By Greg Brill - email@example.com
STRASBURG -- The looks on the faces of the Strasburg baseball team gave evidence of their disappointment.
Sitting in their dugout, only minutes after Zach Cover's groundout, with two runners on base in the eighth inning, allowed Manassas Park to escape with a 2-1 win in a Bull Run District semifinal at First Bank Park on Wednesday night, reality struck like a thunderbolt-- what started as a promising season was suddenly over.
"We left a lot to be desired," said Strasburg coach Jeff Smoot, whose team left 12 runners on base in the loss. "That's not the way we're used to playing, that's not the way we want to play. It's really disappointing to play like that with so much at stake. To strike out as many times as we did  -- a lot of cases looking [nine] -- and in some cases, I don't think we ever swung the bat.
"That's disappointing. We had a plan going into this thing that we felt like we knew what we needed to do to win, but that wasn't it. We didn't execute it very well."
The Rams (17-5) did have their chances long before the game went to extra innings. Strasburg pushed across a first-inning run against Cougars flamethrower Nate Hoffa, with Klay Fogle showcasing a good piece of hitting by driving a pitch down the right-field line for an RBI single to score Sheldon Stickley.
The first must have been something of an extended bullpen for Hoffa, who has gained interest from Division 1 programs. Hoffa did not record a strikeout in the first, but he began to notch punchouts over the next four innings. Between the second and the fifth, Hoffa picked up 10 of his 11 strikeouts in the game.
Still, this was a game that motivated the Cougars (12-4) in so many ways. The Rams had won both regular season games by close scores, including a walk-off grand-slam from Derek Buckley for an 8-4 win on May 4. Then, with the score tied at 1 in Strasburg's half of the third, disaster struck for the Cougars.
On Buckley's grounder to the left side, both third baseman Jonathan Moore and shortstop Donovan Johnson converged and tried to make a play. They bumped as each went for the grounder and Johnson's follow through hit Moore in the back of the head. Moore fell to the ground, and Buckley reached on the play, moving Cover to third in the process.
Moore lay on the ground, being attended to by Strasburg's trainer before a rescue squad reached the ball park. After a 20-minute delay, Moore was taken by ambulance to a nearby hospital. As he left, Johnson tapped his teammate on the hand and Moore raised his hand to indicate he would be all right to the crowd. Moore returned to the ballpark just as the game ended and appeared to be OK.
Perhaps inspired, the Cougars made all the big pitches when needed and finally got clutch hitting late.
Held to two hits through seven innings by Buckley, Manassas Park mounted its winning rally in the eighth with four straight hits.
With one out, Cody Jewell doubled down the third-base line. Joey Gaouette then ripped a pitch in the same area to drive Jewell in with the go-ahead run.
"We kept hanging around," Manassas Park first-season coach Gerry Campbell said. "Any game you can hang around until late you should win. I kept saying, 'This game is for us. We can't leave hear without it.'"
It was Gaouette that delivered the first RBI in the third when he plated Jewell to tie the game.
Buckley gave up another hit to Johnson before Smoot brought Cover in to pitch. Cover allowed the Cougars' fourth straight hit to load the bases, but the junior buckled down from there to fan Brandon Settle and get a force out on Lance Cadle's grounder.
The Rams tried to extend their season in the bottom of the eighth, and Campbell had expected his opponent to have one last rally left in them.
"I know they're a good comeback team and if you walk them, they usually score," Campbell said. "I told our guys coming up here that the pressure was on [Strasburg]. They always say a team can't beat [a good team] three times. I told our guys, 'It's all up to you, it's your last game.' When I took over this club, I told our guys I wanted them to be just like the club Strasburg has."
Johnson, who relieved Hoffa with one out in the sixth, allowed walks to Connor Gorman and Mitchell Wilson. But with two outs, Johnson got Cover (3-for-5) to hit a routine grounder to second baseman Jewell, who fielded and threw on to first to clinch the win for Manassas Park.
The Cougars will host another team that pulled off an upset Wednesday. Madison County picked up a 2-1 win at top-seed George Mason on Wednesday. The championship game will be played tonight at 7 p.m. at Manassas Park.
Strasburg left five runners on base over the last two innings of regulation. Gorman and Tyler Hott were on base when Cover hit a sharp grounder to the left side that Jewell knocked down and kept Cover to an infield hit without the Rams scoring in the sixth. Johnson then struck out Todd Dean to end the inning.
The Rams ended up losing their final two games, including a 2-0 setback last Friday to George Mason in a playoff for the regular season title.
"We've had our chances and we can't say that we haven't," Smoot said. "We've had two opportunities to advance [to the Region B playoffs] and just didn't get it done."