|PHOTO: Allen Ramsey, DWCPhoto.com. The Bluebirds celebrate as Austin Mayhew (3) scores the game-winning run in Wednesday's game against Newport Central Catholic.|
|PHOTO: Allen Ramsey, DWCPhoto.com. Newport Central Catholic first baseman Bryson Hightchew (right) extends for the ball while Highlands' Todd Ramey (44) hustles.|
But one at-bat can quickly erase those feelings. Highlands Bluebirds baseball junior Conner Kreeger found that out Wednesday in a crucial 36th District seed game against the rival Newport Central Catholic Thoroughbreds.
Kreeger struck out in two previous at-bats against NewCath senior Grant Moeves. But with two on and two out in the bottom of the seventh, Kreeger lifted the Bluebirds to a 3-2 victory with two on and two out. He belted the game-winning single to left field scoring Austin Mayhew from second.
"To be honest, I wasn't having the best game at the start," Kreeger said. "I felt like I needed to redeem myself a little bit. I got up there, geared myself for a fastball and swung. With baseball, you have to be able to forget and move on to the next at-bat, especially when a guy is keeping you off-balance like that."
Sixth-ranked Highlands moved to 13-3 overall and 2-0 in district seed play with games against Dayton and Newport remaining. The Bluebirds have won eight in a row overall and four straight against the Thoroughbreds.
"Our pitching has been great," said Jeremy Baioni, Highlands Head Coach. "Guys are keeping us in games. We've played really good defense. The only time we've struggled offensively is when we haven't gotten that big hit. Wé're taking it one day at a time. Whenever you play a district rival, you know they're going to give you everything they've got. That's why we love playing these games."
NewCath fell to 6-11 and 2-1. But the Thoroughbreds have played a tough schedule also losing twice to Lexington Catholic and defending state champion Louisville St. Xavier.
"They're focused on getting better and we are," said Jeff Schulkens, veteran NewCath Head Coach. "Murderer's row is what we've played with our schedule and we haven't been healthy. We've had some people out. We're slowly getting there. As long as we continue to get better, we'll be happy."
The bottom of the seventh did not come without controversy. Kenny Ball singled to open the inning for Highlands and Alex Veneman ran for him.
Then Highlands catcher Luke Hennigan laid down a bunt along the first base line. Moeves picked up the bunt and tried to tag Hennigan. But the ball came out and Veneman wound up at third base. However, the home plate umpire ruled runner's interference on Hennigan and Veneman had to go back to first.
After Veneman stole second, pinch-hitter Austin Mayhew hit one back to the mound. NewCath caught Veneman in a run-down between second and third. But Mayhew alertly took second and NewCath walked Murray to put runners at first and second setting up Kreeger's game-winner.
"Since I got on second, that turns a single into possibly being the game-winning run," Mayhew said. "If I'm on first, that's two hits or a double. Rundowns most of the time are going to end up in outs so I figured I'd go down to second making sure we have someone at second at least."
Highlands pitcher Joseph Martin and Moeves threw complete games. Martin struck out 12 and walked none to move to 2-0 on the season. NewCath batted .185 (5-for--27) against him.
Moeves struck out six and walked two to go with a wild pitch. Highlands batted just .231 (6-for-26) against him.
"Grant threw a great ballgame," Schulkens said. "You can't put extra people on base and give your defense a chance to make some plays. We made quite a few plays out there defensively. I like the way our kids battled."
One player on each team had two hits. Jake Whitford went 2-for-3 with a double for Highlands and Brandon Gray went 2-for-3 with a run scored for NewCath.
"We got the big hit there," Baioni said. "It's been a different guy each time. All these guys are taking their at-bats seriously and going to work each time to help the team win. That is what is so special about this team."
Gray opened the top of the first with a single and Zack Pangallo doubled him to third with one out. Spencer Pangallo singled to right scoring both to put NewCath up 2-0. Martin threw more offspeed pitches to keep NewCath off-balance after that point.
But Highlands came back with one in the bottom of the inning. Murray doubled and moved to third when Todd Ramey grounded out. Whitford singled to center scoring him to trim the lead to 2-1.
The Bluebirds tied the game at 2-2 in the third. With one out, Kreeger was hit by a pitch. After Schulkens argued Kreeger ducked into the pitch to no avail, Kreeger moved to second on a wild pitch. Following a Ramey walk, Ramey was forced at second on a ground out. But when NewCath tried for the double play at first, Kreeger rounded third and beat the throw home.
NewCath had a golden opportunity to score in the fifth. The Thoroughbreds loaded the bases with two gone. But Martin struck out Zack Pangallo to end the threat.
Both teams return to action Thursday. Highlands plays host to Campbell County and NewCath plays host to Bellevue. Both games start at 5 p.m.
East Central 12, Highlands 4:
The Ladybirds (8-6) saw their five-game winning streak snapped at Winkler Field.
Highlands plays host to Cooper at 5:30 p.m. Thursday.