Last Friday, defending state baseball champion West Jessamine came to the plate in the bottom of the seventh inning with three outs left against cross-town rival East Jessamine. Junior Jacob Hyland had pitched yet another gem for the Colts, but the Jaguars used a walk, a stolen base and an RBI single to nab a 1-0 lead in the top of the inning.
West Jessamine’s offense had been quiet all night, but woke up with the game on the line. Hunter Noble drilled a fastball down the third base line to bring Skylar Cannady home, then Spencer Blancet drew a bases-loaded walk that completed the comeback and sent the home dugout into a frenzy.
With the 2-1 win, the Colts locked up the top seed in this month’s 46th District Tournament and gained a shot of momentum heading into the season’s stretch run. They also offered a snapshot of the difference between last year’s championship team and this year’s squad, which improved to 19-5.
“Our main calling card is pitching and defense. I think that’s what we emphasize the most,” said West Jessamine head coach Jody Hamilton, who last year became the first head coach in state history to win a baseball championship at two different schools (Boyle County, 2001).
During last year’s four-game run through the state tournament bracket at Whitaker Bank Ballpark, it was the Colts’ hot offense that brought the hardware home. West Jessamine plated 48 runs on 46 hits for a .383 batting average during the tournament and put up double-digit runs in each contest, including the 10-3 finals victory over Highlands.
With a team average of .276 this season the Colts can still do plenty of damage in the batter’s box. But with a pitching staff that’s sporting a 1.09 earned run average, its no wonder Hamilton says the team’s success starts from the mound.
Our pitching has been very solid. We’ve got four senior pitchers, and anytime you start with that you’re in pretty good shape. We’ve had a lot of quality appearances, and hopefully they stay as hot as they have been.
Jody Hamilton, West Jessamine coach
“Our pitching has been very solid. We’ve got four senior pitchers, and anytime you start with that you’re in pretty good shape,” he said. “We’ve had a lot of quality appearances, and hopefully they stay as hot as they have been.”
Hyland got his team-leading fifth win of the year against East Jessamine. The junior right-hander, who transferred from Lexington Catholic before this season, has tossed the most innings for the Colts with 32 2/3 and boasts a 0.64 ERA, tops among team starters.
Hyland said he’s hungry to help the Colts repeat as champs and play for his first state title.
“I’m looking forward to the chance to win (a championship). We have a great group of guys that can get it done. We believe in each other, so I think we have a great shot of getting back there and doing it again,” he said.
Hyland is joined in the starting rotation by Mark Leonard, Jordan Taylor and Jacob Cervantes. Leonard, who started West Jessamine’s 12-6 quarterfinals victory over Elizabethtown in the 2015 state tournament, comes in just behind Hyland with 31 1/3 innings pitched for a 3-0 record and 1.11 ERA. The tall, charismatic senior, whom teammates have affectionately dubbed “Hollywood,” says a dominant pitching staff isn’t the only thing that sets the Colts apart.
“We’re a very serious group. We focus a lot more than I feel other teams do,” he said. “You’ve got teams that are real chatty and like to make a lot of noise. We’re that team that just sits back and lets our abilities and our game speak for us. We don’t use all the yelling in the dugout, banging on fences and slapping our hands and chanting. That’s never really been us.”
The Colts’ pitching staff is rounded out by Noble, Kendall Peters and Tucker Greer, who come on in relief at times. But that trio does the bulk of its damage at the plate. Greer, a senior outfielder who had two hits and two runs in last year’s championship game, leads the team with a .392 batting average and 23 RBI. Noble is third-best with an average of .333, behind Ryan Layne’s .367.
Noble said the Colts are still a work in progress, but he likes their chances of rounding into form in time to make another title run.
“Some days we’re the best team in the state and some days we struggle a little bit, but we’ll figure it out by the end of the year,” he said. “We know what playing for a championship is like, and after experiencing it last year we definitely want to get back and we know what it takes to get there, too. So that’s an advantage we have.”
The Colts have several big games left in the regular season to help prepare for the postseason, including a Wednesday night rematch with 12th Region-leading Somerset, who edged the Coltss 6-5 on March 28, and an appearance in the Fayette County Invitational Tournament, where they’ll look to avenge a 7-4 loss to Tates Creek.
Hamilton is confident that the demands of a difficult schedule have helped his team mature.
“We’re happy with how the season is shaping up,” he said. “Our schedule’s been tough so we’re glad to be where we are. We have to continue to improve, we know that. But now we’re getting to the point where experience isn’t a factor anymore. We just hope to continue to get better and I think we will.”
Josh Sullivan, 859-231-3225. @sullyjosh