Heading into the final inning of the Whitaker Bank/KHSAA State Baseball Tournament's marquee opening-round game on Thursday, two of the favorites to take home the title had fought to a 7-7 standstill.
Then the floodgates opened.
St. Xavier's offense erupted for six runs in the seventh inning, punctuated by a towering two-run homer by Cam Scheler, and the Tigers buried defending state champion Pleasure Ridge Park 13-7 at Whitaker Bank Ballpark in Lexington.
"That was so exciting," Scheler said of his exclamation-point bomb. "I'd been missing some all day but I had my timing down and it was just a matter of time before I got one in the zone and hit it well."
When the tournament draw was announced the winner between St. X (34-2) and PRP (28-7) looked like the heavy favorite to come out of the top half of the bracket. In the last coaches poll of the regular season St. X was ranked No. 1 and PRP was ranked fourth. Now the Tigers will move on to Saturday's quarterfinals as they pursue the program's second state championship in the last three years.
St. Xavier's Ryan Nicholson led off the top of the seventh with a triple down the right-field line. He scored what turned out to be the winning run on a passed ball. That's when the wheels came off for PRP.
Dallas Glass, who took over on the mound in the fourth inning, walked the next two batters then threw the ball into the stands after fielding a bunt, plating another run. After Glass loaded the bases with another free pass, the Panthers turned back to the bullpen. But the Tigers weren't done.
Aric Lyons tagged a sacrifice fly to deep center field to make it 10-7 St. Xavier. After another run scored on a wild pitch, Scheler came up in the cleanup spot and provided the dagger with his shot over the left-center field wall.
Though Scheler's bomb stole the spotlight, St. X Coach Andy Porta said Nicholson's lead-off triple might have been the most important at-bat of the game.
"Ryan Nicholson's triple was huge, it really was," Porta said. "You're sitting there thinking 'What do we do if he's on first, do we pinch run, do we bunt?' Then when he triples that solves a lot of problems."
The Tigers had to climb out of a hole they themselves helped dig in order to get back in the game. PRP went ahead 3-1 in the bottom of the second on a pair of walks and a pair of singles. With the bases loaded, St. Xavier reliever Evan Burnett appeared stop the bleeding, drawing a popup to shallow right field. But the third baseman and shortstop collided on the play and the ball popped loose as they fell to the ground and two more runs scored to give the Panthers a 5-1 lead.
Despite the setback, the Tigers never panicked. They came right back with four runs of their own in the top of the third as Trey Sweeney and Scheler had back-to-back RBI singles before Nicholson lined a two-out, two-RBI shot up the middle.
"We've had our backs against the wall multiple times this season and we fought back well every single time so this was nothing new," Scheler said. "Everybody comes for us pretty hard so we knew what it was like to fight back."
Lead-off batter Alex Adams went 2-for-2, drew three walks and scored four runs for St. X. He sent the first pitch of the game to the center-field wall for a triple. Noah McDonald went 2-for-3 and drove in a run for PRP.
Boyle crushes LaRue
Boyle County wasted no time eclipsing its run in last year's state tournament, where the Rebels fell in the first round. Boyle dominated LaRue County, cruising to a 10-0 five-inning run-rule win in Thursday's nightcap to set up a showdown with St. Xavier in Saturday's quarterfinals.
Rebels Coach Kyle Wynn said he could sense that last year’s first-round loss to Knox Central was on some of his players’ minds heading into this year’s tournament.
“We’ve got some business on our mind this year,” he said. “It’s pretty obvious … there’s a sense of urgency.
“They’ve kind of figured out that we belong up here.”
Grant Hotchkiss set the tone on the game's first pitch, which he blasted over the right-field wall for a lead-off home run.
“Grant is up there for a reason and I think he showed why tonight,” Wynn said. “That was huge.”
That turned out to be all the run support needed for starting pitcher Sam Tiller, who pitched a five-inning complete game and allowed just one hit; but the Rebel offense provided plenty more cushion.
Boyle County took a 7-0 lead with a six-run second inning that included an RBI-double by Hotchkiss and a two-RBI triple by Ty Dragan. The Rebels added their final three runs in the fourth inning as Dragan and Hotchkiss both reached base and scored. The game ended when LaRue failed to get within nine runs in the bottom of the fifth.
The Rebels know they face a tall task in Saturday’s matchup with St. Xavier, but Wynn is confident they’re up to the challenge.
“We’re aware of what we’re up against but I don’t doubt our effort that you’re gonna get Saturday,” he said. “We’re here to make some noise.”