Things looked dicey for Hunter Hilbert in the top of the first inning.
Woodford County's ace allowed Lexington Catholic to put a run across the plate and put three more Knights on the base pads. He worked out of the bases-loaded jam and the Yellow Jackets responded with a run of their own to knot things after the opening frame.
Hilbert and his team went on to retire 18 of Catholic's final 19 batters to keep the Knights at bay the rest of the night. A triple to right field by Skyelar Johnson and a subsequent run scored by Johnson on a wild pitch in the bottom of the sixth made the difference in a 3-1 victory in the final first round game of the 11th Region tournament at Woodford County Park on Tuesday night.
Woodford County advanced to play Madison Central in the semifinals at 8 p.m. Wednesday. The semifinals were originally scheduled for Tuesday but inclement weather forced the postponement of LexCath-Woodford until Tuesday. More rain is in the forecast.
In total, 20 of the last 21 Lexington Catholic batters failed to reach. Noah Milburn broke a streak of 17 straight retired after reaching on an error to lead off the top of the seventh, but the Knights couldn't move him.
Woodford County Coach Paul Patterson expected a pitchers duel, and both guys on the mound delivered. Eric Sottile went the distance for Lexington Catholic and gave up only four hits; they just proved to be timely ones for the Yellow Jackets.
"They came out in the first inning and didn't look real good but they just kept their eyes forward and their blinders on and made the plays that they needed to," Patterson said. " ... They just wanted it really bad, so I'm proud of 'em and I hope that they can bring that every day and they don't take their foot off the gas. We've got to put pedal to the metal and go through this thing."
Hilbert, who will play college ball at Indiana-Southeast next season, brings more to the team than an intimidating mound presence.
"He's been exceptional all year long, and not just his pitch ability but the way he leads this baseball team," Patterson said. "Every single guy behind him plays for him and they love him and follow him. He's got the heart of a champion."
Johnson, a sophomore and the son of former University of Kentucky and NFL star Dennis Johnson, wasn't sure his game-changing triple was going to drop.
"I thought (the right-fielder) was going to get to it but it went further and further and hit the fence so I was glad we got the run in," Skyelar said with a grin.
Dennis, who's the football coach and athletic director at Woodford County, had his share of game-defining plays while at Harrodsburg High School and UK but nothing compares to seeing his own kids make their own moments.
"It's always good," Dennis said. "All my kids, man, we go to work. We were in the cage this morning and we'll probably go hit after this. I just believe if you have work ethic you've got a chance to be successful, and he's finally starting to figure that out."