown out twice.
On the mound
Strasburg finished the season with a team ERA of 4.09, fourth best in the Valley League as they held the opposition to a .245 batting average. The team's lone shutout came on July 22nd vs. Staunton, a 9-0 Express victory.
In addition to his success at the plate, Quaranta has been stellar on the mound, posting a perfect 0.00 ERA in six games over a 7 1/3-inning span.
RHP Peyton Plumlee posted a 5-0 record in 9 games (six starts) this summer, tied with Stephen Xirinachs of the Front Royal Cardinals for the most in the division. Plumlee authored a 6-inning shutout of the Charlottesville Tom Sox on June 13th, a 6-1 Strasburg victory.
Fellow starter Benjamin Dum also had a perfect record, going 4-0 in seven starts and leading the Strasburg pitching staff with a 1.42 ERA.
Left-handed closer Abraham Almonte led the team with four saves, posting a 2.25 ERA in 13 appearances on the mound.
Strasburg lost two starters during their record-breaking season. Outfielder Donovan May, who helped lead the Express to a title a year ago, hit .272 with three home runs and 17 RBI left on July 15th and infielder Tyler Halas who hit .319 with a homer and 21 knocked in left on July 21st.
Utility infielder Joseph Fernando hit .278 in 13 games and left for the year on June 23rd.
On top of the aquisition of Quaranta who has starred as 2-way player, the Express made a big move in trading for outfielder Jacob Tisevich at the end of the year.
A native of North Canton, Ohio, Tisevich spent the year with the Woodstock River Bandits, hitting .282 with five home runs and 27 RBI and earned a bid to the All-Star game. Tisevich went 0-2 in his debut with the Express on Tuesday in an 11-5 win over the Cannons.
After losing infielder Bradley Dixon after just one game due to injury, Strasburg added Dixon's collegiate teammate at the College of Charleston, second baseman Tommy Richter. In 12 games with the Express, Richter hit .308 and had a key pinch-hit triple in Strasburg's thrilling 11-9 win over the Cannons on July 14th.
University of Washington product Alex Galgano joined the Express in mid-June as the team's backup catcher. He has hit .260 with a one long ball and 9 RBI in that span.
To say the Purcellville Cannons beginning of their first season back in Virginia was "tough-sledding" would be an understatement. After winning their home-opener against New Market on June 3rd, the Cannons suffered losing streaks of four (6/4-6/8) and six (6/15-6/21) games and ended the month of June in the cellar of the north division with a record of 7-16.
If one had to pick a specific date to pinpoint where Purcellville's season turned around, June 26th would be an attractive option. The team had just went 0-3 over the weekend and lost to the Waynesboro Generals on the road, 6-3, to fall a season-worst 10 games below .500 at 5-15. The very next day, however, they returned home to beat the Charlottesville Tom Sox 5-2 and followed that with a season-high 15 runs in a win at Woodstock, a victory that snapped an 8-game road losing skid.
When July rolled around, Purcellville began their postseason march. The Cannons finished July with a record of 12-7 and did most of their damage at home, posting a 9-1 record at Fireman's Field.
Down the stretch, the Cannons defeated New Market twice and went on a season-high 5-game winning streak to help them leapfrog the Rebels for the final playoff spot.
At the plate
The Cannons finished the season with a .260 team batting average, 6th in the Valley League. Infielder Raul Cabrera began the season with the team and his hitting down the stretch helped lead the Cannons to the postseason. On June 27th, Cabrera sat at a .246 batting average, but over the final month of action the Miami-Dade product increased that average by 80 points to .326 to end the season as the team's leader in hits with 44.
Outfielder Ray Hernandez was one of three All Stars selected from the Cannons, mostly from his power at the plate. Hernandez tallied a 17-game hitting streak that ended in a 5-2 win over Woodstock on July 1st. He hit four home runs and knocked in 21 RBIs after joining the team in the second week of the season.
Third baseman Tyler Ratliff joined the Cannons on June 26th and was arguably the biggest key for the team's postseason run. Ratliff hit a 3-run home run in his first home at-bat on June 27th against Charlottesville, then went on to hit two more home runs against the Tom Sox on July 20th. In 20 games with the club, Ratliff hit .414 with four homers and a team-high 22 RBIs.
Catcher Onassis Matos knocked in 18 runs and hit one home run in 32 games with the team, hitting .273.
On the mound
The Cannons were led by strong starting pitching down the stretch to help them earn the number four seed in the playoffs. Purcellville was 9-0 in the month of July when their starting pitcher lasted five or more innings, compared to a 3-7 record when their starter threw less than five frames.
In a pair of "must-win" matchups against New Market in the final two weeks of the season, LHP Pat Doudican started both, allowing just two earned runs over a 13-inning span to help the Cannons win both games.
Fellow left-hander Alex London posted an impressive 7-innning, 1-hit shutout of the Front Royal Cardinals in the team's lone shutout victory of the season, 1-0, on July 3rd.
RHP Matt Copley made the transition from the bullpen to the rotation in late June and was a quality innings-eater for manager Brett Fuller. In his final five games, Copley was 2-1 with a 3.75 ERA, which included back-to-back 7-inning outings in wins over Woodstock on July 1st and Harrisonburg on July 13th.
What was most impressive from the Cannons' pitching staff was the bullpen, which was the Achilles' heel of the team in June but turned into their saving grace in July.
Closer Will Reed has been lights out on the mound, tallying a division-best seven saves. After blowing his only save opportunity of the year on June 25th at New Market, Reed lowered his ERA from 3.18 to a team-best 0.82 mark to finish the season and did not allow a run over his last nine outings where he struck out 26 batters over 16 1/3 innings.
Ratliff also worked as a pitcher over the last two weeks. In three games he did not allow a run while striking out 10 and nailing down a pair of saves.
Reliever Tyler Yancey was the lone All-Star from the Cannons' pitching staff. He appeared in a team-high 16 games, making two starts and posting a 3.47 ERA over 33 2/3 innings on the mound.
The Cannons two All-star outfielders from Alabama State, Hernandez and DeAndre Amion, left the team in the final week of the season, a big loss for two players that combined for 66 hits, 36 runs scored and 34 RBI.
Team captain PJ Harris left the club on July 17th, while other utility players like Sage Bruhl, Joe Champi and Charlie Watters also left in July.
Purcellville's pitching staff endured a few losses, too. Starter Brandon Caples, who threw the team's only complete-game of the season on June 27th and threw 8 innings in the team's only win over Strasburg, was traded to Harrisonburg on July 13th and relievers Billy Cox, Carter Bair, Daniel Gooden and Andrew Green have since left, as well.
While Ratliff may have been the biggest addition to the Cannons, other key guys both in the field and on the mound have come in to anchor the team's run to postseason play.
Wade Arduini, a member of Strasburg's championship club from a year ago, joined the Cannons in mid-June. After making three starts on the mound, Arduini found a home at first base for the rest of the season, where he made just two errors in 22 games while hitting .234 with 8 RBI and 8 runs scored.
With Amion and Hernandez gone for the season and DeAires Moses drafted early in the year by the Seattle Mariners, a slew of outfielders have arrived in Loudoun County to the Cannons and helped replace some production:
Denathan Dukes (Norfolk State University): .214 average, six runs scored, 3 RBI in nine games
David Salgueiro (LSU Shreveport): .296 average, seven runs scored, seven stolen bases in 12 games
Andrew Zban (Marshall University): .286 average, 5 RBI, 13 runs scored in 20 games
In one of the final moves of the summer, Purcellville brought in infielder Marques Inman from West Virginia University, who hit .333 in the Cal Ripkins League as a member of the DC Grays earlier in the summer.
In three games, Inman went 5-for-10 at the plate with two doubles and a run scored, including a 3-3 performance in the team's playoff-clinching win over Winchester on Monday.
On the mound, the Cannons added three right-handed hurlers in the final month of the regular season; Kevin Fuentes (Santa Fe Community College), Nicholas McIntyre (University of Mary Washington) and Colin Benner (Shepherd College).
The Express have to be happy to clinch home-field advantage throughout the playoffs with the number-one seed. Strasburg finished the regular season with a record of 18-3 at their home venue. Meanwhile, the Cannons have struggled on the road this year with a record of 5-16.
In the six meetings between these two teams in the regular season, Strasburg pulled out a 5-1 record and outscored the Cannons, 47-30. Purcellville's lone loss at home this seas was to the Express, 11-9, on July 14th when Strasburg scored three times in the top of the ninth after the Cannons had erased a 7-run deficit.
However, the Cannons have to feel good facing the Express despite losing all but one of their 6 previous engagements. Four of the six games against Strasburg were decided by three runs or less.
Game 1 of the playoff matchup is scheduled for 7 pm on Thursday at First Bank Park in Strasburg.