Up to Speed

Strasburg's Garrett Richards throws a pitch during the Conference 35 baseball tournament championship game in May 2015, against George Mason at First Bank Park in Strasburg. Richards, a 2015 graduate of Strasburg High School, has committed to play baseball for James Madison University next year. Rich Cooley/Daily file

STRASBURG – The symptoms didn’t bode well for Strasburg High School senior Garrett Richards a couple weeks ago.

The swollen lymph nodes in his neck, the nausea, the severe fatigue – many of the signs pointed to a viral infection that could’ve threatened to end Richards’ final baseball season with the Rams too early for the senior’s liking.

“It was basically textbook mono,” Richards, referring to mononucleosis, recalled after practice Wednesday evening as the Rams prepare for their second straight Group 2A state tournament appearance Friday. “I was tired, really nauseated, my lymph nodes were all swollen. Right as soon as I would step outside all of my energy would be drained.”

Thankfully, Richards received good news after undergoing a blood test, as doctors were able to rule out mononucleosis and informed the senior that he was suffering from what Richards called a bad viral infection. But even after receiving the good news ahead of Strasburg’s participation in the Conference 35 tournament during the final week of May, Richards’ return to the baseball diamond was a rough one.

Still battling the virus, Richards – the Rams’ No. 2 starting pitcher this season – planned to start the Conference 35 championship game against visiting George Mason on May 28. To prevent himself from tiring out before the game even began, Richards arrived at Strasburg’s First Bank Park nearly 90 minutes after his teammates after spending that time sitting in the athletic training room at the school to avoid standing out in the heat for as long as possible.

Strasburg's Garrett Richards has a conversation with catcher Ryan Smoot during a May 28 game against George Mason. Rich Cooley/Daily

But as soon as he stepped outside on his way to the ballpark, Richards said, “all of the energy just drained out of me.”

Richards made the start regardless in a game the Rams would go on to win, but the left-hander lasted only two innings before Rams head coach Jeff Smoot pulled Richards after he dealt his third walk of the game to start the third inning.

“I went over there, got warmed up, had a pretty good first inning I thought and then after that I just clearly was losing it,” Richards said. “I was getting dizzy. I think after the pitch that he took me out, after I threw it I was all dizzy. I was losing my balance a little bit.”

Richards spent the following weekend recuperating and by the start of the Region 2A East tournament on June 1 he was working his way back to game speed. When Richards’ name was called again to start last Friday’s regional semifinal game at King William, he looked as strong as he’s been all season.

With a return trip to Radford for the Group 2A state tournament on the line, Richards pitched the Rams to a 4-0 win, shutting out King William in a complete-game effort that saw the left-hander limit the Cavaliers to three hits, two walks and a hit-by-pitch while striking out 10 batters.

“He’s been phenomenal this year and probably had his best start last [Friday],” said Rams senior catcher Ryan Smoot. ” … And we expect that out of him.”

Not only did Richards bounce back in a big way that night – in a game with state tournament implications, no less – but the senior did so on a night in which fate threw him another curveball. During Strasburg’s 134-mile trek to King William, the team bus broke down, causing the Rams to arrive at the ballpark minutes before the game’s original 7 p.m. start time. Strasburg had to scramble through warm-ups to prepare for a rescheduled 8 p.m. start, knocking Richards out of his usual pre-start routine.

Even so, Richards “dominated” on the mound in the words of Jeff Smoot.

“I think one of the things that he has developed from his junior year to his senior year is much more of a bulldog mentality,” Jeff Smoot said. “He is not outwardly so but very competitive on the mound and will fight you to the very end and that is a critical component for a pitcher. It’s hard to be very good if you just don’t have that kind of mentality because you are exposed out there.”

Richards credited a lot of his success in the regional semifinal game – and the rest of this season – to Strasburg’s defense, which he said has allowed him to confidently pound the strike zone knowing he can trust the eight fielders around him.

Jeff Smoot said it’s been an added bonus for Richards and fellow starters Mark Smoot and Ryan Bowers that they have an experienced, reliable catcher in Ryan Smoot behind the plate.

“Quite frankly I think all three are helped by the fact that we’ve got a good, solid catcher behind the plate that they trust, both his advice and his physical skills,” Jeff Smoot said. “I don’t think there’s any question that for a pitcher that’s invaluable.”

Ryan Smoot added that Richards is also helped out by the fact that he’s a “baseball guy.”

“He’s been around the game. He’s played since he was real little and enjoys watching it and kind of studying it,” Ryan Smoot said. “I think that’s the first thing, he goes up there and he knows what he’s doing. He controls the running game. And I think a big part of it, with all our guys, is they don’t get flustered on the mound ever.”

Richards, who will play baseball for Danville Community College alongside teammate Noah St. Clair next year, has been just one piece of a puzzle that has been difficult for opposing hitters to solve this spring. Strasburg’s pitching staff – led primarily of the trio of senior lefty Mark Smoot, the sophomore right-hander Bowers and Richards – has pitched 10 shutouts this season (including a 4-0 win over Maggie Walker in the Region 2A East championship last Saturday), and the Rams (25-1) have allowed only one run in seven other games this spring.

Jeff Smoot said the Rams’ pitching prowess has been the fuel that has led Strasburg into Friday’s state semifinal game against Lebanon (21-6) at Radford University.

“They’ve been outstanding,” Jeff Smoot said. “And that I think more than anything, certainly of the three components – offense, defense, pitching – that has clearly been where we’ve excelled the most. Quite frankly, about every guy we’ve run out there has pitched very, very well for us and that’s the reason we are where we are.”

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