Before Tuesday, the last two Ashland-Rowan County baseball games were heart-stopping theater largely decided by late plays at the plate.
Pete Mullins’s pitching and the Tomcats’ resurgent offense ensured Tuesday’s contest had no such drama.
Mullins limited the Vikings to three hits and Ashland scored in every inning to win 9-1 at Alumni Field.
The Tomcats (16-7) won their seventh straight game. They raked 11 hits, notching double figures in the category for the fourth time in their last five games.
Cameron Fritz was 3-for-4, Evan Cox went 2-for-3 with two RBIs, Jared Slone was 2-for-2 and drove in a run, and Cody Conley had three RBIs.
“We’re getting runners in scoring position, and we’re not leaving them there,” Ashland coach Jeff Wilcox said. “We’re putting the ball in play, whether it’s a fly ball, or if (the defense is) playing back, we want it on the ground so we can get that run in.
“We scored every inning, and that’s just a tribute to these guys who are working their tail off and getting better.”
Mullins kept Rowan County (14-8) off-balance with his knuckleball. The Vikings scored the first run of the night, but got only one runner to second base in the final six innings.
“I’ve been throwing it for a while,” Mullins said of the knuckler. “It just takes a lot of practice. Gotta work on getting it down.”
Added Wilcox: “We’ve been working on his other pitches. He’s got a pretty good little fastball, but we’re working on his curve and so forth. But he’s getting better. That knuckler is something else.”
Mullins went the distance, retiring seven straight at one point from the fourth through sixth innings. He struck out three Vikings, walked two and hit one, and benefited from inning-ending double plays in the third and seventh innings and a generally solid defensive effort behind him.
“We’re just working on working ahead, throwing strikes and letting our defense work, and we came up with some pretty good plays,” Wilcox said, specifically mentioning a line-drive double-play to shortstop Slone, first baseman Conley’s scoop to complete the game-ending double play, and a couple of efforts by third baseman Austin Kelley.
The Vikings got a run in the top of the first inning when Kyle Gammon led off with a single, took second base when the Tomcats dawdled getting the ball back into the infield, moved to third on a throwing error and scored on John Curry’s single off an Ashland infielder’s glove.
That, though, was all Rowan County got all night.
“Our approach wasn’t good,” Vikings coach Jason Davis said. “We were preaching trying to keep our hands back and think right field, because (Mullins) didn’t have an overpowering fastball, so if we kept our hands back and concentrated on going to right field, we wouldn’t get fooled on his off-speed, and we didn’t feel like he could blow a fastball by us. But for some reason, our guys just didn’t make those adjustments and we didn’t hit in good counts, and when we got good 2-0 counts and 3-1 counts, we swung at bad pitches.”
As for Ashland, it settled in nicely in the home half of the first, tallying twice: when Slone walked, stole two bases and scored on Cox’s infield single, and when Cox took third and then home on back-to-back wild pitches.
Slone singled home Matt Vincent in the second inning, Conley doubled to score courtesy runner Josh Bradley and Kelley in the third, and Cox and Conley added sacrifice flies.
Slone and Cox each scored on wild pitches in the sixth to close the scorebook at 9-1.
Justin Graham took the loss for the Vikings, working into the third inning. Harlan Carter and Tanner Hopson also pitched in relief, with the Vikings working to develop depth on the mound, Davis said.
Rowan County suffered its third decisive loss in the 16th Region in five days, having lost to Boyd County, 12-4, on Friday and East Carter, 11-1, on Monday.
The Vikings have dropped four of five overall after a 13-4 start.
“We’re not really playing well right now, but the thing about it is, you can’t count us out,” Davis said. “We’ve been playing good teams, man. That’s the way it is.”
As for Ashland, it’s finally hit its stride with less than two weeks to go until postseason play.
“We’re growing as a team,” Mullins said. “We started off slow, but we’re really working together now. They have my back. We’re getting there.”
ROWAN CO. 100 000 0 — 1 3 0
ASHLAND 212 112 X — 9 11 1
Graham, Carter (3), Hopson (6) and Barhorst; Mullins and Fritz. W — Mullins. L — Graham. 2B — Cox (A), Conley (A).
ZACK KLEMME can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (606) 326-2658.