By Brian Eller - email@example.com
BEALETON -- The last time Zach Cover faced George Mason, the right-hander was impressive, tossing a complete game shutout and propelling the Rams into a first-place tie in the Bull Run District.
On Friday night, Cover was even better against the Mustangs, striking out 10 batters while allowing just one earned run to score. Unfortunately for Strasburg, George Mason's starter was too good. After taking the loss against the Rams in their last matchup, it was starter Brian Lubnow who earned the complete game shutout, blanking Strasburg 2-0 to capture the Bull Run regular season championship.
"He was able to throw more than one pitch for a strike and unfortunately he's got enough velocity that he can throw it by you," Strasburg coach Jeff Smoot said. "I think one of the differences in the game was that Zach pitched well too, but they had more at-bats where they battled him and made it harder where in a lot of cases we didn't. I'm sure there wasn't a huge difference in the number of hits, but so many of their at-bats they battled and took our pitcher into deep counts."
Heading into Friday's matchup, it was clear the game would likely be decided on the mound, as both Cover and Lubnow had taken turns blanking the opposite team earlier in the season. But in the top of the second inning, the Mustangs got a jump on Cover. After Quinn Casteel popped out to center field, Paul Weber singled to put a man on. Weber then advanced all the way to third base after a double from P.J. Anderson put two runners in scoring position with only one out. Cover was able to get Tyler Duncan to ground out, but Lubnow decided to take matters into his own hands at the plate.
Lubnow smacked a base hit to left field, bringing Weber into score. To make matters worse, Strasburg committed a throwing error in an attempt to throw out Anderson, who was racing home, which allowed Anderson to score and Lubnow to reach second base, giving George Mason a 2-0 lead.
Over the next four innings, those two runs were plenty for Lubnow, who retired 12 of the next 16 batters. His combination of breaking pitches and a high fastball were enough to keep the Strasburg bats swinging, but after five innings unable to produce any damage.
"He was hitting his spots well and he was changing speeds," catcher Derek Buckley said. "It just kept us off balance pretty much the whole game."
Cover, meanwhile, settled in and surrendered just two hits over the next four innings while picking up eight strikeouts, keeping the window open for his team to mount a comeback. And in the bottom of the sixth inning, it appeared Strasburg had finally taken Lubnow's number.
After a strikeout to Sheldon Stickley, Buckley reached after being hit by a pitch, then stole second on the next at-bat. As Klay Fogle smacked a grounder to third base, the first baseman couldn't bring in the throw, and the ball went sailing past the bag and into foul territory. Fogle headed for second base, while a sprinting Buckley appeared to be heading for home. But just as the Rams catcher rounded third, he put on the brakes, obeying the sign from coach Smoot to hold up and have two runners in scoring position.
"He did have a chance [to score]," Smoot said. "But we also were down two runs and at that particular point I didn't feel like it was worth the gamble."
Buckley would never move from third, as a strikeout to Michael Reynolds and an infield flyout by Tyler Himmelright left both runners stranded and the Rams with just one more chance to tie the game.
Tyler Hott relieved Cover in the seventh frame, and shut down the Mustangs in order. Strasburg, however, wouldn't go down easily. One inning after putting two runners on, the Rams repeated that feat. With two outs, left fielder Todd Dean smacked a triple to left-center then watched as Stickley walked to put the tying run on at first with two outs.
Buckley stepped to the plate to be the hero and battled Lubnow for the final swing. With the count 2-2, Buckley laced a sharp liner to right field, sending Stickley sprinting from first and the Strasburg fans to its feet. They quickly sat down, however, as the ball landed foul sending Stickley back to first and Buckley back into the batter's box. Three pitches later Buckley hit another liner, this time to the foul territory in left field. It would be the last solid ball he'd hit, as on a 2-2 count, Lubnow came with a high fastball and struck Buckley out to complete the shutout.
"We wanted it, but we just didn't string enough quality at-bats in a row," Buckley said. "To get enough people on to score a couple of runs, we just couldn't manufacture anything."