Sunday, May 31, 2015
Bluebirds ready for challenge against top-ranked Mustangs
The opponent and venue have a lot to do with that as the 9th Region champion Highlands Bluebirds (32-6) prepare for their showdown with the Kentucky Association of Baseball Coaches top-ranked McCracken County Mustangs (33-2) to open the Rawlings/Kentucky High School Athletic Association State Tournament on Tuesday. The game takes place at 10 a.m. at Lexington's Whitaker Bank Ballpark. A rain delay Monday forced the game to be moved back a day.
"Our schedule helps us prepare for games like this. We're at least prepared to face a really good team," said Jeremy Baioni, Highlands Head Coach. "We don't know much about them. We obviously haven't seen them. We know they're very fundamentally sound. When it comes to the state tournament, you have to play well no matter who you play. We've been focusing on what we do well. If we play one of our best games of the year and don't walk away with the win, you tip your cap and move on. But we're going to do everything we can to advance."
The 1st Region and 2nd District champion Mustangs enter the tournament on an 18-game winning streak. Their only two losses came April 16 and 18 by 4-1 and 10-2 counts to the Bartlett (Tennessee) Panthers, located just outside Memphis. Bartlett advanced all the way to the state semifinals of Tennessee's largest Class AAA state tournament.
"(The challenge) is something we really embrace," said Alex Veneman, Highlands senior center fielder. "In order to win a state championship, you have to go through the best. We're getting the best the first round. We'll give everything we have on the field and hope for the best."
McCracken County finished 23-0 against Kentucky opponents including wins over Louisville Trinity, Louisville Pleasure Ridge Park and Lexington Lafayette. The Mustangs have not faced any of the other 15 teams in the tournament.
On the other hand, the 36th District champs enter the tournament on a 12-game winning streak. Highlands has shut out seven opponents during the streak and 14 on the season including a 7-0 win over the Ryle Raiders in the 9th Region title game Wednesday. The Bluebirds finished 1-1 against the tournament field losing to 11th Region champion Madison Central and beating 10th Region champion Scott.
Both teams have deep pitching staffs. The team earned-run average for McCracken County is an astounding .95 with 16 shutouts while Highlands has a respectable 2.53 ERA. Senior shortstop Cole Womack, a Western Kentucky University signee, and senior Georgetown signee and first baseman Ryan Garner are both 8-0 on the mound for the Mustangs. Womack has 35 strikeouts and has allowed just 34 hits, nine walks and four earned runs in 52 innings pitched with Garner striking out 48 to go with 10 walks, 28 hits and four earned runs in 47 innings pitched.
Senior Josh Scheer has also given McCracken County solid performances in 40 innings with a 7-1 record and 2.1 ERA. He's struck out 60, walked 28 and allowed 29 hits and 12 earned runs. Junior second baseman and Murray State commit Keegan Breese (4-1) is the closer with four saves, a .78 ERA, 20 hits, 30 strikeouts, two walks and three earned runs.
The Bluebirds will counter with a number of options on the mound led by seniors Mitch Jones (7-2, 1.86 ERA, 49 IP, 31 hits, 50 strikeouts, 10 walks, 13 earned runs), Joseph Martin (3-1, 1.25 ERA, one save, 28 IP, 22 hits, 30 strikeouts, seven walks, five earned runs), junior Ricky Raisor (8-1, 1.46 ERA, one save, 48 IP, 34 hits, 58 strikeouts, 20 walks, 10 earned runs) and sophomore Ethan Doty (3-0, 1.53 ERA, 32 IP, 29 hits, 44 strikeouts, 12 walks and seven earned runs). Seniors Jacob Noe (3-0, 3.5 ERA, one save, 18 IP, 16 hits, 18 strikeouts, nine walks and nine earned runs) and Lou Bunning (5-1, 6.42 ERA, 36 IP, 38 hits, 29 strikeouts, 28 walks and 33 earned runs) have given Highlands solid relief out of the bullpen along with Alex Veneman (2-0, 2.10 ERA, 10 IP, eight hits, eight strikeouts, one walk, three earned runs).
"You have to get in the same rhythm every time you go out and pitch," Noe said. "You warm up and throw the same and everything else should take care of itself. That's normally how I think about it."
Both teams have solid line-ups. Highlands is batting .389 as a team going, 64-for-936 as a team with 294 runs scored, 257 runs batted in, 66 doubles, 13 triples and 25 home runs with 95 strikeouts. Senior third baseman Todd Ramey and senior shortstop Jake Whitford have been tremendous along with senior designated hitters/first basemen D.J. Mills and Martin. Ramey is batting .517 (61-for-118) to go with 59 RBI, 17 doubles, three triples and seven home runs) and Whitford is 46-of-95 for .484 with 45 RBI, nine doubles, a triple and five home runs. Martin is hitting .449 with 33 RBI, 11 doubles and seven home runs and Mills is 40-for-106 for a .377 clip with 30 RBI, eight doubles and six home runs.
On the other side, McCracken County is hitting .344 as a team going 301-for-874 with 247 runs scored, 220 RBI, 70 doubles, 11 triples and eight home runs. Garner is batting .387 (41-of-106) with 25 RBI, 10 doubles, two triples and a home run and Womack is hitting .356 (36-for-101) with 32 RBI, eight doubles, a triple and four home run at the lead-off spot. Junior outfielder Ian Waters is slightly below Garner batting .386 (32-for-83) with 21 RBI and three doubles.
If the pitching is on for both teams, the game could come down to small ball. The Mustangs have stolen 105 bases to 80 for the Bluebirds. Senior Daniel Seitzinger leads McCracken County with 18 stolen bases with Breese swiping 12. Garner and Womack have 11 each with Tyler Hicks and Jeffery Mathis nabbing 10 each.
Highlands has done well getting bunts down all season. Brady Murray leads Highlands with 17 steals and Ramey has 15. Conner Kreeger, Veneman and Whitford followed with 13, 12 and 10 respectively.
"The key is making sure we get guys on base early," Baioni said. "You can't move runners if you're not on base with one out. No matter how far you go, you're going to expect to see good pitching throughout (the tournament). We're going to focus on pounding the bottom of the zone, changing speeds and letting our guys make plays."
Highlands played on a nice-sized turf field at University of Cincinnati Medical Center Stadium in the region tournament. The Bluebirds spent the last couple days working out on the big field at Northern Kentucky University.
"When you have balls get in the gap, you're going to have to make longer throws than at most high school fields around here," Baioni said. "We're trying to prepare for the larger fields. The field down there will play close to turf. It won't bounce as much but it will role as true as the turf and maybe as quick because it is manicured in a nice way."
McCracken County is making its second straight appearance in the tournament. The Mustangs lost to the Hazard Bulldogs, 5-1 in the first round of the tournament last year.
On the other side, Highlands is making its first state tournament appearance since 1973 after capturing its first region crown since 1997. The Bluebirds are 1-3 all-time in state tournament play.
The winner plays again Wednesday at 6 p.m. The opponent will be North Bullitt (31-11). North Bullitt beat Hopkinsville, 6-4 to open the tournament.
2015 State Baseball Tournament
at Whitaker Bank Ballpark
First Round Games:
North Bullitt 6, Hopkinsville 4
Greenup County 5, Lawrence County 2
Collins 5, Madison Central 4
Highlands vs. McCracken County, 10 a.m.
South Laurel vs. South Warren, after first game.
Owensboro Apollo vs. Elizabethtown, after second game.
Louisville Ballard vs. West Jessamine, 6 p.m.
Scott vs. Knott County Central, 8:30 p.m.
Highlands, McCracken winner vs. North Bullitt, 6 p.m.
Collins vs. Greenup County, 8:30 p.m.