Lucas Crawford spun a five-hit shutout and the Middlesboro Yellow Jackets got a solo shot from Cole Frazier and an in-park three-run homer from Jake Brock in Monday’s 6-0 win over Bell County in the first round of the 52nd District Tournament. John Millett also singled and doubled to drive in two runs.
The Jackets advance to play Harlan County in Tuesday’s championship game, it’s the fifth straight year MHS and HCHS have played in the final and the teams have split the four previous meetings.
Crawford struck out six and walked two in his gem. After getting a big defensive play to get out of the first inning unscathed, the senior held the Bobcats at bay the rest of the way.
“I can’t say enough about Lucas. He’s a senior and he’s been solid for us for four years as a pitcher,” Middlesboro coach John Smith said. “I know he would have liked to pitch in the championship game, but I told him we had to get there first and I wanted the ball in his hands because he was the man to take us.”
Hayden Gilbert led off the game by drawing a walk and went to second on a sacrifice bunt by Evan Brock. Dylan Cox poked a base hit to right but MHS right fielder Millett fired a perfect one-hopper to the plate in time to get Gilbert. Senior catcher Tyler Prater took the throw and blocked the plate as Gilbert slid in. For a moment it looked like he might have lost the ball during the tag, but he pulled it out and showed the umpire and got the call.
Crawford came back with a strikeout to end the inning and start of string of nine straight batters he retired.
Meanwhile, Bell sophomore Aaron Jenkins was perfect through the first two innings — thanks to a pair of nice defensive plays by Bobcat second baseman Jacob Rose in the second. Jenkins worked around a hit batter and a walk in the third.
“Jenkins threw a great game against us earlier in the year and he did it again tonight,” Smith said. “He’s a catcher by trade but they put him on the mound in a big game and did a great job.”
Frazier broke up the no-hitter by launching one deep over the fence in straight-away left with one out in the bottom of the fourth. With two out, Brandon Hale and Matthew Mike were hit by pitches and Brandyn Ball walked to load the bases. Crawford sent a shot deep into the left-center gap but Gilbert covered a lot of ground in a hurry to make a running catch to save three runs and end the inning.
“We had a pitchers duel going for about four or five innings. Cole came up with that big hit to get us on the board,” Smith said. “We had Lucas in the nine hole and with the bases loaded he worked the count full and got a pitch he could drive. Center fielder makes a great play, he covered 30-40 yards to get to that one. If it gets down, who knows, we might have broke it open early.”
Jenkins singled to start the Bell fifth and Jared Slusher reached on an error after laying down a bunt. Crawford got a pair of strike outs and then Millett ran in to catch Gilbert’s soft liner to shallow right and end that threat.
Jenkins gave up just that one hit over 4-1/3 innings. He struck out three, hit three and walked four. After walks to Tyler McCullough and Tyler Yoakum in the fifth, Zach Turner took over for Jenkins. He struck out Frazier but Millett delivered an RBI double to left to make it 2-0.
“Aaron gave up two runs in about five innings. We haven’t pitched him very much because his arm has been hurting him a little bit but he came up big. Chase Woolum had never caught a varsity game before and he stepped up and never doubted it,” Bell coach Scott Chaney said. “Woolum wanted to catch and Aaron wanted the ball in this one. They’re both sophomores and I’m looking forward to having them back the next two years.”
Rose had a two-out single in the top of the sixth, stole second and went to third on a wild pitch. Crawford again got a strikeout to end that inning.
The Jackets put the game away with four runs in bottom of the sixth. Ball and Crawford both reached on errors and Brock followed with hard sinking liner to center. Gilbert ran in and made a diving attempt to catch it, but the ball got past him and skipped all the way to the fence in dead center. Brock was able to make it all the way around the bases for a three-run in-park homer.
“I had put on a safety squeeze and wiped it off at the last second on that pitch. Jake had struggled a bit tonight and I just had the feeling he was going to come through in a big situation,” Smith said. “Even if that one doesn’t get through for the home run, it still drives in at least one run for us and any run is big in a close game like that.”
“Our defense was really good for most of the night. Hayden has made himself a much better defender, even though he made that error I still consider him one of the best center fielders around,” Chaney added. “Jacob Rose at second played a heck of a game and he had two of our hits. He’s just a competitor. The score really doesn’t reflect how we played, it was 2-0 in the sixth and we kind of gave them those last four runs.”
McCullough walked and Ethan Mason relieved Turner. Yoakum singled and was forced out at second on Frazier’s grounder to short. Millett’s single scored McCullough to put Middlesboro up 6-0.
In the seventh, the Bobcats got a one-out walk from Slusher and pinch-hitter Jordan Wombles singled. Those runners moved to second and third on a wild pitch, but Crawford closed out the game with back-to-back strikeouts.
With the win Middlesboro (22-14) also punches their ticket to the 13th Region Tournament which starts Monday at Harlan County. The Jackets and Bears meet for the district title at 7 p.m. Tuesday at MHS.
“Since they came into existence it’s been Middlesboro-Harlan County in the finals and it’s always a dogfight. We respect them and I’m sure they respect us. I’m not looking for anything other than a dogfight again,” Smith said.
Bell County ends the season with a record of 13-12. It’s the first winning season for the Bobcats since 2009.
“I told our kids to hold their heads high. We’re getting better every year and we don’t have any seniors so we’ll have everybody back next year,” Chaney said.
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|Bell County||000||000||0|| — ||0||5||2|
|Middlesboro||000||114||x|| — ||6||5||2|
|Aaron Jenkins, Zach Turner (5), Ethan Mason (6) and Chase Woolum, Jenkins (5); Lucas Crawford and Tyler Prater. W — Crawford. L — Jenkins. HR — M: Frazier, Brock.|