LAUREL COUNTY, Ky. —
North Laurel coach Darren McWhorter doesn’t feel like the best team won.
“Baseball is a funny thing. The best teams don’t always win,” McWhorter said.
The best team Wednesday was Middlesboro with a convincing 11-5 win over the Jaguars. Paced by solid pitching from Thomas Epperson and timely hitting, the Yellowjackets ended what could be argued as North Laurel’s best baseball season.
“It’s the best season North Laurel has ever had,” McWhorter said. “No one has ever lost under 10 games.”
North Laurel’s 28-7 record is still the best in the 13th Region. Middlesboro also beat the team with the second best record, Harlan County at 26-7, to win the 52nd District title. The Yellowjackets’ only loss in their last eight games was a 12-2 humbling by the South Laurel team they will play for the 13th Region title.
The tone for the game was set in the first inning. North Laurel had a chance to strike with Marcus Carson walking and Zach Storm hit by a pitch. Carson would get picked off at second base. A promising inning ended with two strikeouts.
“We didn’t hit the ball well enough. We were getting guys on and getting them in scoring position in every inning but a couple, but never did get the big hit,” McWhorter said.
Middlesboro’s half of the first inning started the same way. A walk to Austin Baker and Jake Brock was hit by a pitch. They would seize the opportunity. A walk to Epperson loaded the bases. Despite the walks, Tim Helton was not taking. He jumped on the first pitch for a two-run single. John Millett followed with a single off the third base bag to drive in another run. A sacrifice fly by Bubba Brock made it a 4-0 game.
“We got off to a bad start. Who knows if we come out and score some runs in the first inning?” McWhorter said.
The second inning started the same for North Laurel, only this time it would score. They were still hitless. Gabe Blair walked and Zach Hurley was hit by a pitch. Taylor Bowling battled his way to a walk that loaded the bases. The first run scored on a walk to Storm. A second run scored on a strikeout when the pitch got past the catcher.
Epperson walked eight batters and hit three. He also struck out 11 batters. Epperson will be attending UK in the fall, but as a Governor’s Scholar not a baseball player.
“He was effectively wild at times. It wasn’t like he was locating every single thing,” McWhorter said. “And we helped him a few times by swinging at balls outside the strike zone. I’m not taking anything from him. He threw extremely well.”
Middlesboro got one run back in the third. Tyler Yocum singled and scored on a double by Chris Short.
McWhorter did not think starting pitcher Tayler Bowling threw poorly despite the Yellowjackets scoring. He pointed out it was Bowling that held No. 7 ranked West Jessamine to four runs in a win earlier in the season.
“It wasn’t like they were hitting him hard all the time. They were just hitting balls we were having a really hard time making plays on. It just led to quite a few runs,” McWhorter said. “Taylor was who we were going to throw. He has thrown lights out for us all year long. Everybody on this team had confidence we were going to come out and win this game with him pitching.”
That still looked like a possibility when the Jaguars got their first hit in the fourth inning. Storm drove a line shot over the centerfield fence to make it a 5-3 game.
“We had guys in scoring position after that. We just had a hard time getting them in,” McWhorter said.
And they still had a hard time slowing down the Yellowjackets. In the bottom of the fourth inning, Epperson legged out an infield single and scored on a single by Millett.
North Laurel left two runners stranded in the fifth. They would leave 10 stranded in the game.
Middlesboro took charge for good with five runs in the fifth inning. Consecutive doubles by Brock, Epperson, and Helton fueled the big inning. Although North got a two-run single from Eversole in the sixth, the hole was too big.
After the game, McWhorter spent a lot of time with his team. There were a lot of tears and hugs. The best season in North Laurel baseball had ended sooner than any of them planned.
“That’s tough. That’s a solid group of kids right there. They are all college-bound guys. It’s going to be hard to replace them, but the show will go on next year,” McWhorter said.