|Bluebirds Nip Mustangs, 4-3 for Return Trip to State Championship Game|
|PHOTO: Allen Ramsey, DWCPhoto.com. Highlands junior first baseman Trey Gabbard makes a play to nip McCracken County senior James Dodd in the state semifinals Friday.|
|PHOTO: Allen Ramsey, DWCPhoto.com. Highlands senior third baseman Sam Hennigan makes a play while senior pitcher Drew Rom watches. Highlands beat McCracken County, 4-3 to advance to the state championship game.|
|PHOTO: Allen Ramsey, DWCPhoto.com. The Highlands students cheer the Bluebirds to the win.|
|PHOTO: Allen Ramsey, DWCPhoto.com. Highlands seniors Carson Fitters (8) and Drew Rom (18) among others celebrate after the Bluebirds earned their second trip to the state championship game in four years.|
That experience came up huge as the four-time defending 9th Region champion Bluebirds (29-13 overall) grinded out a 4-3 win over the 1st Region champion McCracken County Mustangs (34-9) to advance to the state championship game Saturday. Highlands will face Louisville St. Xavier Tigers (36-2) for the gold at 7 p.m. back at Whitaker Bank Ballpark.
"I'm really excited for it," said Joe Steiden, Highlands senior left fielder of the state championship game. "We've worked all year for it and it's finally here. I think it's going to be a good game."
Highlands had to beat Covington Catholic, 3-2 to win its fourth straight 9th Region crown before holding off South Oldham, 4-2 in the first round of the state tournament. The Bluebirds shut out Paintsville, 5-0 in the state quarterfinals to make it back to the state semifinals, but the Tigers made the Bluebirds earn the win. They will be in their second state championship game in four years hoping to atone for the 10-3 loss to West Jessamine in the state championship game in 2015.
"I though the regional final was more of a grinder game more than we're used to. This was even more so than that," said Jeremy Baioni, Highlands Head Coach. "We didn't bang out a bunch of hits. We took advantage of mistakes. We really grinded it out on the mound and defensively, made the routine plays. We got routine outs for the most part. That was really an emotional roller coaster so we're going to have to get a good night's rest and get back at it (Saturday)."
McCracken County lost in the state semifinals for the third straight year. The Mustangs lost 6-3 to eventual state champion Louisville Pleasure Ridge Park, 6-3 in the same round last year and 3-2 to eventual state champion Louisville St. Xavier in 2016.
It again started with pitching and defense. Highlands allowed two runs off its two errors. But the Bluebirds took advantage of five McCracken County walks and three Mustang errors despite batting just .182 (4-for-22).
The Mustangs batted .286 (8-for-28) for the game. They'd hit .520 (25-for-48) in the first two rounds of the state tournament in five-inning 14-3 and 16-0 run-rulings over Campbell County and Bowling Green.
Highlands senior Drew Rom (10-6) contained the Mustang offense in his final outing as a Bluebird. Kentucky's Mr. Baseball struck out six, walked three and allowed seven hits pitching into the seventh inning. Junior Grady Cramer pitched the final two outs for the save.
"We didn't get off to the start we wanted to, but I thought the guys did an unbelievable job of damage control," Mustang Head Coach Geno Miller told the Paducah Sun. "It could have really gotten away from us early. I just can't commend our guys enough for the way they fought (Friday). I couldn't be prouder of them. I just don't feel like we lost the game. I thought we ran out of innings. They just played like champions did (Friday)."
McCracken County saw three players record two hits. Senior center fielder Rook Ellington, a University of Kentucky commit, went 2-for-4 with a double and run scored. Senior catcher James Dodd and junior left fielder Kiael Waldron both went 2-for-3 with one run batted in each. Dodd had the other Mustang double.
"It's just good to go out and get a win for my last outing ever for Highlands," Rom said. "I had faith in Grady to come out and finish what I started. I let a fastball up and in and (Ellington) made me pay for it because he's a great hitter. He's a great guy too. Nothing against him, but I'm just glad we came out with the win. It was crucial to keep the balls low just to keep them off-balanced and not get solid contact."
Highlands had no extra-bases like the first two games of the state tournament. The Bluebirds are hitting .274 (20-for-73) for the state tournament.
Rom came out firing darts. He threw the first two pitches past Ellington. Ellington beat out a ground ball to third base before advancing to second when sophomore second baseman Elijah Wheat singled to left. But Ellington was thrown out trying to steal third. Following a Dodd walk, senior third baseman Will Sykes lined out to Highlands junior Kyle Winkler in right and senior shortstop Cameron Langston flied out harmlessly to Steiden to end the threat.
Highlands scored twice in its first at-bat. Steiden walked and moved to second when junior catcher Bryce Ziegler reached on a fielding error by Wheat. Junior pinch runner Casey Greene ran for Ziegler. Greene and Gulley moved up to second and third on a passed ball. Rom then hit the ball back to junior pitcher Jacob Ehling. Ehling (9-1) ran toward Greene but hesitated once he cut off Greene's path to third. That let Greene to return back to second and load the bases on the fielder's choice. Senior designated hitter Carson Fitters then drew a bases-loaded walk to score Gulley and give Highlands a 2-0 lead.
"(The coaches) wanted (the runners) to have a short lead to limit pick-off moves," Greene said. "We had to see their pick-off moves and it was especially important to be smart on the base paths and not give up opportunities to score runs."
McCracken County came back to tie the game in the fourth inning. Sophomore designated hitter Connor Dismore reached on a tight error at first. Highlands sophomore shortstop Ethan Kavanagh fielded the ball and threw a dart to Gulley at first. But the first base umpire ruled Dismore safe when the ball came out when Gulley transferred the ball from his glove to the throwing hand despite conferring with the other umpires. Elling then singled to center and junior Dylan Schneider laid down a sacrifice bunt to move Dismore and junior pinch runner Michael Byrd up a base. Waldron hit a sharp one up the middle that Highlands second baseman Chris Bridewell grabbed. But he could not make a play allowing Dismore to score and cut the Highlands lead to 2-1.
After Rom struck out Ellington, McCracken County tied the game on a Highlands throwing error. The error on a pick-off throw let Byrd score before Rom struck out Wheat to end the threat.
Highlands reclaimed the lead in the fourth inning. Winkler walked and senior third baseman Sam Hennigan bunted him to second. Kavanagh then singled sharply to center scoring Winkler to put Highlands up 3-2. With two out, Ziegler reached when the ball went under Langston's glove and into the outfield letting Kavanagh score to go up 4-2.
"Cameron just got that ridiculous hop there, and that would've put us out of the inning," Miller told the Paducah Sun. "I love my guys and I love how they competed (Friday)."
After managing a walk with one out in the fifth and going down in order in the sixth, McCracken County made things interesting in the sixth inning. Ellington smashed Rom's first pitch to the gap in right center for a double and moved to third when Wheat grounded out to Gulley at first. Wheat marked the final batter in Rom's storied pitching career.
Dodd singled just past Kavanagh to score Ellington and make the final score. But after Sykes walked, Cramer got Langston and Dismore to pop out to Bridwell to end the game.
"It comes from a lot of experience," Cramer said. "You have to go in there thinking you can do it. You have to have trust in your teammates. I knew they were going to be there for me."
The majority of the seniors were freshmen when Highlands played for the state championship in 2015. None of the current players saw action in that game.
Previewing St. Xavier:
Highlands will face a familiar opponent for the state championship. The Bluebirds led the Tigers, 2-1 entering the seventh inning in the final game of the regular season May 19 in Fort Thomas. But St. Xavier escaped with a 4-3 win.
St. Xavier leads the KHSAA with the most state championships in school history with seven. The Tigers nipped Campbell County, 1-0 in 2016 and beat Simon Kenton, 5-2 in the 2014 title game. A team from Northern Kentucky has finished runner-up the past four seasons. Simon Kenton lost 6-5 to PRP in the title game last year.
"Our guys have been relaxed," Baioni said. "The moment hasn't gotten too big for them. You see big pitches and big at-bats throughout a bunch of these games here in the last couple of weeks and they haven't really wavered. They're extremely tough mentally and really even keeled, which is great."
Senior Hunter Dreves (4-1) will take the mound for Highlands. Mitch Jones, a 2015 Highlands alum, did that against West Jessamine in the 2015 title game and would love to have that start over again. The Colts tagged Jones for six runs on five hits in that game before Ethan Doty came in to end the inning.
"Don't give up three infield singles on this field. It's a trampoline," Jones said. "(He needs to) throw strikes and have fun. It's a game. They say, 'Play ball.' They don't say, 'Work ball.' It's a lot of fun."
Link to Highlands-McCracken County Box Score:
2018 KHSAA State Baseball Tournament Schedule:
At Whitaker Bank Ballpark, Lexington.
Thursday, June 7:
Greenup County 10, Muhlenberg County 0 (6 innings)
Hazard 5, Corbin 1
St. Xavier 13, Pleasure Ridge Park 7
Boyle County 10, LaRue County 0 (5 innings)
Friday, June 8:
Highlands 4, South Oldham 2
Paintsville 3, Christian County 1
McCracken County 14, Campbell County 3 (5 innings)
Bowling Green 8, Madison Central 6
Saturday, June 9:
Hazard 7, Greenup County 5
St. Xavier 9, Boyle County 5
Highlands 5, Paintsville 0
McCracken County 16, Bowling Green 0 (5 innings)
Friday, June 15:
St. Xavier 3, Hazard 0
Highlands 4, McCracken County 3
Saturday, June 16:
St. Xavier (36-2) vs Highlands (29-13), 7 p.m.