The 2018 Whitaker Bank/KHSAA State Baseball Tournament champion was brought to you by Pepsi.
Well, it might as well have been: two late-game, multi-run shots to the Pepsi Party Deck, a fixture beyond Whitaker Bank Ballpark's right field, helped crown St. Xavier as this year's titlist. The Tigers defeated Highlands, 10-6, in the finals Saturday night in Lexington.
After Highlands evened things at four runs apiece in the top of the fifth inning, Ryan Nicholson put St. X on top, 6-4, with a two-run blast in the bottom of the frame. Andrew Littlefield's three-run homer to the same area in the next inning made it 9-4, dampening hopes of a Highlands rally. Brandon Tucker slid into first to secure an RBI single before the Bluebirds finally got out of the sixth.
"The three-run home run, that was nice," St. Xavier Coach Andy Porta said. "... I think that allowed everybody to relax. But, some of these guys will tell ya, we were still a little tight there in the top of the seventh."
Tyler Gulley reached on a fielding error before another home run to right — this one off the bat of Baltimore Orioles draftee Drew Rom — pulled Highlands within four runs with no outs in the final inning, but the Bluebirds couldn't tighten the gap.
St. Xavier won its eighth title, extending its lead for the most in state history by two, and its third championship in the last five years.
"It's unreal, it really is," said Porta, who has skippered all three titlists during this run. "You gotta give credit to the kids and the assistant coaches. I just stay out of their way and make sure I don't do anything to screw this program up. The kids are phenomenal."
Nicholson, a junior southpaw who's committed to the University of Cincinnati, was named MVP of the tournament. He finished with three RBI in the finals — his first came on single that extended a St. X lead to 4-2 in the third inning — and allowed only two hits in his first varsity complete game in a 3-0 win over Hazard in the semifinals on Friday. He got the win in the Tigers' second-round victory over Boyle County and was 2-for-4 with two RBI in their win against Pleasure Ridge Park to open the tournament last week.
"He had a fantastic tournament, he really did," Porta said. "The sky's the limit with him. He's got a bright, bright future. I'm just glad we've got him for one more year."
St. Xavier chased Highlands starter Hunter Dreves off the mound before he recorded an out in the first inning. The Bluebirds returned the favor, getting to Littlefield after 2 and 1/3 innings. He gave way to Evan Burnett, who threw an inning before Brycen Harkins finished the job; Harkins got the win, ending 8-0 on the season.
Highlands, trailing 6-4, loaded the bases after Harkins took a line drive to his body with one out in the top of the sixth. He recovered for consecutive strikeouts, both looking, to end the Bluebirds threat.
Harkins claimed the ball hit him in the chest, but Porta didn't buy it.
"I know it hit him in the bare hand," Porta said. "He swore to me, 'Coach I'm fine, it just hit me in the chest,' but he kept moving his throwing hand around. I got in the dugout and said he didn't really need a wake-up call, but that was kind of a wake-up call for him and he was a bulldog to finish that inning. That was huge."
Harkins, a junior, was more sore from the post-game dogpile than his in-game bruise.
"I was on the bottom and I was screaming, 'This hurts,' and my catcher, Chase Patton, is on top of me saying, 'Don't worry, I'll protect you,'" Harkins said. "So, it was pretty awesome."
St. Xavier should be back in the thick of things next season. It graduated six seniors — including Burnett and Littlefield — but has Division I prospects scattered through its next several classes. The Tigers were long dormant — their 2014 title was their first since 1981 — but are poised to remain in contention for the foreseeable future.
"We've got fantastic freshmen and JV coaches," Porta said. "We've said, as long as I'm coaching man, 'We're not gonna rebuild, we're just gonna keep reloading.'"