By Denis House
LAUREL COUNTY, Ky. —
Coming off a disappointing loss to Pulaski County, the South Laurel Cardinals regrouped Thursday night and handed defending 13th Region champion Clay County a 4-3 loss.
“Top to bottom this was the best game we’ve played all year,” South Laurel coach Wynn Harris said. “We had good pitching and defense, timely hitting and we scored runs when we needed to.”
The good pitching came from Daniel Neal, who threw a complete game three-hitter. He struck out six and walked none. He did hit one batter. The only mistakes he made came off the two home runs that Clay County hit.
“I’ll take the blame for his two mistakes,” Harris said. “The first home run I called for him to throw a curve. I didn’t want him to get in a rut throwing fast balls. The second home run was just a clutch piece of hitting. You knew that Clay wasn’t going down without a fight.”
The Cardinals (7-2) jumped on Clay pitcher Justin Smith for two runs in the bottom of the first inning as Smith struggled with his control. He walked Trent Abner and Joe Gaines to start the inning, and Alex Sears made him pay by singling in Abner for a 1-0 lead. When Neal grounded out third to first Gaines came home for the second run.
Neal kept the Tigers (4-2) at bay until the top of the fifth when Tyler Allen’s solo shot cleared the right field fence, cutting the lead to 2-1.
South Laurel answered with two runs in the bottom of the sixth to take a 4-1 lead. Clutch hits by Charlie Davis, Trey Martin and Drew Irvin were key for South Laurel in the inning.
With one out, Davis, pinch hitting for Matthew Slavey, singled and advanced to second on a passed ball. Slavey was then reinserted into the line up to run for Davis.
After a Stephen Simpson strike out, Martin singled to right to score Slavey. Irvin followed with a single of his own, putting runners on first and third for Trent Abner, who was intentionally walked, loading the bases and bringing Gaines to the plate. Gaines was patient at the plate, drawing a walk by Smith to force in Martin and give the Cardinals a 4-1 lead.
“We’ve got a lot of guys fighting for their spot,” Harris said. “We are trying to encourage them when they get the opportunity to produce. Tonight they did just that.”
Smith opened the top of the seventh with a single to center. Tanner Hensley then smacked a two-run homer over the left centerfield fence, cutting the lead to 4-3. But Neal struck out Austin Carnahan, then got both Tyler Allen and Tanner Smith to ground out second and first to seal the win.
“It was very important for us to get this win,” Harris said. “We knew this was going to be a tough week. We kind of needed Tuesday (the loss to Pulaski) to ground us. We got beat because we didn’t do the little things correctly. Tonight we did, and it’s a good feeling. We still had too many strikeouts (10).”
The Cardinals traveled to take on North Laurel Friday and played host to Cumberland Gap, Tn., on Saturday. South will host Letcher County Central tonight and travel to Clay County on Tuesday.