By Brad Fauber
STRASBURG -- Strasburg's baseball team has played in some big games this season. The Rams faced some high-caliber competition during the regular season, rallied late on a couple of occasions in the playoffs and won both the Conference 35 and Region 2A East tournament championships.
But today Strasburg will play in its biggest game yet, as the Rams square off with Randolph-Henry in the Group 2A state semifinal round at 1 p.m. at Kiwanis Field in Salem.
"We've played in big games all year. We've played in two championship games. We've played against good teams," Rams senior catcher Ryan Smoot said on Wednesday. "I think the beginning of the game, like in all sports, you'll be a little nervous and all that stuff. But I think once you get going forward, it's just a baseball game. Part of the game is going to be who can play the best, but part of it is going to be who can remain calm and who won't let the nerves get them in those pressure situations."
This season marks the fifth time that the Rams have reached the state final four in baseball, and the first time Strasburg has accomplished the feat since Strasburg won the Group A state championship in 2007 under the old Virginia High School League classification.
Strasburg (23-1) has won 21 games in a row this season, and one of the challenges that longtime head coach Jeff Smoot faces is trying to keep the Rams in the same mindset that they've had all season long in their biggest game of the year.
"I do think it is good advice to not make it bigger than what it is," Jeff Smoot said. "That, however, is easier said than done."
Over the last few seasons, Jeff Smoot said he and the rest of his coaching staff have placed an emphasis on teaching their players how to develop a mental routine during games. Maintaining that routine will be one of the biggest keys this weekend, Jeff Smoot said.
"We've always tried to emphasize to them that the bigger the game or the bigger the situation, the more those kinds of things come into play," Jeff Smoot said. "... As simple as it sounds, take a deep breath. Take the game one pitch at a time, which is something that you're always trying to do. But you have to make a more conscious effort the bigger the game gets."
Randolph-Henry, which won the Group A state championship in 2002 and 2005, is coming off a 10-2 loss to Virginia High School in the Region 2A West championship game last week. Jeff Smoot said the Statesmen, who are 20-4 this season, are nearly identical to the Rams in terms of talent, adding that today's game will simply be won by "whoever plays the best."
"You've got to be able to make a pitch when you need to, put a bunt down when you need to," Jeff Smoot said. "It might be something as simple as putting the ball in play with two strikes as opposed to striking out, where maybe that allows you to advance a runner. I think the little things really get magnified when the teams are even talent-wise."
The Statesmen are batting .327 as a team this season and have outscored opponents 169-66. Randolph-Henry has also stolen 64 bases in just 24 games.
Much of Randolph-Henry's offensive strength lies at the top of its batting order, Jeff Smoot said.
Leadoff man Joseph Reed, a speedy sophomore who has already committed to play football at the University of Virginia, leads the Statesmen with 18 stolen bases this season. Reed is also batting .468 (37-for-79) with two home runs, 15 doubles, five triples, 16 RBIs and 36 runs scored.
Junior Eric Jones and freshman Josh Jones have also been outstanding at the plate for Randolph-Henry. Eric Jones is batting .575 (46-for-80) with two home runs, 19 doubles and 37 RBIs, while Josh Jones is batting .377 with two homers, 12 doubles, 20 RBIs and 32 runs scored.
"Their first three hitters are very, very good baseball players," Jeff Smoot said. "And everyone you talk to, that's the first thing that they mention, is that you've got to deal with the top of their order."
The Rams are anticipating facing Randolph-Henry senior left-hander Rice Hancock, who is 8-1 with a 1.27 ERA in 55 1/3 innings pitched this season. Junior Derek Horvath has also been solid on the mound for the Statesmen this season, as he is 6-2 with a 2.51 ERA in 55 2/3 innings pitched.
Strasburg enters today's game averaging 8.5 runs per game and has outscored opponents 204-53 this season. The Rams are coming off one of their best offensive performances of the season in last Friday's win over Madison County, when they smacked 18 hits in a 17-9 victory.
"I guess we're just going to do the same thing that we do before every game just to make it seem like a normal game," Rams senior pitcher/outfielder Tyler Doman said. "Try to make it seem as normal as possible, so we'll just do the same thing we do before every game, the same warm-ups and everything."
The winner of today's game will advance to the Group 2A state championship game against either Virginia High School or Madison County. The state championship game will be held at Radford University at 1 p.m. Saturday.
"The last two years we hadn't won a regional game and that kind of got to all of us," Ryan Smoot said. "... I think we're happy that we've finally been able to come through in the playoffs and now we have a chance to do some big things this weekend."
Contact sports writer Brad Fauber at 540-465-5137 ext. 184, or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow on Twitter @BradFauberNVD