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Friday, June 9, 2017

Bluebirds Turn Tide on Golden Eagles

Highlands Takes Advantage of Opportunities in State Tourney Opener

PHOTO: Allen Ramsey, Highlands teammates including Tyler Schwalbach (5), Spencer Dee (10) and Jackson Recht (33) cheer from the dugout in Friday's state tournament game against Johnson Central.
PHOTO: Allen Ramsey, Highlands senior pitcher Ethan Doty delivers to the plate against Johnson Central on Friday. Doty (6-4) struck out 12 Golden Eagles in the victory.
A year ago, the Highlands Bluebirds baseball team lost in the first round of the state tournament because of one bad inning where some defensive lapses led to five runs for the Johnson Central Golden Eagles.

The Bluebirds turned that in their favor to open the state tournament against those same Golden Eagles taking advantage of three Johnson Central errors in the fourth inning to score twice. Those two unearned runs turned out to be the difference as Highlands won the first-round state tournament game, 3-1 Friday at Whitaker Bank Ballpark.

Johnson Central beat Highlands, 6-2 in the first round of the state tournament last year. The Golden Eagles then lost 4-1 to McCracken County in the state quarterfinals.

Highlands (26-12 overall) advances to the elite eight of state tournament back at Whitaker Bank Ballpark against 6th Region champion Louisville Pleasure Ridge Park (37-5) at 8:30 p.m. Saturday. The Panthers took down 4th Region champion Franklin-Simpson, 4-3 earlier in the day.

Highlands committed two errors in this game. But the Golden Eagles (31-8) scored just once off them leaving five runners on base.

Runs figured to come at a premium in this game if both starting pitchers threw as solid as they had all season. Highlands senior Ethan Doty pitched a gem throwing a complete-game striking out 12 Golden Eagles while allowing just one walk and two hits.

Doty threw 20 first-pitch strikes on 123 total pitches against the 27 batters he faced. Doty (6-4 overall) has 93 strike-outs on the season in 63 innings pitched to go with 27 runs including 22 earned, 40 hits and 34 walks.

"With (Friday's) pitch count limits, we still need to focus on making those plays and getting those outs," said Jeremy Baioni, Highlands Head Coach. "I think the big thing is as a team, we really responded well if we didn't make a play. Our guys wanted the ball hit at them so they could make that play. On top of that, Ethan responded and pitched really well to get out of some situations. We need to make (opponents) earn it. If  they're going to put together four, five hits to beat us, you can tip your cap and move on. Walking batters, hitting batters and giving them free bases because we're not making routine plays is a little tougher to deal with."

The Bluebirds had just four hits in the game and left eight runners on base. But they also took advantage of seven walks including five off Johnson Central starter Braxton Kelly, a Marshall University commit. Highlands chased Kelly after a walk in the fifth inning.

"A big part of it was executing our short game," Baioni said. "We got bunts down when we needed them. We got them in the location we needed them and we ran the bases well."

Sophomore Bryce Ziegler led Highlands going 2-for-3 with the lone run batted in of the game. Ethan Kavanagh and Trey Bowden had the other two singles for the Bluebirds.

"It was very key not to chase anything out of the (strike) zone," Bowden said. "Coach Baioni is 100 percent correct about that. We had a lot of walks against a really good pitcher and had great at-bats. I know Kyle Finfrock had an at-bat where he was down 0-2 ended up working a walk. At-bats like those help you win a state championship."

The game saw just one extra-base hit. It came off the bat of Johnson Central senior and Marshall commit Geordan Blanton for a triple to start the sixth inning.

Highlands put two runners on base in the first inning. Highlands senior Kyle Rust walked with one out and moved to second with two out when Doty drew a base on balls. But Kelly got Drew Rom to fly out to right to end the threat.

Doty pitched out of a jam in the fourth inning. Cody Rice reached on an infield single and stole second. After Austin Davis fouled out to Finfrock at first, Doty hit Blake Delong with a pitch and Blake Gamble sacrifice bunted the two to second and third respectively. But Doty struck out Riley Preece swinging on a 2-2 pitch to escape trouble.

Highlands opened the scoring in the fourth inning with two runs. Doty walked after hitting a foul ball that Gamble dropped. Rom then grounded out to third moving Doty to second before Finfrock drew a walk on a 3-2 count and Grant Summers ran for him. Doty then advanced to third and Summers to second after a Kelly throwing error for the second error of the inning for the Golden Eagles.

That's when Ziegler came up huge for the Bluebirds. He laid down a bunt to the first-base side scoring Doty. Summers advanced to third and scored on the third Johnson Central error of the inning on a defensive obstruction call to put Highlands up 2-0. Ziegler advanced to second on the play before Sam Hennigan flied out and Brady Gosney struck out to end the inning.

"The point of the squeeze was to get it down no matter where the ball was," Ziegler said. "I was just trying to help out my team. The number one concern (for the runner at third) is to run as soon as the pitcher raises his leg. If I don't get the bunt down, that's another out."

Highlands added to the lead in the bottom of the fifth after Doty retired the side in the top of the fifth. Kavanagh walked prompting Johnson Central to make a pitching change after Kelly threw 78 pitches.

The Golden Eagles brought in junior right-hander Tate Meade and he walked Rust moving Kavanagh to second. Bowden then laid a bunt single down the first-base line to load the bases with none out. Doty helped his cause hitting a sacrifice fly near the right-field line to score Kavanagh and move rust to third making it 3-0 Highlands.

Rom then walked to re-load the bases with one out. But the Bluebirds could not push across another run. Meade coaxed Finfrock into popping out before he struck out Ziegler to end the threat.

Johnson Central put a runner in scoring position to start the sixth when Blanton tripled to right center. Doty struck out Rice looking before the Golden Eagles scored their first run. Blanton scored on a Highlands throwing error and Davis ended up at second and took third on a passed ball. Doty struck out Delong looking then got Gamble to ground out to Kavanagh at second to prevent any further damage.

Doty got the first two Johnson Central batters to ground out to start the seventh inning. But after pinch-hitter Grant Davis walked, Doty struck out pinch-hitter Ryan Sartin-Slone on a 2-2 pitch to end the game.

Doty had to retire Sartin-Slone if he wanted to finish the complete game. Pitchers can only throw 120 pitches per game. Once they hit 120, they can not start another at-bat.

Highlands moves on to the state quarterfinals for the second time in three years. The Bluebirds beat North Bullitt, 3-1 in that round two years ago on their way to a state runner-up finish.

Scouting Pleasure Ridge Park:

The Panthers are led by the winningest head coach in Kentucky history in 38-year veteran Bill Miller. PRP's record is 1,129-304 during that time with 17 trips to the state tournament, an overall record of 22-11 in tournament games including five state championships including three straight from 1994 to 1996, four runner-up finishes and 15 appearances in the state semifinals.

Prior to Friday, PRP last won the 6th Region in 2013. The Panthers claimed the state championship that year with a 3-2 win over Mercer County.

"It's just another step in the process against another really good team," Baioni said. "They're coached very well. They're going to be prepared. They're going to execute. They're going to pitch well and play good defense. We're going to have to play another good game and really execute in all facets to get out of their with a win. It's the state tournament. We figured every time we go out there, it's going to be a tough challenge."

The Panthers took advantage of four errors and pounded out seven hits against the Wildcats. Juniors Matthew Cavanaugh and Nick Rucker led PRP going 2-for-3 with a double and run batted in each.

Junior Garrett Schmeltz picked up the pitching win for the Panthers and junior David Aguilar earned one out in the seventh inning as the Wildcats mounted a rally with two runs. But after Aguilar coaxed a pop-up for the second out then walked the bases loaded, Schmeltz (13-1) came back in and struck out Franklin-Simpson's Clay Spears to end the game.

The Wildcats did put together eight hits against the Panthers including a double by Jacob Curtis to go with four walks. PRP committed two errors in the win.

Rucker came into the tournament batting .400 (50-for-125) with 23 doubles and three home runs, 30 runs scored and 31 runs batted in for the Panthers. Junior Noah McDonald entered the tournament batting .412 (42-for-102) for PRP with nine doubles, four triples, a home run, 18 stolen bases, 26 runs and 26 RBI.

Sophomore Dallas Glass came into the tournament with the second-most wins on the team for PRP at 9-0. He has a 1.17 earned-run average in 48 innings pitched to go with 35 strikeouts, 43 hits, 19 walks and 14 runs including eight earned.

Highlands will most likely counter with the left-handed Rom on the mound. The University of Michigan commit is 9-2 on the season with a 1.33 ERA and save in 58 innings pitched. Rom has a team-high 109 strikeouts, 24 walks, 28 hits, 16 runs including 11 earned on the season.

Highlands and PRP have one common opponent in another elite eight qualifier and 8th Region champion Simon Kenton (25-15). The Bluebirds beat the Pioneers, 3-2 in Independence on March 25 and the Panthers beat the Pioneers in Louisville a day earlier by a 9-3 count.

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