|PHOTO: Allen Ramsey, DWCPhoto.com. Highlands sophomore pitcher Ethan Doty prepares to jump up after striking out North Bullitt's Logan Wyatt to end the game Wednesday. Doty recorded his second save of the season in the win.|
|PHOTO: Allen Ramsey, DWCPhoto.com. Highlands junior right fielder Conner Kreeger makes a catch in the fifth inning.|
LEXINGTON - Many did not know the Blue and White had been to the state semifinals in baseball before.
It is understandable considering the Highlands Bluebirds (34-6) had not won a 9th Region title since consecutive titles in 1996 and 1997 and had not been to the state tournament since 1973 entering this season. But Highlands did go to the state semifinals one time in 1965.
The Bluebirds equaled that feat Wednesday with a heart-throbbing 3-1 victory over the 6th Region champion North Bullitt Eagles (31-12) at Whitaker Bank Ballpark. Highlands beat Madison Central, 8-2 in the quarterfinals in 1965 before losing 4-3 to Louisville Fern Creek. The Bluebirds have outscored their seven postseason opponents by a combined 45-6.
"Those guys work to win," said Jeremy Baioni, Highlands Head Coach. "So when we put them through things in the preseason and during the season, they understand the goal. They understand what all that hard work can do for us. It snowballs. When you bring more of those guys into your program, they bring that attitude."
Highlands will take on the 16th Region champion Greenup County Musketeers (33-10) on Friday at 6 p.m. The title game will be Saturday at 7 p.m. Greenup County got out of a bases-loaded, no-out jam in the seventh inning to hold off 8th Region champion Collins (25-12), 8-6 in the second game.
The Bluebirds have won 14 in a row and moved to 3-3 in state tournament history. Highlands lost 2-1 to Greenville in the quarterfinals in 1959 and 8-4 to Reidland in the same round in 1973.
"It's a great school and community," Baioni said. "We have a lot of great people who love a winner. It's nice to see them come out and we hope to surpass what we did 50 years ago."
Highlands did it again with solid pitching, defense, timely hitting and some more small ball. The Bluebirds earned their three runs and spotted the lone Eagle run off their lone error of the game in the second inning. Highlands did not score off either of the two North Bullitt errors.
Highlands junior Ricky Raisor (9-1) started the game and picked up the win after relieving Mitch Jones with two out in the sixth inning of the 5-2 win over McCracken County in the first round Tuesday. Raisor threw six innings striking out five while allowing an unearned run, five hits to go with one walk. Raisor left runners in scoring position in the first, second, third and fifth innings. He struck out North Bullitt clean-up hitter Jacob Kelly to end the first and third innings with Daulton Walls at third base.
Raisor faced one batter in the seventh inning before sophomore Ethan Doty took over and recorded his second save of the year. Doty struck out one, walked one and allowed just one hit.
Chase McKenzie (4-3) took the loss for the Eagles. He pitched into the fifth inning striking out three, walking two and allowing seven hits and three earned runs. Kelly relieved him in the sixth. He struck out one and did not allow any hits or walks.
Offensively, Highlands hit at a better clip at .269 (7-for-26) as a team compared to .240 (6-for-25) for North Bullitt. The difference is Highlands senior center fielder Alex Veneman had the game's lone extra-base hit with a double in the sixth.
"I felt we came in a little flat in the beginning," Baioni said. "These guys don't understand what (falling behind) does for me. I think they're fine with it. It's just part of it. We kept saying seven innings, seven innings. You have to score to win anyway."
Both teams had just one batter record more than one hit. D.J. Mills had two singles and two runs batted in to lead Highlands and center fielder Walls went 2-for-3 to lead North Bullitt.
North Bullitt scored its lone run in the second inning. Left fielder Dalton Casey reached when Highlands dropped the ball in the outfield and stole second. One out later, right fielder Keaton Reitz singled to left to score Casey seconds ahead of the throw.
But Highlands did not wait long to take the lead for good scoring twice in the bottom of the third. With one out, Brady Murray singled off McKenzie and took second when Conner Kreeger grounded out. Todd Ramey and Jake Whitford then walked to load the bases. That's when Mills poked one into left field to score Murray and Ramey to give Highlands the 2-1 lead.
"I was seeing the ball well (Wednesday)," Mills said. "That ball that I hit foul (hard passed the left field foul pole in the second inning), I felt like I could hit it to the opposite field so I poked my chest at the ball and hit it. When you get an outside pitch (as a right-handed batter), you have to take it to right field."
The Bluebirds added a vital insurance run in the bottom of the sixth inning. With one out, Veneman doubled prompting North Bullitt to bring in Kelly. On Kelly's first pitch, Murray landed a hard bunt to North Bullitt third baseman Ryan Henson. Henson threw Murray out, but Veneman hustled around third and beat Eagle first baseman Logan Wyatt's throw home to make the final score of 3-1 Bluebirds.
"I knew it was going to be close so I turned on the jets as hard as I could," Veneman said. "I wasn't going to let them get me out."
The Bluebirds worked out of a big jam in the sixth inning. Wyatt singled to lead off the inning and Kelly put down a successful bunt single. Austin Trammell and Alec Lush ran for Wyatt and Kelly respectively. Casey then put a bunt down the first base side but was out when he touched the bunted ball in fair territory. Trammell had to return to second and Lush to first with one out.
That's when Highlands catcher Luke Hennigan came up huge. Raisor struck out Ryan Henson. But when the ball hit the dirt, Trammell tried to take third. Hennigan fired a dart to Ramey at third to nail Trammell for the inning-ending double play.
"It's all about technique right there," Hennigan said. "When you see (the ball) in the ground, the catcher instinct takes over. When you see (runners) go, you pick it up firing and hope you beat him to the base. That play to close (the inning) off gave us all the momentum in the world."
But North Bullitt did not go quietly in the seventh inning. Keaton Reitz was hit by a pitch prompting Doty to come in. McKenzie hit a ground ball that Grayson Heck dove for at second and flipped to Whitford for the out at second.
That brought Walls up and he flow out to Veneman in center allowing McKenzie to move to third. Chance Engor fouled off several pitches before drawing a walk to load the bases bringing up Wyatt. Wyatt was batting .461 with 11 home runs entering the tournament. But Doty struck him out looking to end the game with a fastball.
"I blacked out almost because I was hoping it was a strike," Doty said of the last pitch. "I didn't have a great feel for the ball because my adrenaline was pumping. But my fastball was coming in well."
Wyatt finished the tournament going 1-for-7. Second Region champion Hopkinsville held Wyatt hitless in three at-bats in the Eagle 6-4 win Monday.
No team has scored more than two runs against Highlands in the postseason. Boone County did that in the 9th Region semifinals and McCracken County did it in the first round of the state tournament. Offensively, the win Wednesday marked Highlands' lowest run total of the seven postseason games.
Defending state champion Louisville St. Xavier lost 5-2 to Louisville Ballard in the 7th Region championship. That marked the first time the Tigers did not make it to the state tournament since 2010.
That left out a private school at the state baseball tournament for first time since 2010 when all 16 region champions came to the state tournament. The last time the state tournament did not have a private school when eight teams qualified came in 2007.
The last Kentucky High School Baseball Coaches Association Poll had St. Xavier ranked third in the state. Eight teams from that poll made the tournament, but only three remain after Highlands beat top-ranked McCracken County and 18th-ranked North Bullitt. They are the sixth-ranked Elizabethtown Panthers of the 5th Region and the 12-ranked South Warren Spartans of the 4th Region. South Warren (29-9) faces Scott in the quarterfinals at 6 p.m. Thursday and Elizabethtown (32-8) takes on West Jessamine (33-7) at 8:30 p.m.
This also marks the furthest a 9th Region team has gone since 2006. Beechwood lost to Lexington Catholic, 6-4 in the championship game that year. Covington Catholic won the state title in 2002. Conner lost to the same North Bullitt team, 4-3 in the same round last year.
Rawlings/KHSAA State Baseball Tournament First Round:
Teams: R H E
North Bullitt (31-12) 010 000 0 -- 1 6 2
Highlands (34-6) 002 001 0 -- 3 7 1
North Bullitt Leading Hitter:
Daulton Walls, 2-for-3.
Highlands Leading Hitters:
D.J. Mills, 2-for-3, 2 runs batted in.
Alex Veneman, 1-for-3, double.
North Bullitt Pitchers:
IP K BB H R ER
Chase McKenzie (L, 4-3) 5.1 3 2 7 3 3
Jacob Kelly 0.2 1 0 0 0 0
IP K BB H R ER
Ricky Raisor (W, 9-1) 6 5 1 5 1 0
Ethan Doty (S, 2) 1 1 1 1 0 0
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 5, McCracken County 2
South Warren 5, South Laurel 3
Elizabethtown 8, Owensboro Apollo 1
West Jessamine 11, Louisville Ballard 6
Scott 4, Knott County Central 1
Highlands 3, North Bullitt 1
Greenup County 8, Collins 6
South Warren (29-9) vs. Scott (22-11), 6 p.m.
West Jessamine (33-7) vs. Elizabethtown (32-8), 8:30 p.m.
Highlands (34-6) vs. Greenup County (33-10), 6 p.m.
Thursday winners, 8:30 p.m.
Saturday Title Game:
Friday winners, 7 p.m.
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