Friday, June 5, 2015

Bluebirds headed to final day of postseason with historic victory

PHOTO: Allen Ramsey, DWCPhoto.com. Highlands senior left fielder Brady Murray (right) goes over the fence to record an out in the seventh inning of the state semifinal game against Greenup County. The Bluebirds will play in the state championship for the first time in school history Saturday at 7 p.m.
PHOTO: Allen Ramsey, DWCPhoto.com. Highlands senior pitcher Joseph Martin delivers home. Martin struck out eight in the complete game. It marked just the second appearance in the state semifinals in school history.
PHOTO: Allen Ramsey, DWCPhoto.com. Highlands pinch-runner Bradley Greene (9) slides home before Greenup County catcher Brody Shoupe (left) can tag him. Greene scored twice in the Bluebird win.
LEXINGTON - They know they can't count on opponents being intimidated by the stat each time they take the field.

But after each huge victory, the average margin of victory becomes more magnified, especially now that the Highlands Bluebirds baseball team has made history. The 9th Region champion Bluebirds (35-6) will be playing for a state championship for the first time in school history Saturday after beating the 16th Region champion Greenup County Mustangs (33-11), 5-2 on Friday in the Rawlings/KHSAA State semifinals. Game time is 7 p.m. back at Whitaker Bank Ballpark.

The Bluebirds will take on the 12th Region champion West Jessamine Colts (35-7). The Colts run-ruled the Scott Eagles, 15-4 in five innings in the second game.

Highlands and Greenup County came into the tournament with double-digit winning streaks. The four-time 36th District champion Bluebirds extended their win streak to 15 in a row while the 63rd District champion Musketeers saw their state-best 15-game winning streak snapped. That Greenup County streak included a 3-1 win over defending state champion Louisville St. Xavier on May 9.

Highlands has outscored its eight postseason opponents, 50-8 for a 5.25 average margin of victory. The Bluebirds have held every postseason opponent to two runs or less including three shutouts. Greenup County became just the third team in the postseason to score two runs against Highlands. Boone County in the 9th Region semifinals and top-ranked McCracken County in the state tournament first round were the other two.

"If you could tell, everybody was a little relaxed," said Jeremy Baioni, Highlands Head Coach. "We knew this team wasn't going to give up. That's a heck of a ballclub. They grinded it out, but we talked to our guys about playing relaxed and still playing with intensity. It's better than being tense and playing with intensity."

The Bluebirds had several options to start on the mound except for junior Ricky Raisor because he pitched into the seventh in the 3-1 quarterfinal win over North Bullitt on Wednesday. Highlands ended up going with senior Joseph Martin and Martin came through in a big way.

Martin (4-1) threw a complete game striking out eight Musketeers while allowing just three hits, three walks and two runs, both earned. Martin overcame issues with the middle finger on his right pitching hand to record the win.

"We started trusting our off-speed stuff like our change-ups and curve balls," Martin said. "I trusted more in my change-up than my curve ball (Friday). (Coach Baioni) has us mixing in our off-speed stuff with our fastballs. We've just ran with it. It's always football getting to state. Now it's our turn. It feels great."

The Musketeers love to steal bases. But they had just one when Gage Hughes swiped second with two out in the first inning.

"It got shut down really fast there in the beginning," said Greg Logan, Greenup County Head Coach. "(Martin) pitched a good game. It just wasn't meant to be for us."

The Bluebirds played excellent defense behind Martin recording just one error. That lone error came in the first inning to lead off the game. But Martin erased Kyle Gammon at first base with a strong pick-off throw to D.J. Mills.

Grayson Heck made some diving plays at second base. Then in the seventh inning, right fielder Conner Kreeger hustled into shallow right to record an out and left fielder Brady Murray reached over the fence in foul territory in left field to record the second out before Martin got Gammon to pop out to Mills at first to end the game.

"I first want to give a shout to Joe (Martin). Joe pitched a great game," Heck said. "In practice, we've taken a million ground balls this year. With instinct, I got to (the ball)."

The Musketeers started Ethan Coldiron (3-3), but he did not make it out of the second inning. Jaxon Keeton relieved Coldiron and pitched an inning before Zackary Hayden came in took over with one out in the third inning. The Bluebirds built a 5-0 lead after three against them before Hayden limited Highlands to just two singles in the next three innings. The Musketeers erased both runners on double plays.

"That was really big. You never know who you're going to face here," Baioni said. "You never know what's going to hurt you or what's going to beat you. It may be velocity or a lack of velocity. When we go into the game trying to prepare for who's pitching, we don't know what we're going to get. But it's big no matter where you start to get a few runs early. Guys play little more relaxed and less tight. We can just go through and get outs. We're a lot more comfortable getting outs with a lead obviously than trying to play from behind."

Before Highlands dented the scoreboard, the Musketeers stranded three runners in the first two innings. With one out, Martin threw 10 straight balls to put runners on first and second in the second inning. But Martin struck out Hayden and coaxed Isaiah Greene into grounding out to Todd Ramey at third base on a bunt attempt.

"A lot of times when I go out there, it's really to talk to (pitchers), see how they feel and see how they react," Baioni said. "When I jumped up, he told me to stay in the dugout. When I got there, he told me, 'I'm fine. I don't know what's going on. I just need to get the feel.' If Joe says, 'I can't get the feel and throw strikes.' then we probably need to make a change. He wasn't doing anything mechanically wrong. But he had confidence in himself so I had confidence in him."

The Bluebirds took the lead for good in the second inning. Mills started things with a single to right and Martin sacrifice bunted him to second. Catcher Luke Hennigan then walked and Bradley Greene ran for him. Kenny Ball then singled to right to load the bases.

That's when Heck stepped up and hit a ground ball to the right side that got through for an error allowing Mills to score. Then with the bases loaded, Murray drew a walk to score Greene and give Highlands a 2-0 lead. But Keeton came in and got Alex Veneman and Ramey to fly out to end the inning.

Greenup County did see Brody Shoupe reach third in the third inning. But Martin struck out Jared Hunt to end the threat.

The Bluebirds extended the lead to 5-0 with three unearned runs in the third inning. That proved to be the difference in the game. Jake Whitford singled and Mills grounded out moving him to second, Whitford then moved to third when Shoupe's pick-off throw from home skipped into the outfield.

After Martin walked and Kyle Rust came in to run for him, the Musketeers brought in Hayden to pitch. But the Bluebirds executed another successful squeeze bunt. Hennigan landed it scoring Whitford. All hands were safe when it the ball got by Hayden moving Rust to second and allowing Greene to come in and again run for Hennigan.

Ball then came up and grounded out moving Greene and Rust to second and third respectively. With two out, Heck singled to score Greene and Rust to give the Bluebirds the nice 5-0 lead.

"I just listen to my coaches (while running)," Greene said. "They tell me what to do. I try to take advantage of every moment I get. It's awesome being out here with these guys so I try to do my job."

Martin retired the side in the fourth and fifth innings before the Musketeers scored their only two runs. Shoupe was hit by a pitch and advanced to second when Heck dove and threw Hughes out. Jared Hunt then tripled to right for the game's lone extra-base hit to score Shoupe and cut the margin to 5-1 Bluebirds.

"We knew we had four guys who have started all year that have done a really good job," Baioni said. "We also had a couple other guys out there in the pen ready to go who can also throw well. We weren't sure what we'd get out of Joe (Martin). But he had it in the region semifinals and had a similar outing. He kept the ball down and changed speeds well grinding it out."

Highlands played back to get outs and Tristan Downing grounded out to Heck allowing Hunt to score and make the final score of 5-2. But Martin struck out Christian Wireman to end the inning.

Highlands moved to 4-3 all-time in the state tournament. Before this tournament, the lone Bluebird win in state tournament play came 50 years ago when Highlands beat Madison Central, 8-2 in the quarterfinals before losing 4-3 to Louisville Fern Creek in the semifinals.

Looking at West Jessamine:

The Colts come into the title game on a 10-game winning streak. They beat 12th Region favorite Southwestern, 7-4 in the region semifinals before beating Garrard County, 6-5 in the title game.

West Jessamine opened the tournament with an 11-6 win over Louisville Ballard scoring many of those runs late. The Colts then knocked off Elizabethtown, 12-6. They've outscored the three state tournament opponents, 38-16.

They beat Scott despite being outhit, 11-9. The Colts scored eight unearned runs off five Eagle errors while committing none.

Designated hitter Max Mahon led the Colts going 3-for-4 with a double, triple, four RBI and two runs scored. Center fielder Tucker Greer went 2-for-4 with two runs scored and Ryan Layne added a double.

Tanner Graham pitched a complete game allowing 11 hits, four runs all earned and striking out four. He came into the tournament with a 3-1 record to go with 31 strikeouts, 32 hits and 16 walks in 44 innings pitched.

Mark Leonard led West Jessamine on the mound coming into the tournament with an 8-2 record and 1.79 earned-run average. Leonard had 60 strikeouts and allowed 31 hits, 16 walks and 17 runs, 11 earned.

The Colts entered the tournament batting .325 (360-for-1,106) as a team with nine home runs, 97 stolen bases, 57 doubles and 10 triples. Greer led the way batting .414 (53-of-128) with 10 doubles, one triple, 27 runs batted in and 24 stolen bases.

Rawlings/KHSAA State Baseball Tournament Semifinals:

Teams:                                                           R   H   E
Greenup County (33-11)         000 002 0  --   2    3    4
Highlands (35-6)                     023 000 0 --    5    6    1

Greenup County Leading Hitter:
Jared Hunt, 1-for-3, triple, RBI, one run scored.

Highlands Leading Hitters:
Grayson Heck, 2-for-3, three RBI.

Greenup County Pitchers:
                                              IP     K   BB   H   R   ER
Ethan Coldiron (L, 3-3)        1.1     0     2     2    2     2
Jaxon Keeton                        1.0     0     1     1    2     0
Zachary Hayden                   3.2     2     0     3    0     0  

Highlands Pitcher:
                                           IP   K   BB  H   R   ER
Joseph Martin (W, 4-1)      7     8     3     3    2     2

2015 State Baseball Tournament
at Whitaker Bank Ballpark
Lexington, Kentucky:
First Round Games:
Monday:
North Bullitt 6, Hopkinsville 4
Greenup County 5, Lawrence County 2
Collins 5, Madison Central 4
Tuesday:
Highlands 5, McCracken County 2
South Warren 5, South Laurel 3
Elizabethtown 8, Owensboro Apollo 1
West Jessamine 11, Louisville Ballard 6
Scott 4, Knott County Central 1
Quarterfinals:
Wednesday:
Highlands 3, North Bullitt 1
Greenup County 8, Collins 6
Thursday:
Scott 7, South Warren 0
West Jessamine 12, Elizabethtown 6
Friday Semifinals:
Highlands 5, Greenup County 2
West Jessamine 15, Scott 4 (5 innings)
Saturday Title Game:
Highlands (35-6) vs. West Jessamine (35-7), 7 p.m.

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