CANNONSBURG A.J. Hacker still had steam, but he was running short on pitches.
Rowan County coach Keith Prater strolled to the mound for a quick chat before Hacker relented a single to Kenneth Gomez. He needed just one more out, but Russell had two runners aboard and his pitch count stood at 116, four shy of the maximum amount allowed.
“We were questioning every pitch, gosh, do we go now? Do we go now?” remarked Prater. “We knew they had the meat of their lineup up and we were gonna bring Corey Binion in. Corey throws the ball hard, but he can sometimes leave it over the plate a little bit, so we wanted to make sure we could get A.J. through it.”
Landon Brewer skied Hacker’s 120th pitch for a routine fly to center field, nixing any mounting threats. The Vikings won, 7-2, in the 16th Region Tournament semifinals on Tuesday. Tonight will be Rowan County’s first finals appearance since 1989. Said Prater: Get used to it.
“Now we’re over the hump,” said the second-year Vikings coach. “We’ll get a feel of the championship game (today), so we’ll know what that’s like, and we’ll be back. I promise you, we’ll be back several times while we’re here.”
Hacker, a sophomore right-hander, said he didn’t desire to loosen his grip on the seams.
“I knew I was getting close to there, yeah, but I had it in my mind that I was going to finish that game,” Hacker said. “I was gonna get it done.”
A sparkling defensive display backed Hacker, as Russell coach Tim Rice intently observed when pinch-hitter Ben Thompson sent a scorching two-out, two-on grounder to Binion at third base.
“They made a heck of a play; he skipped it across and (first baseman Harlan) Carter made a great pick,” Rice said. “If that scoots through, then who knows what happens. They played a clean game, and you’ve just gotta tip your cap.”
The Vikings (24-14) have committed only one error in two region tournament contests. They’ve put up 16 total runs.
Carter smashed a bases-loaded double to left center in the second to open the offensive floodgates. Three runs scored, one of which touched home on an error. Carter was 2 for 4 with two RBIs and a stolen base.
“I get myself in trouble a lot by going after pitches and being really impatient at the plate,” said Carter, a senior who leads the region with eight home runs. “A lot of times pitchers don’t like to give me good pitches to hit. They like to pitch around me a lot. It’s all about pitch quality for me. I like to see good pitches. I like to work deep in the count. That’s something that’s been lacking, but I finally got that fastball over the plate and got a pretty good swing on it.”
Rowan County extended its 5-0 lead with two more in the fourth. A Russell double play halted a potentially disastrous frame, but the Red Devils faced a 7-0 deficit. Russell committed two of its four miscues in the stanza.
Brewer poked a two-run single to left to dent the Devils’ side of the scoreboard. Brewer was the lone Devil with multiple hits. He went 2 for 4 with two RBIs and a steal.
“He’s a tough guy to score runs on,” Rice said of Hacker. “We had some opportunities and just couldn’t string them together.”
Said Hacker of his approach against Russell’s potent lineup: “I knew I just had to go after them with the first pitch. I know I struggled with that in the beginning, but I came back and got my curveball and my fastball to be able to throw my pitches for strikes and go after them.”
Hacker recorded seven punchouts, giving him an area-best 107 on the season.
Russell wrapped up its season with a 24-14 mark and a 63rd District title.
“It was a quality season,” Rice said. “Any time you win 24 games and get to the regional semifinals, it’s great, but it hurts right now because I think we’re a team that could win this thing. But the ball didn’t bounce our way, and we’re going home.”
Carter said Tuesday helped erase memories of 2016’s one-run loss to eventual champion Greenup County.
“It really ended on a very bitter, sour note last year,” Carter said. “… For us to come out here and swing the bat like we did and come out with a win, it was very important to us.”
RUSSELL 000 020 0 — 2 7 4
ROWAN CO. 050 200 x — 7 7 0
Gillum, Carter (2), Cordle (4), Brewer (6) and Brinkman; Hacker and Fannin. W—Hacker. L—Gillum. 2B—Carter (RC), Binion (RC).
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