LAUREL COUNTY, Ky. —
LEXINGTON – To beat Ashland Blazer, you have to score some runs. South Laurel found that can be difficult in a 7-0 loss to the Tomcats in the first round of the Kentucky National Insurance/ KHSAA State Baseball Tournament.
“You run out there against a guy that is very good. Left-handed pitchers we haven’t seen very much of all year. I think we had probably seen a handful of left-handed pitchers and it showed,” South Laurel coach Wynn Harris said. “When you have as many left-handed hitters as we do in our lineup I was kind of afraid we might have a struggle on our hands.”
Sam Hunter isn’t just a left-handed pitcher. He is a very good one. The 6-foot, 160-pound senior threw a no-hitter in the 16th Region Tournament. His record is a sparkling 10-1 this season with an ERA under 1.00. He has 135 strikeouts in 74 innings pitched. Tuesday he recorded 14 of the 21 outs by strikeout.
“He’s just a great competitor. He’s a five-year starter,” Ashland coach Jeff Wilcox said. “When the ball is in his hand you always feel like you’ve got a chance to win.”
The Cardinals had not been shut out this season, but if it was going to happen Ashland would be a likely candidate. The Tomcats have shutout 13 opponents this season, including a stretch of four straight shutouts near the end of the regular season. They have allowed three runs or less in 25 games.
“Pitching has been a backbone of this team. We’ve got a lot of shutouts, plus a lot of one-run games,” Wilcox said.
South Laurel did have chances with eight runners left stranded including bases loaded in the first inning. The Cardinals had runners on base in five innings from a combination of five walks and four hits. The leadoff runner was able to reach base in three innings and three times a runner touched third base. The threats usually ended with a strikeout.
“I was happy with our guys from the standpoint they did what they needed to do. We had base runners. We took a lot of walks,” Harris said.
It could have been a much different game had the Cardinals taken advantage of early wildness by Hunter. He walked Trent Abner and Joe Gaines to open the game. Both runners advanced on a groundout by Alex Sears. Stephen Simpson walked to load the bases, but Simpson’s walk came between strikeouts from Daniel Neal and Chase McWhorter.
Austin Vigeant matched Hunter for three scoreless innings. South Laurel had threatened more than Ashland to that point, including back-to-back singles by Gaines and Sears in the third inning. In the fourth inning, Drew Irvin walked and was thrown out stealing. Trey Martin singled on a hard liner to centerfield that almost got past the outfielder. The Tomcats would finally get to Vigeant in the fourth.
Joe Stewart got Ashland Blazer started with a one-out double. It wasn’t a hard-hit ball. Stewart lifted the ball just over first base where it took a right turn into foul territory. Despite a good throw from McWhorter, Stewart slid safely into second base. Cameron Fritz worked the count full before drawing a walk. With two outs, No. 8 hitter Evan Yongue drove in both runners with a double. It was the only at bat that Yongue did not strike out.
“We felt like they had a lot of lefties. (Vigeant) had been the best lefty arm that we had all year and he had been real consistent in the tournament,” Harris said. “He gets us through four innings and we think we’re O.K. and we are. We’re still very much in the ballgame.”
Abner led off the fifth inning with a walk. He moved to second on a Gaines’ bunt and third on a wild pitch. Strikeouts again ended the threat.
Charlie Davis relieved Vigeant in the bottom of the fifth. Logan Salow walked and moved to second on a bunt. Aaron Elam won a good battle with Davis, fouling off two pitches after working the count full. Then the lefty slapped a single to left field for a 3-0 lead.
“It was just one of those things that it never really got out of control. It just started trickling on us,” Harris said.
The Tomcats opened some breathing room in the sixth with four runs, including a two-run double by Aaron Elam on a 0-2 pitch. Again it wasn’t a hard-hit ball, but a hit that found the right spot.
“I think the nerves kind of came back when they hit the little bloop and made it 5-0. Then we started pressing a little bit,” Harris said.
No. 9 hitter Jared Slone also had an RBI double in the inning. The Cardinals issued three walks and committed their only error in the sixth inning.
South Laurel is winless in three trips to the state tournament. They also advanced to the state tournament in 2006 and 2009.
“Our seniors (Chase McWhorter, StephenSimpson, Drew Irvin, Charlie Davis) were freshmen when we were here in 2009. I think it was something they wanted to do. They wanted to get back to the state tournament. It means a lot to them,” Harris said.
With only three seniors in the starting lineup, South Laurel will have a lot of tournament experience returning. Harris gives the seniors a lot of credit for leading the younger players
“One of the things that’s I’m most proud of is we became a team,” Harris said. “There was no horse that we rode all year. There were a lot of different guys that played the hero role for us.”