By Jeff Nations
STRASBURG -- It was all on Mark Smoot's shoulders Monday night.
The sophomore left-hander knew as much as he stood on the pitcher's mound with Manassas Park players eying him from all angles. The Cougars had the bases loaded with no outs in the top of the sixth inning, and clean-up hitter Clarence Washington twirling his bat menacingly at home plate.
With a breaking ball that was barely breaking, Smoot had two real options -- fastball or change-up. With five pitches, he struck out Washington. Then he struck out Tyler Williams. Then he struck out Shawn Kolb, escaping the jam with no damage to preserve the Rams' lead in an eventual 3-0 victory.
It was actually the second-straight bases loaded situation Smoot had escaped in the Bull Run District tournament quarterfinal matchup, having stranded three Cougars in the fifth as well.
"He pitched well in those situations, which to a great extent, that's how you have to measure a pitcher," Strasburg Jeff Smoot said. "He made the pitches he needed to make, executed very well."
Mark Smoot may not have made it through that dangerous sixth had Tyler Hott not drawn a walk in the bottom of the fifth. Jeff Smoot considered lifting Hott, the Rams' ace this season, for a pinch-runner to let him warm up in the bullpen. Instead, he opted to keep the speedy Hott on the basepaths in hopes of increasing Strasburg's lead.
"We didn't have anyone warm," Smoot said. "That's where we got ourselves in a little bit of trouble. We knew we were going to try and finish with Tyler if we had to -- a hot, muggy night, we knew we were going to finish with him if we had to."
Hott was ready for the seventh, if needed, and he was. Mark Smoot hit leadoff batter Felix Sheard with a pitch, and one out later gave up a single to Joey Underwood to put two runners on. That prompted the call to Hott, who fanned Jonathan Williams on three pitches. After that last strike, Rams catcher Ryan Smoot fired down to second base and caught Sheard diving back to the bag for the game's final out.
"I wanted to finish it, but he got me," said Mark Smoot, who improved his record to 7-0 this year. "Every pitcher wants to pitch a complete game. Once you get out there, that's the goal."
Second-seeded Strasburg (16-4) broke through for all of its runs in the bottom of the third against Cougars right-hander Chris Hoffa. Mark Smoot led off with a single and Ryan Smoot bunted for a single to put runners on first and second. Ryan Murphy then laid down another bunt to move the runners over, but Hoffa pounced on the ball before spinning to throw to third to catch courtesy runner Zach McDonald on a fielder's choice.
Hott followed with a single to center field to break up the shutout. Then with runners on second and third, Ian Baker came through in a big way. First called on to bunt, Baker fouled off Hoffa's inside fastball. On the next pitch, Baker delivered a sharp single up the middle to plate two more runs.
"We had a 50-50 bunt on right there and he came in high and tight, so I just tried to get back," Baker said. "Next pitch I was just looking for my pitch, and I got it. I just did what I could with it."
Mark Smoot got out of trouble in the fifth after allowing back-to-back hits to Washington and Williams to lead off the inning. He then struck out the next two batters before Steven Moore reached on a bunt single to load the bases. Underwood couldn't get any runs home, though, as he grounded out to second to end the inning.
The sixth was even more promising for Manassas Park (6-10), with the bases loaded and no outs and Washington batting.
"I'm not going to bunt my four-hitter," Cougars coach Gerry Campbell said. "We're down three runs."
Hoffa took the loss, allowing eight hits and a walk while striking out three in six innings.
Mark Smoot fanned 11 in his 6 1/3 innings. Hott picked up a three-pitch save as the Rams advance to today's tournament semifinal game against No. 6 seed George Mason. That game will be played at William Monroe High School in Stanardsville. Game time is 4:30 p.m.
Contact Sports Editor Jeff Nations at 540-465-5137 ext. 161, or email@example.com>