Eleven runners left on base and seven errors were too much for the Middlesboro Yellow Jackets to overcome as they dropped an 8-6 decision to Harlan County in the 52nd District championship game Tuesday night.
Unlike a season ago when he came into the title game against Middlesboro midway through and dominated, HCHS ace Connor Leisge had to work his way out of some early trouble to send the Black Bears to a second straight district title.
The game was dominated by errors, seven for Middlesboro and four for Harlan County, and Jacket coach John Smith pointed to the missed opportunities and mistakes in his postgame comments.
“Seven errors and all those runners left on base made it hard to win,” he said. “Leisge threw a great game, but we hit him better than we have in our last few games against him. When you go against a horse like that on the mound and you get him on the ropes you have to take advantage of it. You won’t get those opportunities very often.”
Leisge gave up five hits while striking out 10 and walking six in the complete-game effort.
“Middlesboro is like a time bomb. We had too many errors. I don’t know how we won,” Harlan County coach John Lewis said. “Connor battled and stuck it out. When he got to about 84 pitches we started talking about going to (freshman lefthander) Jared (Sizemore), but it seemed he pitched better later in the game. We knew he was comfortable up to 130 pitches, and he threw 127.”
Harlan County had a chance to break the game open early against Brandyn Ball, Middlesboro’s side-arm throwing senior righthander. The Bears loaded the bases as Connor Leisge walked, Scotty Bailey singled and Zach Doss was safe on an error when his sacrifice bunt was mishandled by Ball. Tyler Cornett brought home courtesy runner Dylan Cornett with a double play grounder to second base. Brendan Rutherford picked up another run with an RBI single. After Anthony Jenkins walked, Smith ended his experiment with Ball and brought in Tyler Yoakum, who worked out of the jam when Chance Brown flied out to right field.
Middlesboro followed Harlan County’s lead in the second inning, loading the bases with no outs as John Millett walked, Brandon Hale hit a bloop double and Matthew Mike walked. Leisge almost worked out of the jam by striking out Ball and Lucas Crawford, but a walk to Jake Brock forced in one run before Tyler McCullough flied out to end the threat.
The Jackets loaded the bases again with no outs in the third inning as Yoakum singled, Cole Frazier walked and Millett beat out a bunt single. Leisge almost wiggled out of trouble again after getting Hale to hit into a double play. An error on a ball hit to Bailey at shortstop brought in the tying run, and a balk called against Leisge put the Jackets ahead.
Harlan County pulled even in the bottom of the third when Bailey reached on an error and scored on a double to deep center by Zach Doss.
The errors started to mount in the fourth inning as Harlan County took advantage of two mistakes to score two runs and go up 5-3. Brown had the only hit in the inning.
Bailey, Doss and Cornett led off the fifth inning with singles to knock out Yoakum. Middlesboro made errors on the first two hits as the Bears’ lead grew to 7-3. The Bears picked up one more run in the inning on Sawyer Fields’ two-out infield hit.
Just when it appeared the Bears had the game under control, they also started to struggle with mistakes. The Jackets loaded the bases with no outs when a Crawford double was sandwiched around a pair of strikeouts that freshman catcher Brendan Rutherford was unable to handle, allowing both to reach base. A bases-clearing double by McCullough brought Middlesboro within 8-6.
“McCullough as an eighth-grder is coming into his own. He’s played great all year long for us at short and came up with a big hit there to get us back into it,” Smith said. “Early in the year when would make mistakes and get down like we did in this one, you would see some heads dropping here and there. But we didn’t tonight, we stayed in it and battled and really had a chance to win it.”
Leisge was able to overcome Harlan County’s mistakes, working out of the jam in the sixth and retiring the Jackets in order in the seventh to become the first HCHS pitcher to win two district championship games.
Doss led the Harlan County offense with a double and single. Bailey singled twice. Cornett, Brendan Rutherford, Brown and Fields had one single each.
Hale, McCullough and Crawford had doubles for the Jackets. Yoakum and Millett added singles.
Both teams advance to the 13th Region Tournament opening Monday at Harlan County High School. Middlesboro (22-15) will face either 49th District champ North Laurel, 50th District champ South Laurel or 51st District champ Barbourville in the first round. Harlan County will open the region against either Clay County, Corbin or Knox Central.
“We’re going to have to play a winner out of one of the other districts. We know we can play with any of those teams, we just have to keep our heads up and keep working to make it happen next week,” Smith added.
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Brandy Ball, Tyler Yoakum (1), Brandon Hale (5) and Tyler Prater; Connor Leisge and Brendan Rutherford. W — Leisge (7-3). L— Yoakum (7-2).