By Mitch Howard
LAUREL COUNTY, Ky. —
PRESTONSBURG—North Laurel stayed alive in the 11 year old state tournament with an easy 12-0 win over Morgan County Wednesday evening.
With the win, North advanced to Thursday night’s semi-final game against Warren County Southern. Win that game and they will be playing for the state title tonight.
On Tuesday night, North Laurel got by Prestonsburg in a nail-biter, 8-7.
After leading 5-0 after three innings against Prestonsburg, North Laurel appeared headed for an easy win. Turned out there was nothing easy about it.
Flash forward to the bottom of the last inning. North Laurel was clinging to an 8-7 lead with the bases full of Prestonsburg runners. There were no outs and coach Jason Vanhook was worried.
“Absolutely. In the bottom of the last inning when they loaded the bases and we had no outs, I was thinking we are in trouble,” Vanhook said.
Ty Baker entered as a relief pitcher with two outs in the fifth inning under similar stress. The bases were loaded then when he ended the threat with a strikeout. Baker had done nothing wrong to get in trouble in the sixth inning. None of the three Prestonsburg hits had left the infield, but here he was.
Baker fell behind Devin Johnson 3-0. One more ball would walk in the winning run. Playing the home team with the home umpires, you could expect the strike zone not to favor Baker, but the next three pitches were strikes. He also fanned the next batter.
That brought Zach Thompson to the plate. All Thompson had done previously was drive in four runs including a long home run to centerfield. He squared the bat on a pitch from Baker and hammered a line drive to centerfield.
“When it first came off the bat, I thought, ‘oh no.’” When I saw Seth (McClure) in centerfield had a bead on it, I knew he got it,” Vanhook said.
McClure looked as calm as a kid playing catch in his backyard, until he squeezed the final out and was mobbed by teammates.
“Baseball is a funny game and it is a humbling game. You have to come ready to play,” Vanhook said.
North Laurel seemed ready as it built the early lead. But they also left 10 runners stranded that could have made the game much easier.
“We had it put away earlier. We left bases loaded twice and against a great ball club like Prestonsburg you cannot do that. You absolutely cannot do that,” Vanhook said.
North Laurel opened the scoring with a pair of runs in the first inning. Noah Rogers took first on a wild third strike. He later scored on a wild pitch. Blake Vanhook singled and scored on a groundout by Blaine Miller.
The third inning started with Blake Vanhook launching a home run to left field. Vanhook had taken two bad swings before correcting his swing on an inside fastball.
Colby Howard reached on an error. McClure singled and Miller walked to load the bases. A walk to Conner Pennington forced home one run. Baker singled home Miller to make it a 5-0 game. The inning would end with the bases still loaded. The bases were also loaded in a scoreless fourth inning.
Prestonsburg’s outlook changed dramatically when Thompson bounced a three-run home run off a Tahoe beyond the centerfield fence. It was the first hit of the game for Prestonsburg.
North Laurel got those three runs back in the fifth inning, highlighted by Howard’s two-run shot to centerfield.
In the bottom of the fifth, three walks, a hit batter, and two errors added up to five more runs for Prestonsburg. They were now within 8-7 with only two hits in the game.
“Our defense had been solid up until this game, pretty much error-free. I think we made three errors today. Two of those errors cost us. The first one didn’t, but the next two cost us big time,” Vanhook said.
North Laurel left two more runners stranded in the sixth inning. A dramatic leaping catch by Prestonsburg shortstop Blake Slone saved at least one run and built the drama for Prestonsburg’s final at bat.