By Jeff Nations - firstname.lastname@example.org
STRASBURG -- Strasburg High School senior Derek Buckley was angling for another bro-hug on Friday at First Bank Park.
Before his starting pitching assignment against Bull Run District rival Clarke County, the Rams' regular catcher got a quick embrace on the mound from his understudy -- and catcher for the night -- Todd Dean.
Buckley worked hard to be out on that mound at the end of the night for another hug, but he didn't quite make it despite delivering six strong innings in Strasburg's 9-4 victory.
"We try to do that; we try to get a little bonding in before the game," Buckley said of the hug. "Before the game we usually do a bunch of handshakes -- everybody gets one in. That's actually the first time we've done that. The game I started against Goochland we just tried to bump gloves. It was a nice change."
Staked to a 5-0 lead after four innings, Buckley sailed through the top of the fifth before finally getting into trouble in the sixth by hitting back-to-back batters with one out and then surrendering a two-run double to Clarke County's Austin Jackson. Buckley walked another batter before catching the Eagles' John Owens with a called third strike to end the inning.
"I was feeling fine," Buckley said. "My arm slot may have changed, and I was just losing a little bit of control."
That rough inning was enough for Rams coach Jeff Smoot, who decided to make a pitching change in the last inning.
"He indicated to us that he was not [tired], but what he was saying and what we were seeing with our eyes was not the same thing," Smoot said of Buckley. "He indicated that he still felt strong, but obviously his location was not what it was early in the game."
Leading 5-3, Strasburg (10-2, 2-1 Bull Run) effectively put the game out of reach with a four-run sixth. Dean led off with a single and Sheldon Stickley walked before Eagles reliever Mark Unger uncorked a wild pitch. Both runners advanced a base, and Dean came home when Jackson, Clarke County's catcher, made a high throw to third that sailed into the outfield. Buckley followed with a triple to drive in another run, and then the Eagles' control woes returned as Unger walked the next three batters to force in a run. Clarke County gave up nine walks in all.
Jesse Smoot, the fourth Eagles pitcher of the night, came on after Unger's third free pass and nearly got out of the bases-loaded jam without further damage. Tyler Himelright did plate one more run with a sacrifice fly to put Strasburg ahead by seven runs.
"We realized it got a little tight," Strasburg shortstop Zach Cover said. "They got within three, and we realized that we needed to get a couple more runs to make it a little more comfortable when we went back out there on defense. A lot of guys came through."
Cover was one of them, as he finished the night with three hits, two runs scored and a pair of stolen bases.
Clarke County (5-8, 0-4 Bull Run) wasn't quite done yet, as Jesse Smoot started a one-out rally with a hard single up the middle off Rams reliever Mitchell Wilson. Drew Paice followed with a double, and both runners scored when the Rams' Connor Gorman short-hopped a throw to first on Ethan Emmart's grounder that sailed past first baseman Aaron Doman. Wilson then walked Matthews, but then got a fly-ball out and induced Jackson into a game-ending groundout.
The Rams built their early lead by taking advantage of Clarke County's pitching struggles. Cover drew a leadoff walk in the first and eventually scored on Stickley's groundout.
Wilson ignited a two-out rally with a single in the bottom of the second and later scored on an error. Buckley then helped himself in the third with a double which turned into a run on Gorman's groundout. Klay Fogle, who reached on an error after Gorman's RBI, scored on Wilson's single to put the Rams up, 4-0, and end the night early for Clarke County starting pitcher Emmart.
Cover helped Strasburg put another on the board in the fourth with a leadoff single and then a stolen base, later scoring when Fogle drew a bases-loaded walk from the Eagles' Drew Paice.
"Early in the game, we gave up too many base runners," Clarke County coach Jon Novick said. "But ultimately, I know can hit a lot better than we did tonight. [Six] hits is not going to get the job done; you're not going to win games if you wait until the sixth or seventh inning to start hitting."
Jeff Smoot was glad to have that early lead, even though the Rams stranded eight base runners in the first four innings.
"We needed every one of them, didn't we?" Jeff Smoot said. "In a lot of ways, we felt like we were playing better than the gap was in the score. We felt like we were playing pretty well; we just never could seem to widen the gap significantly, and I think that probably is a credit to them.
"Even though we were up on them a little bit, they just seemed to keep scrapping around."
Dean and Mitchell joined Buckley with two hits apiece for the Eagles.
Jesse Smoot led Clarke County with a 2-for-4 effort.