Taking The Lead

Strasburg pitcher Mark Smoot, The Northern Virginia Daily's 2015 Baseball Player of the Year, finished his senior season with an 11-1 record, a 1.27 ERA and 66 strikeouts. He was the VHSCA and VHSL Group 2A State Player of the Year. Rich Cooley/Daily

STRASBURG – It was a role that Mark Smoot wanted in his final baseball season at Strasburg High School. He wanted to be the man, the ace of the Rams’ pitching staff.

Smoot had spent his junior season last spring serving as the left-handed counterpart to then-senior Tyler Doman, providing Strasburg with a one-two combination at the top of its pitching rotation that caused a lot of problems for opposing offenses. Doman was never overtly referred to as the ace of the Rams’ 2014 staff — more like Strasburg’s 1A option — but he was typically the first to get the ball in big games.

Smoot was ready for that job in 2015.

“Tyler Doman was the man my junior year. I thought I could carry and be the man this year,” Smoot said recently. “I knew if we were going to have a really good year like we did, I’d have to be the man, be the ace. I don’t know, I just had a really good year. My stuff was good all year except the last game, which that happens. I just took every bullpen seriously, lifted hard during the school year to get ready for baseball season and I just had a good year.”

Smoot finished his senior season with a sparkling 11-1 record, a 1.27 ERA and 66 strikeouts in 66 innings pitched. He led a Rams pitching staff that recorded 10 shutouts in 27 games and was a major catalyst in Strasburg’s run to the Group 2A state semifinal game. Smoot was named player of the year in the Bull Run District and Region 2A East, and both the Virginia High School Coaches Association and the Virginia High School League named the left-hander the Group 2A State Player of the Year.

All of his accomplishments earned Smoot the Northern Virginia Daily’s 2015 Baseball Player of the Year honor.

Calling Smoot’s senior season “good” may be understating things a tad. Mark Smoot’s twin brother and Rams catcher, Ryan, suggested more appropriate adjectives such as “outstanding” and “dominant.”

“I think it was just the season was a little bit of a microcosm of his whole career,” said Ryan Smoot, who has had a front-row seat behind the plate for each of Mark Smoot’s starts during their four years on the Rams’ varsity squad. “I think he had [what will] probably go down as one of the best careers, pitching-wise, that this school’s ever seen. Maybe not the best, but one of the best. He’s been pretty dominant and this season he was excellent.”

The Smoot twins’ father and longtime Strasburg head coach Jeff Smoot offered similar heaps of praise for the pitcher.

“Certainly the numbers he put up as a senior on the mound were probably, I don’t know this for sure, but I would say unequaled by anyone that we’ve had pitch in our program,” Jeff Smoot said. “And we’ve had some pretty good ones.”

Mark Smoot was nearly an impossible riddle for opposing batters to solve for much of the season. In his first 12 appearances (11 starts) through the Conference 35 tournament, the left-hander allowed only three earned runs in a span of 56 innings for an outstanding 0.38 ERA.

With a fastball that sits consistently in the high 70s, Mark Smoot relies more on pitch location and change of speed to keep hitters off balance and guessing. His ability to hit his spot pitch after pitch was a nice byproduct of growing up the son of a high school baseball coach, Mark Smoot said.

“I’ve thrown baseball my whole life, so I’m always throwing at a target,” he said.

“I think all year I just had three pitches that I could throw for strikes,” he added. “I got ahead of hitters all year, so they didn’t know what was coming. And I just pretty much threw strikes all year and made them put it play, soft contact.”

It’s that idea of generating soft contact that allowed Mark Smoot to thrive on the mound.

A pitcher since he started playing Little League around 7 years old, Mark Smoot had already developed an effective changeup by the time he began playing JV, his father said, and the curveball’s gradual development came with varsity experience.

But Jeff Smoot said it was Mark’s willingness to accept that pitching wasn’t about making the batter swing and miss that was one of his greatest weapons.

“I think Mark understood that an earlier age than most pitchers, to be very honest, and was very good at it,” Jeff Smoot said.

And in the rare case that he wasn’t able to induce soft contact and found himself in trouble, Mark Smoot made sure his demeanor didn’t change on the mound. His body language remained the same no matter if he was out-dueling Wilson Memorial ace Brandon Gochenour in the regional quarterfinals — one of the finer points of his senior season, Mark Smoot said — or getting tagged for seven runs in the state semifinals against Lebanon at Radford University.

Mark simply doesn’t get rattled — or at least doesn’t show it if he does — and was a “steadying influence” to his teammates when he was on the mound this spring, Jeff Smoot said.

“The fact that he did not pitch well in Radford was not a factor of being on the big stage,” said Jeff Smoot, who added that Mark’s ability to handle pressure situations was strengthened by his role as the quarterback for Strasburg’s football team the last two years. “That was not it because if you had to pick a characteristic of his that I think is a real strong point, it would be his ability to not get rattled in pressure situations.”

Mark Smoot will continue his baseball career at Division III Ferrum College, an experience he expects to be “weird” at first without Ryan behind the plate, where he’s been for nearly every pitching appearance and bullpen session Mark Smoot has thrown since the two were kids.

Mark Smoot has already gotten a little taste of life without his trusty backstop in his short stint with the Luray Cavemen in the Rockingham County Baseball League.

“It’s just a different body back there,” Mark Smoot said of pitching to someone other than Ryan, who will play for Virginia Military Institute next spring. “All my life it’s been that body, that face.”

Contact staff writer Brad Fauber at 540-465-5137 ext. 161, or bfauber@nvdaily.com