By Brad Fauber
STRASBURG -- Strasburg's baseball team entered Tuesday's Conference 35 tournament semifinal game against county rival Stonewall Jackson with a specific plan of attack against Generals ace Colton Harlow.
The top-seeded Rams executed that plan and got to Harlow and the No. 4 Generals early, and the Rams rode a six-run fourth inning and a one-hit performance by starting pitcher Tyler Doman to a 10-0 win that ended in the fifth inning due to the mercy rule.
The win -- Strasburg's 17th in a row -- advances the Rams to Thursday's tournament championship game at home against No. 7 Madison County and guarantees Strasburg a spot in next week's Region 2A East tournament. Thursday's game is scheduled for 7 p.m.
"We were trying to take [Harlow's] fastball away from him. We wanted to really hunt fastballs against him, make him beat us with his breaking ball," Rams head coach Jeff Smoot said. "Our guys, their approach was good, their execution was good and our hitters just fought their guts out up there."
Strasburg (19-1) squandered a chance for runs in the bottom of the first inning, as the Rams stranded two runners in scoring position after Harlow got a pair of strikeouts to escape damage. But the Rams broke through for two runs on a bizarre play in the second inning.
Rams freshman Josh Pritchett led off the second with a walk and Mark Smoot followed with an infield single to put two runners on. Both moved up a base on a passed ball, and sophomore Nate Butler slapped an RBI single to right field to score Pritchett.
The ball was misplayed in the outfield, allowing Mark Smoot to score as well, and Butler -- who took a wide turn at first base -- drew a throw from the cutoff man to an open bag at first. The ball caromed off the wall and back into right field and allowed Butler to reach third, but the throw to home plate from the outfield pulled Stonewall catcher Bradley Henschel well up the first-base line. Butler opted to try to score, but Henschel tagged out Butler at home as both dove headfirst for the plate.
"I saw the throw go in [to the cutoff man] and I didn't see anybody [at first], so I led off a good bit. I got stuck and I thought I was hosed, but then they threw it to nobody," said Butler, who was 2-for-2 with two RBIs. "I saw nobody was at home, so I just came in but I wasn't in time."
That turned out to be enough run support for Doman, who didn't allow a hit until Nathan Miller singled to left field to lead off the fifth inning. Doman struck out six, walked three, hit a batter and needed just 59 pitches to go the five innings.
"Very good once again," Jeff Smoot said of Doman's performance. "Tyler tonight, he had better command than maybe he'd hand in some previous outings. I think he was helped a little bit by once we were able to score a few runs, at that point that really enabled him to attack and fill the strike zone."
Strasburg broke it open in the bottom of the fourth inning, as the Rams sent 12 batters to the plate and scored six times on four hits, three walks and two hit batters.
Harlow began the bottom of the fifth by striking out Mark Smoot but then surrendered three straight hits, including a bunt single by Ryan Murphy (2-for-4, two runs) that scored Nate Butler.
Ryan Smoot plated Ian Butler with an RBI groundout for the inning's second out, but Harlow hit two straight batters to load the bases for Doman. The Strasburg senior delivered a two-run single on the first pitch to give the Rams a 6-0 lead.
"We were just battling in our at-bats. We were running his pitch count up. He was getting up there, getting tired and losing command. ... We just got to him like we wanted to," said Doman, who was 2-for-4 with three RBIs. "He wasn't throwing too many curveballs because he was struggling to throw strikes a little bit, so I just went up looking fastball and he threw me a fastball."
Harlow walked two more batters to plate another run for Strasburg before giving way to Miller, who walked in another run before getting a groundout to end the inning with the Rams holding an 8-0 lead.
Harlow, a senior who is playing baseball for James Madison University next season, threw 106 pitches -- including 46 in the fourth inning -- in 3 2/3 innings and allowed eight runs on eight hits, four walks and two hit batters. He struck out five.
"I don't think he had his best stuff today, but he did what he had to do to get us through there," Generals coach Mike Lenox said of Harlow. "I wanted to try to get out of the inning and keep us there. He was the guy that I wanted out there tonight, so he was the guy that deserved to be out there and work on finishing it."
The game ended in the bottom of the fifth inning when the Rams scored two runs following an RBI fielder's choice by Doman and a Generals error -- their fifth of the game -- on the play.
Despite the loss, which ended Stonewall Jackson's (8-11) season, Lenox said his team had a lot to be proud of, including winning its first playoff game since 2001 with a 3-1 win over Luray on Monday.
"I'm real proud of what we accomplished this year. Nobody thought we would do what we did," Lenox said. "To win eight games, from where we came from, it's a good step for us to the right direction.
"... We've got a lot of young guys, a lot of young talent. I'm looking forward to building on it."
Contact sports writer Brad Fauber at 540-465-5137 ext. 184, or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow on Twitter @BradFauberNVD