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Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Highlands explodes for another postseason win


Jennifer Jones Photo. Highlands second baseman Evan Allen tracks down a pop-up in Monday's game against Beechwood. The Bluebirds exploded for 15 hits in their 9th Region quarterfinal win over the Tigers.
By G. MICHAEL GRAHAM
Fort Thomas Matters Sports Reporter

FLORENCE – They learned their lesson from a year ago.

The Highlands Bluebirds baseball team saw the St. Henry Crusaders come out throwing punches. Highlands responded, but the Crusaders won the 9th Region quarterfinal contest, 3-2 behind ace pitcher Mitch Kuebbing.

So in this year’s quarterfinal contest, the Blue and White came out as the aggressors against the Beechwood Tigers (25-12) and did not let up in a 10-0 six-inning run-ruling. Highlands forced a third straight run-ruling in the postseason having outscored the competition, 33-0 and saved the pitching staff five innings of work.

“It was huge getting on them early,” said Jeremy Baioni, Highlands Head Coach. “It gave our guys confidence. That’s a great baseball team. We weren’t satisfied from the very beginning. We knew it was going to take a lot of runs. Those guys can bust it open for 8-10 runs. We knew we’d have to play the entire game. Our guys did a good job of that.”

Next up for Highlands (21-17) is an 8 p.m. region semifinal contest against Dixie Heights (29-3) Tuesday. The Colonels beat the 36th District champion Bluebirds twice in the regular season.

Highlands finished 0-6 against the remaining three opponents who also won their respective districts. Covington Catholic and Conner face off at 5 p.m. Tuesday. The championship game is Wednesday at 7 p.m.

“It’s going to be another challenge,” Baioni said. “We have to gear it up to go again. That’s what makes this tournament such a grind. It’s three straight days. You’re playing good teams every single day. You have to bring you’re A game every day if you want to win the game.”

The Bluebirds pounded out 15 hits in 28 at-bats for a .535 percentage against the three Beechwood pitchers in Jason Suchanek, Ryan Bankemper and Alex Miller. Eight of the nine slots in the Highlands line-up had at least one hit and five players had two or more. Suchanek is committed to Xavier University.

Brady Murray set the tone in the leadoff spot going 3-for-4 with a double, run scored, two runs batted in and two stolen bases. Brandon Hergott also went 3-for-4 with an RBI, run scored and stolen base.

Todd Ramey, D.J. Mills and Alex Veneman had two hits each for Highlands. Ramey doubled and had two runs batted in with Mills batting in three and doubling. Veneman scored twice and Whitford doubled.

The Bluebirds also created havoc on the basepaths swiping eight bases. Murray and Veneman had two steals each. Evan Allen, Whitford, Ramey and Hergott swiped one each.

“It’s key to get in scoring position so we can get someone to hit us in,” Veneman said. “We were fired. It’s the time of the year where step it up and just play some ball. That’s what we’re doing now.”

On the mound, Joey Cochran pitched a gem. He allowed just five hits in 22 Beechwood at-bats for a .227 average, struck out two and walked none. Cochran retired 11 in a row at one point.

“(Cochran) was dealing from the start,” said Luke Hennigan, Highlands catcher. “We had an idea of going in there and pounding strikes. Don’t look for the strikeout. Get the good pitch and let our defense do the work. When it is game time, we come down and leave it on the field.”

Defensively, the Bluebirds committed just one error. On the other side, the Tigers made five.

“It helps that we have some guys in the outfield who can run,” Baioni said. “We have guys that can track down balls. We also have guys playing well on the infield.”

Highlands scored runs in all but the fifth inning. They left the bases loaded with one out in that frame.

But the Bluebirds set the tone in the first inning. Murray singled, stole second and  

Highlands added two more in the second. Mills singled and Hennigan bunted him to second before he moved to third when Hergott grounded out. Veneman singled him home to make it 2-0 Bluebirds. After Veneman stole second, Murray doubled him home to put Highlands up 3-0 after two innings.

The third inning saw the Bluebirds score their lone run to go up 4-0 on a squeeze bunt. Whitford doubles and stole second. With one out following a Kenny Ball walk, Mills laid down a bunt to score Whitford.

Highlands added three more runs in the fourth. Hergott singled moved to second when Veneman singled and took third on a Beechwood error. Veneman scored on another Tiger error before Allen singled, took second on an error, stole third and scored when Ramey doubled. Highlands led 7-0 after four.

Highlands put the game away in the sixth with three runs. Ramey singled, stole second and Ben Vermeil walked. Mills doubled in Ramey and pinch-runner Austin Beal before giving way to pinch-runner Josh Watson. Watson scored when Hergott singled.

Highlands faces a Dixie Heights team coming off a thrilling 2-1 win over Boone County on Monday. The Colonels trailed 1-0 in the bottom of the seventh with two outs against Rebel lefty pitcher and Northern Kentucky University signee Trey Ganns. But they came back to win.

Highlands beat Dixie Heights, 6-4 in the region semifinals two years ago. The Bluebirds have three region wins since 2002.

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