The Yellow Jackets took a 3-1 lead into the seventh before holding off the late rally.
“I think we are very evenly matched. It has really turned into an excellent rivalry. We were fortunate to come out with it tonight,” said Middlesboro coach Bill Powell. “This one was very sweet. We had such a worth opponent, won at their place in a great game and with, I guess, their best hitter at the plate. It couldn’t have been a better game.”
Andrew Dozier started the offense for the Bears in the final inning with a one-out single to right field. Eddie Conley followed with a single to left to put runners on first and second. After Dozier stole third, Conner Leisge hit into a fielder’s choice that forced Conley out at second. Leisge was called safe on a close play at first. Dozier scored on the play to cut the deficit to one run.
Freshman Nick Cornett came in as the pinch runner for Conley. Cornett advanced to second and third on two wild pitches. With Cornett on third, sophomore Blake Rutherford turned in a gritty at-bat that ended in a walk. Tyler Boggs then came to the plate and delivered a hard hit ball to center field that was caught just before the warning track to end the game.
“The last inning was the biggest spark that we saw all evening. We told them every time they came off the field to hit they had to have that spark, and we didn’t,” said Harlan County coach John Lewis.
The Yellow Jackets struck first with a pair of runs in the second inning.
Timmy Helton singled up the middle to lead off the inning. John Millett was then hit by a pitch. Tyler Yoakum drove in Helton with a single to left field to put the Jackets on top. Chris Short brought home Millett with a one-out bunt single up the first-base line.
Middlesboro pushed the lead to 3-0 with a run in the bottom of the third.
Thomas Epperson doubled to the left field fence to start the offense. Harlan County’s James Bond struck out the next two batters, before Yoakum doubled just inside the line in left field to drive in what was the winning run.
Harlan County cut the deficit to 3-1 with a run in the fourth inning.
Bond was hit by a pitch to reach base with no outs. He advanced to third on a throwing error on a pickoff attempt at first. Braxton Fields scored the runner with a sacrifice fly to left field in the next at-bat.
The teams exchanged defensive stands in fifth and sixth innings to set up the drama in the seventh.
“Middlesboro made plays in the outfield and infield, their pitching done a good job and they hit the ball,” Lewis said. “They beat us at the plate. We just didn’t hit it tonight. Middlesboro wanted it more right up there at the plate.”
Lucas Crawford continued his success against the Harlan County hitters. The sophomore allowed six hits, struck out two batters, issued one walk and hit one batter in the complete-game victory on the mound.
“Lucas has a lot of moxy for a young kid. I knew he could handle the situation. Harlan County is a good hitting team and could have put a bunch of runs on him, but it would have been a real gamble on my part to try to do something else. I didn’t have the courage, nor did I want to,” Powell said.
Boggs was stellar in 3.1 innings of relief. The junior struck out five batters, and allowed one hit, one walk and hit one batter. Bond struck out four batters and allowed five hits, one walk and hit one batter in 2.2 innings in the start.
“We told them that we could win if they got four runs. We done what we were supposed to in every aspect except at the plate,” Lewis said.
Yoakum recorded a double and a single to lead the Jackets at the plate. Short contributed a pair of singles. Epperson had a double, and Helton added a single.
Fields, Leisge, Bond, Dozier and Conley each singled for Harlan County.
Middlesboro closes the season at 24-8, while Harlan County finishes at 26-6. Both teams will advance to the 13th Region Tournament at South Laurel on Monday.
“In baseball you have to have a short memory. We have to get over it if we want to make a run in the region,” Lewis said,
Harlan Co. 000 100 1 - 2 5 1
Middlesboro 021 000 x - 3 6 1
Bond, Boggs (3) and Boggs, Bailey (3); Crawford and Brock. W-Crawford. L-Bond.