Whether it’s wearing that Middlesboro jersey or going up against his former teammates, something sure has Brian Hale off to strong start to the season. The senior belted two home runs and struck out nine over 5-1/3 innings to lead the Jackets to an 8-5 win over Cumberland Gap on Friday.
Hale also had the big hit in Thursday’s 3-1 MHS win over the Panthers with a two-run single. Friday he drove in three runs with his two homers and settled down after allowing hits to the first four batters to surrender only five runs, three earned, on five hits during his time on the mound.
“He’s probably pumped up playing his former team there. They were giving him a hard time from the dugout with a little bit of chatter. But he’s stayed focused at the plate and had two big hits (Thursday) and two home runs tonight,” Jacket coach John Smith said of Hale. “He had a rough first inning pitching, but settled down after that and got us through five innings.”
Tyler Yoakum worked the final 1-2/3 while giving up three hits and striking out three to pick up a save.
For Cumberland Gap, senior center fielder Nathan Hatmaker hit his first homer of the season and also singled twice to drive in three runs and score two.
The Panthers jumped on top quickly as Hunter Bayless, Gavin Burns and Hatmaker all singled to start the game with Bayless scoring on Hatmaker’s hit. Brandon Bailey also singled to load the bases and Burns scored as Jake Elliott reached on an error. Hatmaker would score on a wild pitch to make it 3-0, but Hale came back with a pair of strike outs and a grounder to end the inning. He would allow just one base runner — Blake Fleeman was hit by a pitch — over the next three innings.
“We came out in the first inning and hit well and then — I told them they were ghosts in the second, third and fourth,” Cumberland Gap coach Nick Huckaby said. “It’s like we got three runs and felt like that was good for now.”
Meanwhile, Elliott held the Jackets at bay over the first three frames. The only runner to get on base was Jesse Hoskins via a walk in the third.
That changed in the fourth as Hale led off with a home run to straight away leftfield. John Millett followed with a hard single back up the middle. He stole second and advanced to third on Tyler Yoakum’s sac bunt. Lucas Crawford, Brandon Hale and Hoskins all battled back from two-strike counts to earn walks and force in a run.
Freshman Hunter Bayless relieved Elliott with the bases full and one out in the fourth. Crawford scored on a wild pitch and Brandyn Ball reached on a bunt single before Ryan Pittman and Jake Brock also drew a walks to force in runs and put Middlesboro on top 5-3.
“We try to work pitchers as deep as we can and get their pitch count up. I thought we were a little more disciplined at the plate tonight than we were yesterday and also came out more focused and ready to play,” Smith said.
Gavin Burns took over on the mound and got a strikeout before Millett worked another bases-loaded walk on a 3-2 pitch and it was 6-3.
“Our pitching is thin and know that, but we’ve got to get to where we’re throwing strikes,” Huckaby said.
Burns returned the favor in the top of the fifth by working a walk on a 3-2 pitch ahead of Hatmaker’s shot off the scoreboard in center field. The two-run homer brought the Panthers within 6-5. Bailey walked, but Brock made a nice running catch to snag Elliott’s liner toward the gap and end the inning.
“Gavin gets two strikes and battles and battles to get that walk, which brings Nate to the plate with two outs and he hits a home run. That’s a senior being a leader, I think. His actions speak very loud on our team as far as leadership goes. Nate’s our guy and I know he’ll keep contributing through the year,” Huckaby said.
“I challenged them after Middlesboro went ahead and they came back. But it shouldn’t have to take a coach challenging players to get them going. We’ve just got to have that focus for seven innings and we’ll be a lot better team.”
In the bottom of the sixth, Brock reached on a bunt single with one out and stole second. Hale followed with a two-run blast to left to give the Jackets some breathing room at 8-5. Millett reached on an error and Yoakum singled but Elliott snagged Crawford’s hot shot to third and was able to step on the bag before throwing on to first for an inning-ending double-play.
Yoakum worked around a Dylan Gambrel base hit in the sixth, but the Panthers threatened again in the seventh. Bayless led off by beating out an infield hit and one out later Hatmaker ripped a base hit back up the middle. With runners at the corners, Yoakum got a strikeout and then coaxed Elliott into hitting a grounder to second. Ball fielded it cleanly and threw on to first to end the game.
“Yoakum came in and closed the door for us and shut them down pretty well,” Smith said. “Last night was an ugly win, but a W’s a W. We played a little better today.
“We said going in that pitching and defense would be are strong suits and that’s proved to be the case in the first two games. Hitting will come around, we’re two games in and have only been on the field about five times. By the middle of the season, if our hitting comes around I think we’ll be a team to deal with in the 13th Region.”
Middlesboro hosts North Laurel today at noon while Cumberland Gap (0-3) plays at Claiborne on Monday
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Cumb. Gap…..300 020 0 — 5 8 1
Middlesboro…000 602 x — 8 7 1
Jake Elliott, Hunter Bayless (4), Gavin Burns (4) and Brandon Bailey; Brian Hale, Tyler Yoakum (6) and Tyler Prater. W — Hale. L — Elliott. Sv — Yoakum. HR — M: Hale 2; CG: Hatmaker.