Rams win Conference 35 title

George Mason's Logan Nesson rolls over after tagging out Strasburg's Eric Reynolds on a fourth inning steal attempt at second base during Conference 35 tournament championship Thursday night in Strasburg. Rich Cooley/Daily

STRASBURG – It wasn’t in Strasburg’s plan for Ryan Bowers to pitch the bulk of the innings during Thursday’s Conference 35 baseball tournament championship against visiting George Mason. But with senior Garrett Richards’ start cut short due to illness, Rams coach Jeff Smoot turned to Bowers – and the sophomore delivered.

Bowers shut out the No. 3 Mustangs over his five innings of work after coming on in relief, boosting Strasburg to a 2-1 win as the top-seeded Rams defended their Conference 35 championship and earned a home game in Monday’s Region 2A East quarterfinal game against Wilson Memorial.

And rarely were any of those five innings easy for Bowers. The sophomore right-hander worked out of jams in each of his first four innings, stranding at least one George Mason runner in scoring position each time. Twice Bowers worked out of bases-loaded situations without allowing a run, and his only clean inning was a six-pitch top of the seventh to lock up the victory.

“He was real good,” Smoot said. “I mean, you win and you lose together but Ryan Bowers was special tonight. He just was. Every time he had to make a pitch he made it. He was just really, really special.”

Richards, Strasburg’s No. 2 starter, lasted only two-plus innings on Thursday night as he continues to battle a virus and surrendered George Mason’s only run of the game on Logan Nesson’s RBI groundout in the top of the second inning.

Strasburg's Ryan Smoot rounds third base as he watches Joshua Pruitt's double bounce in the outfield during third-inning action Thursday night in Strasburg. Smoot's run proved to be the game-winner as Strasburg defeated George Mason 2-1 during the Conference 35 tournament championship. Rich Cooley/Daily

Richards’ third walk of the game to lead off the third inning prompted Smoot to turn to Bowers, who saw George Mason (19-5) load the bases with one out following a sacrifice bunt, a single by Chris Meador and a walk to cleanup hitter Daniel Butler.

But Bowers responded by inducing a swinging strikeout by Zach Lang on a curveball in the dirt, and a groundout to Rams third baseman Josh Pritchett ended the threat.

“It came down to Bowers coming in and shutting them out, pitching a really good game and just our defense making good plays,” said Pritchett.

After Strasburg (22-1) gained a 2-1 lead with a pair of runs in the bottom of the third inning, George Mason threatened by putting a runner in scoring position with less than two outs in the fourth, fifth and sixth innings, each time coming up empty against Bowers.

George Mason’s last scoring threat came in the top of the sixth when the Mustangs loaded the bases with two outs following hits by Gabe Terry and Jake Abruzzi at the bottom of the batting order and a walk by leadoff man Evan Davis.

Strasburg's Noah St. Clair slides to avoid the tag of George Mason's Logan Nesson in third-inning action during the Conference 35 tournament championship game Thursday night in Strasburg. Rich Cooley/Daily

Bowers then got a courteous strike call on a first-pitch curveball on the outside corner to get ahead of Mustangs senior Sam Selby, and the Rams’ right-hander later buried a curveball to induce the swinging, inning-ending strikeout.

“I was shaking the whole way through, but luckily the defense helped a lot and we pulled through,” said Bowers, who allowed four hits and two walks while striking out six.

Five of Bowers’ six strikeouts came on his curveball, which he said was unusually effective against the Mustangs.

“Something just clicked,” he said.

The Mustangs stranded 10 total baserunners in the loss – their third to Strasburg this season – and left seven in scoring position. George Mason coach Adam Amerine said Thursday was the first time the Mustangs had faced Bowers this season.

Strasburg's Noah St. Clair slides to avoid the tag of George Mason's Logan Nesson in third-inning action during the Conference 35 tournament championship game Thursday night in Strasburg. Rich Cooley/Daily

“We would put runners on and we just couldn’t get that key two-out RBI, something like that,” Amerine said. “Bowers came on in relief and did a good job. You’ve got to give him credit.

“A good team, you’ve got to make that spectacular play sometimes to win these championship games.”

Strasburg’s offense struggled to produce runs of its own against Mustangs duo of Lang and Meador, but the Rams got all the offensive support they would need in the third.

Noah St. Clair (1-for-2, run) reached base with one out via walk and stole second, and then came in to score as Ryan Smoot’s (2-for-3, run) single to center was bobbled for an error. Pritchett gave the Rams the lead when he jumped on the first pitch he saw from Lang and sent a towering RBI double to the fence in right field.

“Obviously we were not real good offensively,” said Jeff Smoot, whose team had six hits. “We could not string enough quality at-bats together to make a difference. Josh Pritchett, obviously I think, had him a really good night at third base, which can go overlooked a little bit. But other than Ryan [Bowers], he made all the difference in the world for us tonight.”

Contact staff writer Brad Fauber at 540-465-5137 ext. 161, or bfauber@nvdaily.com

Strasburg coach Jeff Smoot speaks to players during Thursday night's Conference 35 tournament championship game against George Mason in Strasburg. Rich Cooley/Daily

Strasburg center fielder Noah St. Clair eyes a catch during theConference 35 tournament championship game against George Mason on Thursday night in Strasburg. Rich Cooley/Daily