Ryan Nicholson picked a good time to throw the first complete game of his high school career. And it was almost perfect.
Nicholson, a junior lefty who's committed to the University of Cincinnati, allowed only two hits and a walk in St. Xavier's 3-0 victory over Hazard in the semifinals of the Whitaker Bank/KHSAA State Baseball Tournament on Friday night at Whitaker Bank Ballpark in Lexington.
"I believe that was my first complete game," Nicholson said with a grin. "But, I mean, it's indescribable going back to the state championship. It feels really good."
It took the Tigers a while to give Nicholson a lead with which to work. Andrew Littlefield knocked a two-out single through the right-field gap to score Cam Scheler, who right before reached on a fly ball that dropped between two Hazard outfielders, in the top of the sixth inning. Nicholson then hit a single through the same hole to make it 2-0, Tigers.
Alex Adams, St. Xavier's second baseman and leadoff hitter who's committed to Purdue, hit a solo home run in the top of the seventh to extend the advantage.
St. X (36-2) had some early threats. A single, steal, balk, walk and steal combined to put baserunners on second and third with one out in the second inning but neither could advance. It seemed a certain that a run would score from first in the fourth after Littlefield tripled off the right field wall, but a monstrous 9-4-6-2 put-out extinguished the runner.
Tigers Coach Andy Porta didn't mind that Nicholson, who took a perfect game into the fourth and a no-hitter into the sixth, needed to work under pressure for most of the game.
"He was down in the zone and did a great job for us," Porta said. "It was kind of nice to keep Ryan mentally sharp with it being zeroes, cause honestly, if we had scored earlier I would have worried about him possibly letting up a little bit. He had to stay sharp. ... Obviously, we were fortunate to put something together there, a little two-out rally, and get a little lead. I felt really good about our chances once we got the two-spot on there."
Hazard's Devin Morris, who's headed to Lincoln Memorial University, went the distance for the Bulldogs (26-10). He rang up seven batters but also gave up that many hits. Morris and Garrett Miller came up with Hazard's only hits; Trajon Campbell drew the walk.
Porta lauded Morris' performance.
"He pitched a whale of a ball game," Porta said. "... I know everybody was talking about 'Big school, small school,' but all it is is one guy on the mound. It doesn't matter how big your school is. If that guy on the mound can shut you down, it doesn't matter whether we've got 1,400 kids in the school or not."
St. Xavier, the top-ranked team in the state and ranked in the top 10 nationally by USA Today, will try to win its second title in the last three seasons on Saturday. The Tigers' seven titles are the most in state history.
The Tigers will meet either Highlands or McCracken County, who played in the second semifinal Friday, in the championship. St. Xavier beat Highlands, 4-3, during the regular season. McCracken County defeated the Tigers, 7-6 in 10 innings, to end their unbeaten streak to begin 2018 at 23-0.
"I like Highlands' pitching, I like McCracken's offense," Porta said. "Who knows what's gonna win out there? They say pitching and defense, but we'll be ready for either one."