By Denis House
LAUREL COUNTY, Ky. —
BARBOURVILLE—Sometimes it’s the little things that count, especially in baseball.
Stuff like sacrifices, which don’t show up in the box score but can mean the difference between scoring a run and not scoring a run. A good example was Tuesday night’s 10-1 win by North Laurel over Middlesboro in the semifinals of the 13th Region baseball tournament at Knox Central.
Three of the Jaguars’ 10 runs were the result of a sacrifice fly, while several others were set-up thanks to a key sacrifice. Coach Darren McWhorter was pleased with the way his team executed in the win.
“That makes a big difference when you can do those little things, like moving runners over,” McWhorter said. “It will especially be important Thursday night.” That’s when the Jaguars met the Harlan County Black Bears for the 13th Region title and a trip to next week’s state tournament in Lexington.
Like in the 10-0 win over Corbin in the opening game, North Laurel (23-11-1) jumped on top early, scoring three runs in the bottom of the first. McWhorter said that was important in this game.
“It’s always nice to jump on a team early,” McWhorter said. “That takes some of the pressure off, especially when you have young kids on your team. Our young kids handled the pressure well.”
Coming into the tournament, North’s plan was to use Zach Hurley for four innings against Corbin, come back with Logan Mallory against Middlesboro with the hopes of him pitching a complete game, then have Hurley and other pitchers available for the championship game, if they made it that far.
They have, and that plan fell into place exactly as McWhorter hoped it would.
“Logan has been consistent all year long,” McWhorter said. “He’s been giving us complete games.” Mallory allowed one run on three hits. He struck out 11 and walked six, including the first two batters in the top of the seventh. But McWhorter had no plans on pulling him in favor of a reliever.
“I knew he would settle down,” McWhorter said.
And he was right. Mallory struck out the next three batters to finish off the Yellow Jackets and advance to the title game.
Middlesboro (22-12-0) missed a golden opportunity in the top of the first inning as it had the bases loaded with two outs before Mallory got Brandon Hale to ground out to Weston Griebel at first for the third out.
When North had its chance in the bottom of the inning, the Jaguars capitalized, scoring three runs for the early lead.
Marcus Carson led off with a single to right. Griebel followed with a single to left. The single parade continued when Ethan Maxey hit one to right to score Carson. Another single, this one by Hurley to right, brought home Griebel, but Hunter North, running for Maxey, was gunned down at the plate. A sacrifice fly by Austin Thompson scored Hurley to make it 3-0.
Middlesboro’s lone run came in the top of the third when, with two outs, Tyler Yoakum walked, and Jacob Schneider was brought in as a courtesy runner. Tyler Prather followed with a single to center. Hale smacked a hard grounder to first where Griebel bobbled the ball, but recovered in time to flip it to Mallory covering first. But Mallory dropped the ball and the bases were now loaded for Lucas Crawford, who singled to drive in Schneider to cut the lead to 3-1.
The Jags got that run back in the bottom of the inning as Hurley doubled and scored on a single by Thompson. Thompson had two singles and drove in two runs.
Cole Lewis turned in a nice defensive play at short in the fifth when, with two outs, Prater’s grounder looked destined for a hit, but Lewis made the play and fired to first in time for the third out.
Then came the bottom of the sixth, where North scored six runs to put the game on ice and seal its trip to the region finals.
Thompson led off the inning with a single. Mallory followed with a single of his own. Dylan Messer came in to run for Mallory.
Austin Rudder laid down a bunt that was fielded but no one was there to cover first for the Yellow Jackets. Rudder was safe, and the bases were loaded for Byron Rice, who drew a walk to force in Thompson to make it 5-1.
Lewis flew out to left, but it was deep enough to score Messer. Carson walked to again load the bases and that was all for Yoakum, as Hunter Collett took over on the mound.
The first batter he faced was Griebel, who grounded to third, but the throw home in an attempt to get Rudder sailed high and North now led 7-1. Collett walked Maxey, forcing in Rice. Carson scored on a wild pitch, and North’s final run came when Hurley flew out to right to bring Griebel home to make it 10-1.
“Everybody played a role tonight,” McWhorter said. “I’m tickled to death. I like our chances against Harlan County. We’ve got as good a chance as anybody. You watch, it will probably be some unsung hero that wins that game.”
If North Laurel wins that game, it will be the Jaguars first region title since 2007 and they will face the winner of the 14th Region Monday at 1:30 p.m. at Whitaker Bank Ballpark.