|PHOTO: Allen Ramsey, DWCPhoto.com. Highlands senior Drew Rom fires to the plate against South Oldham on Friday. Rom struck out 10, walked three and allowed just four hits in the complete game. Highlands won 4-2.|
|PHOTO: Allen Ramsey, DWCPhoto.com. Highlands junior Cooper Schwalbach makes a routine catch in center field.|
The Highlands Bluebirds baseball team (27-13 overall) hopes that goes a positive direction after Highlands took care of the 8th Region champion South Oldham Dragons, 4-2 in the first round of the state tournament Friday at Whitaker Bank Ballpark. In four straight appearances in the state tournament, Highlands has advanced past the first round three of the four times.
Highlands plays 15th Region winner Paintsville (25-12) on Saturday in the second round of the state tournament at 6 p.m. The semifinals will be Friday, June 15 and the championship game is Saturday. June 16 at 7 p.m.
"We played at Great American Ballpark. We played in the regional tournament (at University of Cincinnati Health Stadium in Florence), but the state tournament is a completely different environment," said Jeremy Baioni, Highlands Head Coach. "We have plenty of guys that have been here and played before. You're lucky to play here twice. But you play that opening game in the state tournament one time and (are) facing a good pitcher so it's a little bit different than what we've had the last few months of the season where we really haven't seen some ones. We saw a one there and I think it kind of caught us off-guard. We saw a guy with a little bit of velocity and a really good breaking ball. But I'm really proud of the way they battled. It is important to get that first one out of the way so we can play a bit more loose and relaxed."
Highlands rode the arm of senior left-handed pitcher Drew Rom to victory. Rom (9-6) struck out 10, walked three. South Oldham batted .154 (4-for-26) against Rom with just one extra-base hit. The Dragons stranded six runners.
"As far as having an arm like that, you can't simulate that," said Matt Walker, South Oldham Head Coach. "We hit good velocity off the pitching machine. When we were throwing (batting practice), we moved up closer. You do what you can to try to simulate it the best as possible. There's a reason (Rom's) a (Major League Baseball Amateur Draft) fourth round draft pick. When you have a left throwing 90 (and) he had a wipe-out slider too."
The lone time Highlands did not make it past the first round in four years came in a 6-2 loss to Johnson Central two years ago. Baioni said it came down to not making routine plays in that game. The Bluebirds did that in this game committing just one error.
"(The ball) does role a lot faster (on turf)," said Chris Bridewell, Highlands junior second baseman. "But in a way, it's kind of easier because you don't have to worry about the bad hops at all."
Rom retired 14 straight at one point. South Oldham loaded the bases with one out in the top of the seventh. But Rom struck out senior Matthew Roy. After sophomore J.T. Benson drew a bases-loaded walk to cut the lead to 4-2, Rom coaxed junior Matthew Reaves into flying out to junior Cooper Schwalbach in center to end the game.
"It felt great just to have my defense behind me where I didn't have to worry about doing everything myself," Rom said. "I just let (the Dragons) hit if they can. By that point, it's up to the defense to make plays and they did."
Benson had given South Oldham (21-13) the early lead. He crushed a 2-2 pitch from Rom over the wall in left field for a home run. That marked the lone extra-base hit for either team. The Dragons held that 1-0 lead until the fourth inning.
"Early on, (Rom) left a few balls up, which isn't normal for him," Baioni said. "He obviously corrected that and started cruising pretty quickly. If they earn it, you tip your cap and you move on. But not allowing them to earn it and putting ourselves into trouble because we didn't make routine plays is something you can't do and win a state title."
Offensively, Highlands batted .333 (8-for-24) against South Oldham. Senior starter Brandon LaBarbera. LaBarbera stuck out three, but walked six. Junior Kyle Winkler had two walks to lead Highlands. Senior Grant Summers batted for Winkler in the sixth inning and also drew a walk. The Bluebirds stranded eight runners.
Sophomore Ethan Kavanagh went 2-for-3 with a two-run single for Highlands. He also drew a walk.
Senior designated hitter Carson Fitters went 2-for-3 and scored twice for Highlands and Schwalbach went 2-for-2 with a run scored. Junior Bryce Ziegler and senior Sam Hennigan had the other two Highlands singles. Baioni emphasizes solid approaches at the plate.
"It was crucial because when the pitcher struggles with command, you have to lay off those (balls) because he's struggling to get outs," Hennigan said. "It's tougher to hit because they throw fewer strikes."
Highlands only went in order once in the bottom of the fifth. The Bluebirds had a few scoring chances in the first couple innings. In the bottom of the second with two out, Schwalbach singled and moved to second when Winkler drew a walk. But Hennigan grounded out to second.
Then in the third, Kavanagh singled and took second on a South Oldham wild pitch. Ziegler hit a sactifice fly to right to move Kavanagh to third. But senior Tyler Gulley grounded out to end the inning.
But Highlands took the lead with two out in the fourth inning. With the bases loaded, Kavanagh smacked a two-run single scoring Fitters and Winkler to put Highlands up 2-1.
"It really took us a long way," Kavanagh said. "We were on a role when I got that hit. We're just going to keep hitting it from this point, score more runs and win is what I thought to myself."
Rom led off the fourth with a walk and pinch runner Summers took second when Fitters singled. Schwalbach hit a sacrifice fly to center moving Summers to third. Summers tried to score on a bunt attempt, but the bunt did not get down and Reaves tagged out Summers. Hennigan then walked setting up Kavanagh's clutch hit.
The Bluebirds added some crucial insurance runs in the sixth inninng. Fitters and Schwalbach singled to lead off the inning forcing and pinch hitter Summers drew a walk to load the bases forcing South Oldham to bring in senior pitcher Clay Satterly. Hennigan smacked a single up the middle to score Fitters and Schwalbach and give Highlands a 4-1 lead. Satterly retired the next three Highlands batters to minimize the damage.
South Oldham did not go away quietly in the top of the seventh. Senior Tanner Salmon struck out. But sophomore Keaton Martin reached second on the lone Highlands error and senior Bryce McGee drew a walk. Senior Brandon Elsbury walked on a full count to load the bases setting up the end of the game.
"It was tough because we were going right at (Benson)," Baioni said. "We think Drew's stuff is good enough and we had confidence in our defense. But he's a really good hitter so he saw a little bit different pitch sequence than some other hitters might have seen. We were able to get that next guy, which was huge obviously leaving the tieing run at second and go-ahead run at third base."
Rom confirmed he will sign with the Baltimore Orioles organization after the season instead of going to pitch for the University of Michigan and earn his education later. The Orioles selected Rom with the 115th pick in the fourth round of Major League Baseball's amateur draft Tuesday.
MLB.com says the 115th overall pick can make a $483,000 signing bonus. But another plus is organizations also pay for schooling for the players.
"Overall, it was (about) finding a good fit for me to where I can develop and move (up) quickly," Rom said. "It's a great factor they've put into every high school contract. If it doesn't work out for them, they can always fall back on their college plan."
Link to Highlands-South Oldham 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 (27-13) vs. Paintsville (26-12), 6 p.m.
McCracken County (33-8) vs. Bowling Green (22-11), 8:30 p.m.