By Brad Fauber
MADISON -- Strasburg's baseball team, after requiring some late-game heroics in the first two games of the Region 2A East tournament this week, got the early lead it wanted against host Madison County in the regional championship on Friday evening.
The Rams erupted for five runs in the top of the first inning, only to see Madison County answer with five runs of its own in the bottom half before Strasburg slugged its way to an eventual 17-9 win.
The win gave Strasburg (23-1) its first regional title since winning the Region B championship in 2007.
"Obviously when we got up on them in the first inning, we thought that was a positive thing for us -- that it would relax our guys and allow us to play a little freer and that type of thing," Rams coach Jeff Smoot said. "But I guess the thing that Madison's been doing the last few weeks, they responded and really punched us in the mouth. But then I thought our kids responded to that too, and then at that point it became a battle of the bullpens, and ours was maybe a little better, deeper, a little more experienced than theirs was."
Both teams had to dig a little deeper into their pitching rotations on Friday after playing two games earlier this week, and neither starting pitcher was very effective. Strasburg lefty Garrett Richards lasted just 2/3 of an inning, while Madison County's Austin Kelliher made it 1 1/3 innings before being pulled.
Strasburg struck for 18 hits in the win, while Madison County finished with eight.
"We knew that they were on a roll and they can hit. We knew that they were confident in themselves. We knew they were going to score runs, we just needed to score more," said Rams senior Ian Baker, who was 2-for-5 with two doubles and three RBIs. "I think we just focused at the plate and were having good at-bats there."
The Rams got rolling early against Kelliher, as Ryan Murphy led off with a single, Ryan Smoot reached on an error and Baker walked to load the bases with no outs. Cleanup hitter Evan Snapp then hit an RBI single to center to give Strasburg a 1-0 lead.
Strasburg added another run on an RBI fielder's choice by Tyler Doman, and freshman Josh Pritchett delivered an RBI single to left field. An error on Pritchett's single allowed a second run to score, and Noah St. Clair capped the five-run first with an RBI single to left.
"We were all just seeing the ball real well, and just staying back and hitting the ball," said Pritchett, who was 4-for-5 with four RBIs.
Madison County (12-11) answered with five runs in the bottom of the first inning. Sam Taylor began the rally with a one-out RBI single, and the Mountaineers plated two more runs on a Strasburg error. Kelliher hit an RBI double to right field, and Cole Smith added an RBI single before Rams reliever Ryan Bowers recorded the final out in the inning and left the bases loaded.
Bowers, who has seen limited action this season, gave the Rams 4 1/3 solid innings on Friday, allowing four runs on three hits and three walks while striking out three.
"Pretty good innings for a freshman. ... I know that he gave up a few runs, but at that particular point we could give up a run here and a run there," Jeff Smoot said of Bowers. "What he did do was throw strikes. We didn't always make every play behind him, but I thought he was real key to us getting out of here with a win."
Strasburg answered the Mountaineers' rally with three more runs in the second inning. Ninth hitter Ian Butler (2-for-3, three runs scored) led off with a walk and came around to score one out later on a hit-and-run double to right field by Ryan Smoot (3-for-6, two RBIs, four runs). Baker followed with an RBI double of his own to right, and Pritchett later came through with a two-out single to give the Rams an 8-5 lead.
"We came out and did exactly what we wanted to. We put a five-spot on [in the first], got on them early. And they answered, which we knew they would. They're a very resilient team," Ryan Smoot said. "We just kept battling."
The Rams added four more runs in the third inning to take a 12-5 lead, as Baker plated two runs with a double to left-center, Pritchett singled to left for his third straight RBI hit and Doman stole home on a throw to second on Pritchett's steal attempt.
Madison County answered with a run in the bottom of the third, but Strasburg came right back with three more runs in the fourth to expand its lead to 15-6. Murphy doubled home a run on a hit-and-run before a Madison County error led to another Rams run. Snapp (3-for-4, two RBIs) then tripled to score Ryan Smoot.
The first four hitters in Strasburg's lineup -- Murphy, Ryan Smoot, Baker and Snapp -- combined for 10 hits, four doubles, a triple, eight RBIs and 10 runs scored.
"Anywhere in our order we feel like we can score runs," Ryan Smoot said. "You see a lot of runs at the top, but that means the bottom is driving them in. I think anywhere [in the lineup] we feel like we can get a rally started."
Strasburg added a run each in the sixth and seventh innings on RBI singles by Pritchett and Ryan Smoot, respectively.
Baker pitched the final two innings for the Rams and allowed just one walk while striking out two.
Strasburg, which has won 21 straight games and had already claimed a spot in next weekend's Group 2A state championship semifinals with Wednesday's win, will play Randolph Henry next Friday at 1 p.m. in Salem.
"I think it's our fourth [regional championship] in school history. That ain't very many," Ryan Smoot said. "We're adding trophies, adding wins. We're making a name for ourselves."
Contact sports writer Brad Fauber at 540-465-5137 ext. 184, or firstname.lastname@example.org