The Bell County Bobcats made them work harder for than they probably would have liked, but the Middlesboro Yellow Jackets advanced to the 52nd District championship game with a 14-4 win Tuesday that was tougher than the final score would indicate.
Bobcat freshman Dylan Cox struck out nine while allowing just four hits over five-plus innings, but Bell County made seven errors and Cox walked six and the Jackets were able to take advantage.
“Dylan did a nice job pitching against us and I was worried about that because I knew he was capable of that,” Middlesboro coach Bill Powell said. “I just felt like they’ve got some young kids and we needed to hit the ball with authority and make them make some plays. They’ve struggled on defense this year and I was hoping we could catch some breaks and that’s pretty much what happened.
“We caused Dylan to throw more pitches than I’m sure he or his coach would have liked. But we did what we needed to to win.”
Still Cox kept Middlesboro off the board over the first two innings and a home run by Cody Saylor leading off the top of the third put Bell up 1-0.
“Cody Saylor is one of the best kids that I’ve ever coached. I’m honored to have gotten to coach a kid like that,” Bell coach Ken Johnson said of his only senior. “He’s full of integrity, just a good kid, got great character. If you had a team full of Cody Saylors every coach in America would be happy. I was really glad to see him get a home run in his final game. It gave us a 1-0 lead and lit a huge spark for our young guys. If they follow him by example, they’ll do well.”
The Jackets answered back with two unearned runs in the bottom of the frame. Chris Short walked and Tyler Yoakum reached on an error to start the inning. Nick Capps laid down a bunt and both runners came around to score on another error for a 2-1 MHS lead. Cox struck out the next three batters to keep the score at 2-1.
Middlesboro struck again in the third. This time John Millett walked with one out and Short walked with two away. Yoakum followed with an RBI single and Capps again reached on an error as two more runs crossed the plate. Two more errors allow Capps to come all the way around and score for a 6-1 Jacket lead.
“I think we played tremendous. We couldn’t have played any better to win this ballgame,” Johnson said. “We just came up short because we made a few mistakes and the thing that hurt us was that we made those mistakes with runners on.”
The young Bobcats didn’t go away quietly however. Freshman Austin North led off the fifth inning with a base hit to center and Jackson Lefevers bunted for a hit. Cox then reached on an error to load the bases. One out later freshman Caleb Smith sliced a two-run single down the right field line and Jacob Rose followed with an RBI double into the left-center gap to cut the lead to 6-4.
“That was freshmen coming through and got it back to 6-4. I told them coming into the game they weren’t freshman anymore, they’ve graduated from their freshman year and it’s time to come and play,” Johnson added.
Capps, the MHS pitcher, got Zach Turner to line out to right where Millett made the grab. Capps then got Aaron Jenkins to hit a pop up to end the inning.
“That was big. They had the tying run on second with a good hitter at the plate and we were able to work out of that,” said Powell. “I was glad that they responded in that manner and keep a little breathing room in there.”
Just when it looked like things might get interesting, the Jackets answered with three runs of their own. Jake Brock walked to start the bottom of the inning and Thomas Epperson brought him home with a triple. Epperson scored on a balk and Tim Helton followed with another triple into the right field corner. Helton scored on a passed ball and the lead was back to 9-4.
Middlesboro put the game away with five runs in the bottom of the sixth. They got two hits— a single leading off by Yoakum and a two-run singled by Helton later in the inning. Three Bobcat pitchers combined to walk five, included three with the bases loaded. Short drew the final free pass to force in Helton with the deciding run as the Jackets advanced with the six inning win.
Capps held Bell to four runs, three earned, on seven hits over six innings to earn the victory. He struck out seven and didn’t walk a batter.
“I was real pleased with Nick Capps’ performance. He did exactly what we ask him to do every time — go out there and throw strikes, get ahead in the count,” Powell added. “We didn’t play a flawless game and we’ll have to play better and cleaner than that to beat Harlan County, but I was pleased with our effort.”
Middlesboro (23-8) will play host Harlan County in the 52nd District championship game this evening at 6 p.m.
Bell County ends the season with record of 8-26. Johnson said he’s proud of how his young team — they finished the season with 11 freshman on a 14-man roster — stayed together and improved down the stretch.
“They’ve got a bright future ahead of them, it’s a good group and they can do a lot of things if they work hard and stay together. I’d be honored to coach them and take them out there through it,” he said. “I can’t thank them enough for how they played for me the last three or four weeks of the season, they gave it their all.
“We’ve been through some turmoil this season and had our ups and downs and for them to take Middlesboro to the wire and be a few plays from being in the game with them all the way to the end is a huge accomplishment for these guys. I hope they can see that. The final score didn’t do justice to what the game was like.”
— — —
Bell County….. 001 030 —4 7 7
Middlesboro… 002 435 — 145 2
Cox, Saylor (6), Turner (6) and Jenkins; Capps and BBrock. W— Capps. L—Cox. HR— B:Saylor.That was freshmen coming through and got it back to 6-4. I told them coming into the game they weren’t freshman anymore, they’ve graduated from their freshman year and it’s time to come and play.