LAUREL COUNTY, Ky. —
LEXINGTON—North Laurel and Prestonsburg traveled to the Forcht Bank/ KHSAA State Baseball Tournament with a similar outlook. Win the first game and then see what happens.
“I told our kids we’re not coming down here to win one game and go to the house. We’re not satisfied with that. We’re coming down here to win it,” Prestonsburg coach Shane Simpkins said.
Simpkins even went with Trey Stapleton on the mound in part because it would make him available to pitch again in the semifinals.
North Laurel coach Darren McWhorter said his team also felt confident they could make a strong run.
“There is no doubt about it. Our pitching was good enough that if we could have won this game then who knows? Our kids were confident we could win this game. Our kids were confident we might win a couple of games,” McWhorter said.
It was Prestonsburg that kept its season alive with a 3-0 win over the Jaguars. Stapleton shut out the Jaguars on four hits with nine strikeouts and a single walk.
“I would like to look at our record and see how many times we’ve been shut out. It’s not been many,” McWhorter said.
The Jaguars had been shut out one time during the regular season. It was an unexpected 1-0 loss at Bell County with North Laurel’s top two hitter’s out. Bell County threw a soft-tosser that kept the North Laurel hitters off balance and the Jaguars did not take advantage of the chances they got. You could almost write that one off as a fluke.
“No matter how good of pitching we have seen, we’ve been able to scratch out runs all season long. We’ve faced some good pitching,” McWhorter said.
Bell County would be North Laurel’s final loss before reeling off seven straight wins going into the state tournament. Although Stapleton is the staff ace, he was not overpowering by the standards of some of the pitchers North Laurel has faced. He was the most effective.
“He threw a whale of a game, but I just thought we would score runs off of him,” McWhorter said. “He was throwing 80-81. It looked like he was throwing 90 or 91 with some of our batters in the box the way they were swinging at him.”
The Jaguars had very few chances as Stapleton threw a complete game. Weston Griebel singled in the first inning, but was caught stealing. Stapleton struck out the side in the second inning during a streak where he fanned five of six batters.
North Laurel’s second hit was a bunt single by Cole Lewis in the third inning. The best chances to score a run came in the fourth and sixth innings.
In the fourth , Ethan Maxey singled with one out. Zach Hurley grounded to third base with the throw going to second. Maxey beat the throw. Austin Thompson walked to load the bases. The threat ended when Logan Mallory grounded into a double play.
“I had all the confidence that Logan was going to score a run right there. If he hits the ball that he hit in the (seventh inning) we score a run right there,” McWhorter said.
In the sixth inning, Carson led off with a double to the gap in left center. Griebel bunted to move Carson to third. Carson represented the tying run and was now 90-feet from scoring. McWhorter said he did consider letting Griebel swing away. In a similar situation against Harlan County in the 13th Region Tournament, McWhorter said he let Griebel swing.
“He ate the second baseman up for Harlan and scored the run. He got that big inning going,” McWhorter said. “But I was thinking if he pulls off and pops one up and he’s still stuck at second base I would be kicking myself.”
McWhorter also considered a squeeze bunt with Maxey at the plate and Carson at third. When the first three pitches to Maxey were balls the plan changed. Stapleton battled back to strike out Maxey and Hurley to end the inning.
“I knew (Carson) was going to score. It just wasn’t meant to be. We just weren‘t able to get runners across the plate,” McWhorter said.
The Jaguars pitching was good enough to win with Griebel holding the Blackcats to one run in three innings. Griebel did not walk a batter, but did allow eight hits. The North Laurel defense made sure the hits didn’t hurt. Grant Anderson led off the game with a single and stole second. He was caught leading off second on a quick pickoff throw from Maxey. Hunter Brown singled in the second inning, only to be thrown out stealing by Maxey.
“Ethan Maxey is a weapon. He is the best catcher in the region hands down if not one of the better ones in the state,” McWhorter said. “He is a defensive weapon back there. Go ahead and steal. Please try.”
Prestonsburg pushed a run across in the third, but it took four hits. Dalton Shepherd and Anderson singled to open the third inning. Shepherd tried to score on a grounder back to Griebel, but failed. When Jarrin Hall singled to centerfield, it seemed Anderson would score easily. Carson charged the ball hard and threw a perfect strike home.
“You’ve got to tip your cap to those guys. Very seldom do you see a ball hit into the outfield and a kid throw a strike to the plate,” Simpkins said.
Prestonsburg finally broke through with a two-out single by Stapleton. The inning would end with no more damage as Maxey gunned down another runner.
“It’s the style we play,” Simpkins said. “When I took over that’s what we told the kids. We’re going to play aggressive. We’re going to make teams make plays on us.”
Carson would take over on the mound in the fourth inning as planned.
“Marcus has been used primarily as a closer this year. He’s not used to throwing whole games. We wanted Weston to eat up a few innings and then turn it over to the senior,” McWhorter said.
Carson retired the first 10 batters he faced with six striking out. He would walk five of the final seven batters he faced as the Blackcats added two runs to their lead. One run scored on a wild pitch and the final run forced home with a walk.
“We threw the ball well enough to get a win with Griebel and Carson. We just didn’t score any runs. When you score zero runs you’re going to win zero games,” McWhorter said.
North Laurel and Prestonsburg now have identical 24-11 records. While the Blackcats season continues, North Laurel’s ends. The career also ends for Carson, but a strong nucleus returns with the experience of playing high-stakes games on their resume.
“They got a little taste of this. I guarantee they are wanting to come back. I’ve explained to them how tough and how hard it is to get here,” McWhorter said. “It may happen again for them, but there are no guarantees.”