By Brad Fauber
RADFORD -- Strasburg's baseball team made an impressive, determined march to the Group 2A state championship game on Saturday against Virginia High School at Radford University. For five and a half innings Saturday, the Rams were within striking distance of their first state title since 2007.
But the Bearcats flashed some of the potent offense that had helped vault them into the state title game in the sixth inning, when they erupted for five runs to help seal a 7-2 victory over Strasburg. It was Virginia's first state championship since 1996.
Strasburg (24-2), which saw its school-record 22-game win streak snapped in the loss, tallied just four hits off Bearcats starting pitcher Chandler Daniels -- three of which came in the top of the seventh inning -- but were never truly out of it until Virginia pulled away in the sixth.
"We actually, in a lot of respects, played very well today," longtime Rams coach Jeff Smoot said. "They were a little better. They were exceptional defensively. They keep so much pressure on you offensively and make you defend the entire field. They can work the short game. They use the whole ballpark. They're tough to pitch against, tough to defend against. That's a veteran club, well-coached. We played pretty daggone good tonight."
Strasburg recorded just one hit through the first six innings on Saturday, but the Rams trailed just 2-0 going into the top of the sixth and before they cut that lead in half.
Rams senior shortstop Ryan Murphy reached on a one-out error, stole second base and moved to third on a groundout by junior Ryan Smoot. Murphy then scored on wild pitch to Ian Baker to give Strasburg and its fans some life.
"I thought [Bearcats catcher Chandler Davis] had blocked it at first, but then I saw it go behind his leg. I just went for it and scored," Murphy said.
"I thought once he scored we had them scrambling a little bit," Mark Smoot said. "... I thought we were going to come back and win the thing."
Virginia (25-4) extinguished any momentum the Rams gathered in the top of the sixth when a string of hits in the bottom of the frame.
Jeff Smoot opted to change pitchers to start the bottom of the sixth inning, and pull Mark Smoot in favor of his brother, Ryan. Jeff Smoot said after the game the switch was prompted by the fact that Daniels, who was leading off the bottom of the sixth, had "squared the ball up twice" against Mark Smoot in his previous at-bats.
Ryan Smoot opened the bottom of the frame by striking out Daniels and Ty McReynolds, but he walked No. 9 hitter Justin Brown and surrendered a single to Virginia leadoff man Daulton Horne (3-for-3, two runs).
Chandler Davis gave the Bearcats a 3-1 lead with an RBI single to center, and Alex Griffith doubled home two more runs on a ball that hit the fence in left-center on a hop. Griffith's hit was initially ruled a home run before he was called back to second base.
"It just blew up in the sixth inning," Murphy said.
Austin Kiser immediately followed with an RBI triple as Rams centerfielder Tyler Doman couldn't make a diving catch on the ball as it tailed towards right-center. Another Bearcats run scored on a Rams error to give Virginia a 7-1 lead before Ryan Smoot threw Austin Miles out at third as he tried to steal.
"We kind of had a plan for the weekend as to what we wanted to do with our pitching, our rotation. We stuck to the plan today -- maybe in retrospect we shouldn't have," Jeff Smoot said. "That did not work out well for us. They adjusted very quickly to the different style of pitching that we brought in and maybe it was a little more to their liking."
Strasburg had a little fight left in it in the top of the seventh inning, as Doman and Josh Pritchett each singled with one out, and Mark Smoot was hit by a pitch with two outs to load the bases. Rams No. 9 hitter Ian Butler then plated Doman with an RBI single to left before Chandler Daniels got Murphy to strike out looking to end the game.
"Of course we felt like there was a chance the whole time. We just didn't get the bats moving," Butler said. "We're not gonna quit, no matter what. We've come back from a 3-1 game in the playoffs, and another game in the playoffs in the top or bottom of the seventh."
Virginia, which tallied 11 hits in the win, struck for a run in each of the first two innings off Mark Smoot. Horne scored the game's first run when he walked to lead off the bottom of the first and scored on a sacrifice fly by Kiser (3-for-3, two doubles, triple). A double-play on a lineout to Rams second baseman Evan Snapp ended the inning.
The Bearcats took a 2-0 lead in the second inning on an RBI infield single by Horne, but Mark Smoot settled in over his final three innings. Mark Smoot allowed two runs (one earned) on seven hits, a walk and a strikeout, and he stranded six baserunners.
"Those first two [innings] they got guys on -- I think I just got into the feel of the game," Mark Smoot said. "They look for fastballs. They're a power-hitting bunch of guys, so I knew coming into the game that I was going to have to go to off-speed. I threw a ton of changeups to them."
The loss on Saturday was a disheartening one for Strasburg, which had rolled through the playoffs while winning championships in both the Conference 35 and Region 2A East tournaments.
"It stings a lot for all of us, and will for a while, I think," Jeff Smoot said. "At some point, I think -- I hope -- each and every one of us will be able to look back at our body of work and be proud of it. at some point disappointment will be replaced by a sense of pride and accomplishment."
Contact sports writer Brad Fauber at 540-465-5137 ext. 184, or firstname.lastname@example.org