Rams fall short in playoff run

Members of Strasburg's baseball team watch from the dugout during the bottom of the seventh inning of the Rams' Group 2A state semifinal game against Lebanon on Friday in Radford. Brad Fauber/Daily

RADFORD – Pitching and defense carried Strasburg’s baseball team back to the state tournament for a second straight season. The Rams struggled in both aspects early in the Group 2A state semifinal game against Lebanon as their season came to an end Friday afternoon at Radford University.

Lebanon erupted for six runs in the top of the first inning against Rams left-handed ace Mark Smoot, and the Pioneers coasted to an 8-2 victory that places them in the state championship game against Conference 40 rival and defending state champion Virginia High School.

Strasburg, last season’s state runner-up, had given up six runs only once all season entering Friday’s game and had held opponents to one run or fewer in 17 of their first 26 games.

“I’d be less than honest if I said we weren’t surprised,” Rams head coach Jeff Smoot said of Strasburg’s rocky start. “We’re not accustomed to that. I think that’s a credit to Lebanon and what they were able to do. It goes without saying that they knocked us back on our heels a little bit.”

The Pioneers (22-6), making their first state tournament appearance since 2001, set the tone for the game immediately against Mark Smoot, who earlier this week was named the Region 2A East Player of the Year. Mic Leonard and Will Stamper led off with singles, and Lebanon loaded the bases with one out as Eli Sargent reached on a fielder’s choice after a nice diving stop by Strasburg shortstop Adam Miller.

Strasburg second baseman Cory Clinedinst throws the ball to a teammate while pursuing Lebanon's Lucas Slate during a rundown in seventh inning of the Group 2A baseball state semifinal game Friday in Radford. Brad Fauber/Daily

A Rams error on Brent Rasnake’s fly ball to left-center plated the game’s first run. On the play, Strasburg outfielders Brian Scholten and Noah St. Clair collided as the ball fell to the turf.

“Nothing felt like it was right,” St. Clair said. “The first inning they came out and scored some runs, then we have something like that happen out there, a miscommunication call. It happens.”

Things would get worse for the Rams.

Lebanon junior Justin Warren gave his team a 2-0 lead with an RBI single to center field. After Mark Smoot induced a fly out for the second out of the inning, No. 8 and 9 hitters Peyton Watson and Chandler Boyd broke the game open with a pair of two-run hits to give the Pioneers a 6-0 lead.

The Pioneers had five hits in the first inning and finished the game with 12. Jeff Smoot said afterward that Lebanon was “as good as advertised.”

Lebanon's Ben Sexton slides into third safely ahead of the tag by Strasburg's Josh Pritchett during the fourth inning of the Group 2A baseball state semifinal game Friday at Radford University. Brad Fauber/Daily

“Boy, I don’t know how many [hits] they had but we probably didn’t give up that many all last week,” said Jeff Smoot, whose team was coming off back-to-back shutout victories in the regional tournament. “I think that’s a credit to them, quite honestly.”

Lebanon head coach Jarrod Sparks, who has coached the Pioneers to their first state championship appearance since 1991, said after the game he was nervous heading into the state semifinal against Strasburg (25-2), a team that had lost only once in 26 games, but his players made good on a promise to jump on the Rams early.

“That’s the team we didn’t want,” Sparks said of Strasburg. “I’ll just be honest with you. That’s the team we didn’t want. We came in blind. The only thing we knew was that Ryan Smoot was a great catcher and a good hitter. That’s the only thing we knew coming into this baseball game and we just got on the field and played. Things just went our way today.”

The Rams tried to answer in the bottom of the first inning, as they loaded the bases with no outs following a walk by St. Clair, a double by Ryan Smoot and another walk by Josh Pritchett. But Stamper, the Pioneers starting pitcher, got back-to-back strikeouts and then induced a fly out to escape the jam.

“That’s a tough psychological hurdle to overcome,” Jeff Smoot said. “We tried, I think, off and on but that’s tough. And they were good.”

Strasburg head coach Jeff Smoot, right, talks to Mark Smoot during an at-bat in the Group 2A baseball state semifinal game Friday in Radford. Brad Fauber/Daily

Lebanon added another run against Mark Smoot in the second inning when Ben Sexton (3-for-3, RBI) singled, moved to third on a pair of wild pitches and scored on Rasnake’s RBI single.

Mark Smoot lasted only three innings in the loss, as he allowed seven runs (two earned) on seven hits and a walk. The senior left-hander didn’t have any strikeouts.

“He didn’t have one go-to pitch out there today,” Jeff Smoot said. “His velocity was down. He could not throw his curveball for a strike. His changeup was elevated. We just could not find anything that we could go to. Not one pitch. And it just was a frustrating day for him. I know it was.”

Senior left-hander Garrett Richards pitched the final four innings for Strasburg and allowed one earned run – on Sexton’s RBI single in the fourth – on five hits and a walk. Richards struck out four.

Strasburg struggled to generate offense against Stamper despite loading the bases three times against the junior right-hander. Twice the Rams left the bases loaded without scoring, but they did manage to scrape two runs across in the fifth.

Ryan Smoot (2-for-4), Pritchett and Nate Butler all reached with singles to start the frame and the Rams’ first run was pushed across the plate when Miller was hit by a pitch with one out. Pritchett later scored on a wild pitch.

Stamper, who was battling strep throat, allowed six hits, walked three and hit two batters but he also struck out 10 in the complete-game effort. Ryan Smoot said Stamper’s curveball kept Strasburg’s hitters off-balance at the plate.

“It did, and maybe more than it should’ve,” he said. “We knew he was going to use it. We knew it was pretty good. I think he knew how to throw it, where to throw it with the strike zone that was being called up there, which I don’t think helped us a little bit. But he was able to keep it down and we didn’t adjust good enough.”

Though Strasburg saw its season come to an end with a loss in Radford for the second straight season, Ryan Smoot said he hopes the disappointment from Friday’s defeat won’t cloud a successful season that saw the Rams defend their Conference 35 and Region 2A East championships.

“We had a good season by all aspects of it,” Ryan Smoot said. “Obviously we thought we had two more wins left in us, but we didn’t and I hope that doesn’t take away from all the good times and all the wins.”

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