By Mitch Howard
LAUREL COUNTY, Ky. —
LEXINGTON— Winning the first game might seem like the obvious first step. South Laurel’s 4-1 win over Scott carried some extra significance Monday in the Rawlings/ KHSAA State Baseball Tournament.
“That’s a relief right there. South Laurel history was made today. That’s the first ever win in the state tournament. I’m so happy for our guys. They played their hearts out and they played against a really good team,” South Laurel coach Wynn Harris said.
In 2012, Harris and the Cardinals lost to Ashland Blazer 7-0 in the first round. In 2009, it was a 16-5 loss to Bullitt East in five innings. In 2006, it was Jeremy Brown at the helm when the Cardinals fell to Lexington Catholic 5-0.
“It was big for us to win the first game. We’ve been here four times in the last nine years now and not really had a very good showing in the first round,” Harris said.
Needing a solid opening game was one reason Harris went with Braden Miller on the mound. He delivered with a solid five-hit performance. Miller worked ahead in the count all night and walked just one batter.
“That’s what he’s done all year, flood the zone and induce contact. He made some great pitches and the thing about it is we have a defense behind us,” Harris said.
The defense came through as well with flashy double plays in the third and sixth innings. The game ended with Joe Gaines making a diving snag of a low line drive.
The other piece of the puzzle was an offense that battled at the plate and put the ball in play. Even when the Cardinals didn’t score early, Harris liked his team’s approach.
“Everyone in our lineup tonight was contact oriented,” Harris said. “That’s what you’ve got to do. You can’t let somebody come in and have eight, nine, 10 strikeouts.”
There were two outs in the third inning when Gaines smacked the first pitch into right field. Trey Martin followed with a walk. Daniel Neal fell behind 0-2, but did not take a timid swing. A hard single on a full cut by Neal would drive in the first South Laurel run.
“Daniel Neal is a great hitter and he has a great eye for the fastball,” Harris said. “If you look back over the course of the year he doesn’t strikeout out a lot. I think he’s got 10 strikeouts on the year in 30 games.”
With runners now at first and third, Neal broke for second. The throw went to second then home as Martin slid in just ahead of the tag on a double steal.
“I just wanted to put pressure on them. I wanted to give us a chance,” Harris said. “When you get here, I don’t think you can go station to station. I think you have to try to create something.”
The Cardinals weren’t done yet. An RBI single by Zach Allen would make it a 3-0 game and probably be enough runs to win the game.
“I thought it could be. We pitched it well enough all year where I thought three runs could be,” Harris said.
Scott (25-15) had been held to three runs or less only once in the last 12 games as they got hot to win the 10th Region. Miller was still in control with a pair of strikeouts in the fourth inning, including one on a nasty curveball
“He’s the best strike thrower that we’ve got. Not that any of the others are bad. We’ve got a great pitching staff,” Harris said.
The Eagles would break through in the fifth inning. Jake Ohmer led off with a single and scored on a single by Nick Thurza. That would be their only highlights as Miller retired the last eight batters in order. Although Blake Gay reached on an error to lead off the sixth inning, he was quickly erased on a double play.
“We don’t let it get to us. We just keep grinding. That’s what I’m so proud of these kids for,” Harris said.
South Laurel (28-8) threatened to blow the game open in the sixth inning. Miller doubled and scored on a Brennan Miller single for a 4-1 lead. The Cardinals would leave the bases loaded.
South Laurel will play South Warren (28-13) tonight in the second round. The Spartans were a 4-0 winner over Daviess County in their first round game.
“I love our chances. I love our team,” Harris said.