Mercer County, down to its last strike, losing 4-1 and with nobody on base, pulled off a stunning 5-4 victory over Pleasure Ridge Park in Friday’s semifinals of the Kentucky National Insurance/KHSAA State Tournament.
Central Hardin scored three runs in each of the first two innings of the opener en route to an 8-6 victory over St. Xavier at Whitaker Bank Ballpark.
The fourth-ranked Bruins will meet Mercer County in the finals, Saturday night at 7.
Mercer County 5, PRP 4: PRP right-hander Hunter Johnson was one strike away from a complete-game, three-hit victory.
Seth Heath started the winning rally by walking on a full-count pitch.
Adam Gooch moved Heath to second on a solid single to left.
Austin Horn, batting in the No. 9 spot, bounced to shortstop Aaron Hockman, who tried for a force at second. However, Gooch simply outran the play and was safe, loading the bases.
John Ingram followed with another bouncer to short. Hockman’s throw to second was off the mark for a two-base, two-run error, leaving runners on second and third and the score 4-3.
Johnson got Clay Cinnamon to launch a fly to deep right, where Chris Burk tracked the ball — only to have it hit off his glove for a two-run, game-ending error.
Until then, PRP’s Matt Mattingly was set to share the hero role with Johnson.
Mattingly belted two-run doubles in the first and seventh innings to provide all the runs for the ninth-ranked Panthers (31-8).
Mercer (28-9), appearing in its first state tourney, got a run in the first.
Ingram led off with a four-pitch walk, then moved around the bases on a wild pitch, a groundout and the first of PRP’s four errors.
Central Hardin 8, St. Xavier 6: "We just put the ball in play and tried to put pressure on their defense to make the play," said Troy Squires, who had three of Central Hardin’s 11 hits and scored three times. "It’s a great night."
For John Jefferson, coach of No. 2 St. Xavier, it marked his final game at the helm.
Asked if there was a chance he might change his mind, he said "zero. This will hurt for a good 24, 48 hours. There’s life after baseball."
Russ Morse also had a three-hit night for the winners, driving in three runs. Matt Nichols and Taylor Wilson added two hits each.
Austin Walters (13-3) held St. X to four runs on eight hits over five innings.
A rain delay of 1:11 at the start of the sixth inning ended Walters’ night. Drew Harrington finished.
"Drew stepped up," Morse said. "He showed a lot of courage for a sophomore, to come in in a situation like that."
Morse and Nichols each singled in a run in the three-hit first inning. A third scored on a groundout.
Central Hardin (35-4) parlayed a single, four walks and a wild pitch to take a 6-0 lead in the second.
Troy Squires had the lone hit, an RBI single that barely squeezed through the infield. Ryan Squires drew a bases-loaded walk to plate a run, and another scored on Ian Tompkins’ wild pitch.
"That was not the Ian I was hoping to get tonight, and he’d be the first person to tell you that," Jefferson said. "He’s very disappointed."
St. Xavier (28-11) came back strong with four runs in the bottom of the second.
Colin McFarland’s sacrifice fly scored Shaun Johnston, who had led off with a double. Johnston finished with three of the Tigers’ 13 hits.
Shane Nitzken knocked a two-out double and scored on Jake Johnson’s single.
Matt Spalding then drove a two-run homer to right field.
Central Hardin added a run in the fourth to take a 7-4 lead.
Troy Squires, who knocked his second double of the game, scored on Morse’s one-out single up the middle.
The weather delay in the sixth didn’t faze the Bruins.
"It’s not our first one this year and we’ve got a very veteran ball club," Coach Todd Thompson said. "So they’ve been through lots of situations."
Morse singled in Central Hardin’s final run in the sixth.
St. X got run-scoring singles from Michael Hellmueller in the sixth and Nathan Lilly in the seventh.
However, the Tigers left two runners on base in both of those innings, and 10 for the game.
St. X left the bases loaded without scoring in the fourth. An inning later, the Tigers had two on and one out, but Pete Eddings lined into an unassisted double play.
Central Hardin 330 101 0—8 11 1
St. Xavier 040 001 1—6 13 1
Walters, Harrington (6) and Morse; Tompkins, Clooney (3), Spalding (6) and Nitzken, Montgomery (6). W—Walters (13-2). L—Tompkins (8-3). 2B—T. Squires 2, CH; Johnston, Nitzken, St. X. HR—Spalding, St. X.
Records—Central Hardin 35-4; St. Xavier 28-11.
Pleasure Ridge Park 200 000 2—4 7 4
Mercer County 100 000 4—5 4 1
Johnson and Brennan; Cinnamon, Long (7) and Gooch. W—Long (5-20. L—Johnson (3-2). 2B—Mattingly 2, Clair, PRP; Cinnamon, MC. 3B—Hockman, PRP.
Records—PRP 31-8; Mercer County 28-9.