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Thursday, June 8, 2017

Bluebirds Head to Lexington Seeking Redemption

Bluebirds, Golden Eagles Meet Again

PHOTO: Allen Ramsey, Highlands junior Grant Summers (21) celebrates after scoring a run in the 9th Region championship a week ago.
It started out as a matter of returning to this point.

But now that the Highlands Bluebirds baseball team (25-12 overall) is here, it is a matter of redemption. The Bluebirds again drew the 15th Region champion Johnson Central Golden Eagles (31-7) in the first round of the state tournament. Game time is 8:30 p.m. Friday at Whitaker Bank Ballpark in Lexington.

Highlands returned to the state tournament last year after finishing state runner-up in 2015. The Bluebirds hoped for a similar run last year. But the Golden Eagles scored five runs in the bottom of the sixth inning on two Bluebird errors on its way to a 6-2 victory in the first round of the state tournament.

The Bluebirds made four errors in that loss last year. They also had four errors in the 5-2 9th Region championship win over Conner a week ago. But Highlands overcame them. The Bluebirds hope to eliminate those plays in the state tournament.

"We've talked a lot about trying to make the routine plays," said Jeremy Baioni, Highlands Head Coach. "That got us into trouble last year. In the state tournament, if you don't make the routine plays, you can find yourself in trouble."

The game has the makings for a low-scoring game. The Highlands pitching staff has a combined earned-run average of 3.28 to go with 132 runs allowed, 183 hits, 314 strikeouts, 122 walks, four saves and 108 earned runs. Senior Ethan Doty (5-4, 2.63 ERA, 56 IP, 26 runs, 38 hits, 81 strikeouts, 33 walks, 21 earned runs) has state tournament pitching experience. But junior left-hander Drew Rom (9-2, 1.33 ERA, 58 IP, 16 runs, 28 hits, 109 strikeouts, 24 walks, 11 earned runs) could also start considering he gives the Bluebirds a left-handed option teams sometimes don't see often in a season.

Highlands saw seven different players throw during the season. Senior Spencer Dee (3-1, 5.41 ERA, 22 IP, 21 runs, 32 hits, 29 strikeouts, three walks, 17 earned runs), junior Hunter Dreves (3-3, 4.91 ERA, 47 IP, 36 runs, 34 hits, 53 strikeouts, 38 walks, 33 earned runs) and sophomore Grady Cramer (3-2, 3.5, 36 IP, 21 runs, 36 hits, 39 strikeouts, 18 walks, 18 earned runs) have given the Bluebirds some nice innings on the mound in the post-season.

"I know that it's a bigger atmosphere, even bigger than like the Florence Freedom (Stadium, site of 9th Region Tournament) per se," Doty said. "But as long as we keep our cool and we play the game that we know how to play and act like it's just another game at Highland Park, we'll be fine. We just have to keep our tempo down, keep everything under control and not make any rash decisions. Just play Highlands baseball. That's all there is to it."

The Golden Eagles could again start junior right-hander Braxton Kelly, a Marshall University commit. Kelly is a hard-throwing fastball, change-up pitcher mixed in with a curve-ball. Prep Baseball Report lists his fast-ball averaging between 85 and 89 miles per hour with a high of 89. His change-up averages in the mid-70s and the curve averages in the low to mid-70s.

Kelly is 8-1 on the season with a 1.04 ERA, 67 IP, 11 runs, 44 hits, 101 strike-outs, 22 walks and 10 earned runs. As a team, the Golden Eagles own a 2.09 ERA with four saves, 105 runs, 176 hits, 241 strikeouts, 103 walks and 67 earned runs.

"We need to be more aggressive at the plate," Baioni said. "We really preach to our guys that you're going to get one really good pitch to hit in an at-bat. That's all you can really guarantee. We want to get on that pitch as soon as it's thrown whether it's early or late in the at-bat. We're not big on taking pitches. We want to hit good pitches. We don't want to swing at pitches out of the zone and make them throw strikes. We call it patiently aggressive."

As a team, Johnson Central is batting .337 (326-of-968) with 293 runs, 246 runs batted in, 60 doubles, 13 triples, nine home runs, 200 strikeouts, 138 walks and 107 stolen bases. Senior Geordan Blanton, also a Marshall commit, leads the Golden Eagles (.381, 55 runs, 45-of-118 hitting, 33 RBI, nine doubles, three triples, eight home runs, 20 strikeouts, 27 walks, 44 stolen bases). Highlands kept him off the bases in four at-bats last year.

Johnson Central returns senior Austin Davis and freshman Cody Rice, who hurt Highlands in the game last year. Davis is batting .402 (43-of-107) with 34 RBI, eight doubles, three triples, 18 strikeouts, 12 walks and 21 stolen bases) and Rice is batting .347 (41-of-118) with 33 runs, 34 RBI, four doubles, two triples, 30 strike-outs, 19 walks and 21 stolen bases. Rice singled in his lone at-bat to go with two walks and a run scored with Davis going 2-for-3 with an RBI in the game last year.

Highlands is batting .320 as a team going 299-for-935 with 228 runs, 195 RBI, 55 doubles, six triples, six home runs, 202 strikeouts, 163 walks and 70 stolen bases. Freshman Ethan Kavanagh leads the way batting .404 (36-of-89) with 31 runs scored, 14 RBI, five doubles, a triple, home run, eight strikeouts, 14 walks and 16 stolen bases.

Kavanagh and Kyle Rust have been getting on base and Trey Bowden, Doty and Rom have been hitting them home. Rust has 15 steals and Bowden, a Northern Kentucky University commit, is batting .380 (35-of-92) with 24 runs scored, 27 RBI, nine doubles, two triples, 13 strikeouts, 18 walks and eight steals.

The other hitters have had big hits in the post-season as well. Kyle Finfrock and Sam Hennigan had two-run hits against Conner in the region championship and Brady Gosney had a two-run triple against Newport Central Catholic in the district championship game.

Both teams will have to deal with long lay-offs between games. Highlands will play for the first time in eight days and Johnson Central will play for the first time in nine days.

"(On) Monday, we had some guys throw live (pitching)," Baioni said. "Guys needed to throw and see some more live pitching. Tuesday, we tried to get our guys in game situations as much as possible kind of like a simulated scrimmage. (We were) just trying to get them game-ready and keep them in that game-speed."

The next round of the tournament takes place Saturday. The state semifinals then take place back in Lexington on June 16 with the title game occurring on June 17.

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