Plenty of baseball will be played at Whitaker Bank Ballpark the next two weekends, but none of it by the Lexington Legends. The Rawlings/KHSAA State Baseball Tournament begins Thursday.
Bracket: Rawlings/KHSAA State Baseball Tournament
This year marks the debut of a two-weekend format approved by the KHSAA in November to help alleviate concerns with pitching restrictions and roster depth. In 2010, a 16-team, weeklong single-elimination format was adopted and the semi-state round was eliminated.
When the latest change was announced, Lawrence County athletic director and baseball coach Travis Feltner — whose research was credited for spurring the move from one week to two weeks — called it “a Band-Aid over a gunshot wound.” Feltner is an advocate for moving to a four-class system, an opinion shared by 82 percent of the 256 schools that responded to a survey he conducted in the fall.
Many coaches think the new format removes incentive to develop a deep pitching rotation; if a team has two strong arms at the top, it can start them twice in the tournament without giving the decision a second thought.
“To me, the way they’ve done the state tournament this year is an appeasement to tell the little schools to shut up or to tell this classification movement to shut up, ‘Because, hey now, if you’ve got two pitchers you can compete,’” Johnson Central Coach Shawn Hall said. “Well guess what? Every big school has at least two pitchers. ... You didn’t help anybody by doing that.”
Hall wishes they’d stuck to the format used the previous six years. Johnson Central boasts half the number of boys as such schools as St. Xavier and Scott County — the first- and second-largest schools by enrollment of boys in the state, respectively — but “every now and then” can build a rotation strong enough to make a deep run in a weeklong format.
“Now we don’t even get to use ’em,” Hall said. “ ... That’s part of the strategy and the fun of getting there.”
Greenup County Coach Greg Logan was frank about the change.
“If we win the state tournament, I’d say it’d be the greatest move the KHSAA ever made,” Logan said. “If we don’t win it, as far as the pitching and breaking it up, it’ll be a terrible decision.”
Logan takes issue with the distribution of postseason games. The nature of baseball easily allows back-to-backs and doubleheaders. At one point during the season, Greenup County played — and won — nine games over a nine-day stretch. If the Musketeers reach the state finals, they will have played nine total playoff games in 26 days.
“So now we’ve drug out district, region and state over four weeks,” Logan said. “We’ve played nine games in four weeks. That’s not baseball. Nowhere can it be found that that’s baseball.”
Ejections hurt E-town
As if being paired with No. 2 McCracken County in the first round wasn’t difficult enough, Elizabethtown will be without two of its best pitchers when it faces the Mustangs on Thursday afternoon.
Senior Hunter Sullivan and sophomore Paul Fiepke were both ejected for hitting multiple batters during the Panthers’ 12-6 win over Central Hardin in the 5th Region championship.
Sullivan was warned after hitting two batters and ejected after his fourth hit batter, which came on a bases-loaded breaking ball in the fourth inning to score Central Hardin’s first run. One pitching change and a few errors later, Elizabethtown’s 7-0 lead was 7-6 entering the fifth. Fiepke, who replaced Sullivan, settled down after his rough start and took a 12-6 lead into final frame. He hit Alex Bibb — who had been hit previously in the game — to leadoff the seventh inning and was ejected.
E-town Coach Don Pitts insisted that none of the hit batters was intentional. Earlier in the year, the Panthers held an 11-2 lead over Central Hardin before the Bruins stormed back to take a 12-11 advantage.
“We know they’re capable of coming back,” Pitts said. “They’re a very potent offensive team. So we’re not doing it intentionally.”
By rule, players ejected from a non-football contest must serve a two-game suspension. So if E-town can overcome McCracken, it will still be without Sullivan and Fiepke on Saturday.
It’s especially unfortunate for Sullivan, a University of Louisville commitment who’s never got to start a state tournament game. He came on as a reliever in a 6-5 loss to North Bullitt in 2014 and was recovering from Tommy John surgery during E-town’s trip to Lexington in 2015.
Pitts pleaded with the umpire to remove him from the game instead of Sullivan.
“I don’t really fault the umpire. He wasn’t put in a great situation,” Pitts said. “But I know Hunter Sullivan and I know myself, and I didn’t order that to be done and I know Hunter didn’t do that on purpose. It definitely did not give us the best chance to win the game. ...
“I just hope people around the state know that this kid is not a headhunter.”
Johnson Central or Nostradamus?
Johnson Central’s 12-2 win over Lawrence County in the 15th Region championship gave the Golden Eagles their eighth region crown. In its three previous state trips under Hall — 2004, 2007 and 2014 — Johnson Central has fallen to the eventual state champion.
Christian County, a pre-tournament afterthought, shut out the Golden Eagles in the 2004 semifinals before holding off Lafayette in the finals. Paul Laurence Dunbar blasted Central in the quarterfinals before winning its last two in 2007. St. Xavier stopped the Golden Eagles en route to the 2014 crown.
“If you knock us off, I would feel confident,” Hall said with a laugh.
Hall’s team features just three seniors. Hall was worried that what looks like a junior varsity team on paper would get beaten up over the season; Johnson Central has held a lead in every game and hasn’t lost by more than three runs to a team from Kentucky. Five of its nine losses were by only one run, and three of those came in extra innings.
“We are a talented young, not a ‘Oh-gosh-what-are-we-gonna-do-for-the-next few-years young,’” he said.
Other things to know
▪ Five teams will make their official state-tournament debuts on Friday: Campbell County, Caldwell County, Ohio County, Oldham County and Scott County. Each program previously won region titles but didn’t advance far enough to make state in the pre-16 team era.
▪ Scott County’s win over Western Hills gave the Cardinals their first regional title since moving to the 11th Region in 2006. The Cardinals previously competed in the 8th Region, where they won four titles, including three straight from 1997-1999.
▪ If No. 1 Greenup County wins the state championship, it would finish with 43 wins. The all-time mark for a single season is 41 by Paul Laurence Dunbar in 2003.
Read more: Greenup County’s 39 wins are the most by any team since Paul Laurence Dunbar in 2003 Read more: How Scott County punched its first ticket to the state tournament Read more: West Jessamine got back to state with a different identity
▪ McCracken County is 0-2 in state-tournament appearances. Exempting those losses, the Mustangs are 56-0 against Kentucky competition since a 4-2 loss to St. Mary on May 6, 2014, in the program’s first season.
▪ West Jessamine will begin its title defense against Bowling Green, which won its 20th region title but first since 2007. The Colts, who scored a tournament-record 48 runs en route to their first title, are 1-3 against teams in this year’s field.
▪ Except for Caldwell County, which has 293 boys, every school in the tournament has more boys enrolled than Hazard has total students. The Bulldogs, making their second trip in three seasons, easily have the smallest student body at 303 kids.
▪ Elizabethtown broke a tie with Owensboro for the most region titles with its win over Central Hardin. The Panthers now have 25. St. Xavier is right on their heels; the Tigers won their 23rd region crown with a 2-0 win over Manual.
▪ Highlands fell to West Jessamine in last year’s state finals. The Bluebirds are back after knocking off Beechwood, one of the favorites, for the 9th Region finals.
▪ Caldwell County brings a 13-game win streak into the tournament after defeating Union County 7-4 for its first region title since 1991.
▪ Campbell County hadn’t won a region title since 1989 until it run-ruled Scott, 10-0, in the 10th Region finals on Saturday. Stephen Schweitzer, in his seventh year as the Camels’ head coach, was drafted by the St. Louis Cardinals out of Kentucky Wesleyan in 2002.
▪ Ohio County won its first region title in 1981. The Eagles ended one of the longest droughts in the state with a 5-1 victory over Apollo in the 3rd Region finals.
▪ Oldham County won its first 8th Region title since 2005. That gap is shorter than the previous one; the Colonels went 20 years between titles after winning in 1985.
When: Thursday-Saturday this week; Friday and Saturday next week
Where: Whitaker Bank Ballpark in Lexington
Tickets: $14 or $10 per two-game session