MOREHEAD It was a little bit like giving Tiger Woods a five-stroke handicap or Usain Bolt a 10-second head start.
Or turning Lawrence County’s uphill climb into Mount Everest.
Rowan County’s AJ Hacker stepped into the batter’s box in the bottom of the fifth inning with the bases loaded. He promptly unloaded them with a towering shot off the 40-foot-high netting that guards the short right-field porch at John “Sonny” Allen Field, turning a 2-0 Vikings lead into a five-run edge.
“I really wanted to hit one good, and I did,” Hacker said. “(Lawrence County reliever Bryce Blevins) got ahead first pitch with a strike on the outside, and then two (balls) in a row, so I figured I was probably gonna get a fastball middle and he’s probably gonna miss in, which he did.”
That was plenty for Hacker, the pitcher. The Kentucky Gatorade Player of the Year compiled a two-hit, zero-walk, nine-strikeout performance as Rowan County topped the Bulldogs, 5-0, in Semi-State 8 play at Morehead State on Saturday afternoon.
The Vikings’ first victory in the state’s round of 16 or later since 1983 sends them to the newly reconfigured eight-team state tournament on Thursday in Lexington against McCracken County. They also tied a 16th Region record for single-season wins with their 39th victory in 42 games. That win total matches Greenup County’s 2016 mark.
“This is what we’ve set our sights on, and these kids haven’t disappointed thus far,” Rowan County coach Scott Collins said. “The thing about this bunch is, we won the regional tournament and we didn’t get too high. We knew we still had business to do. You gotta love that about this bunch.”
The Vikings handed Hacker a 2-0 lead in the bottom of the first inning without hitting a ball hard. Rowan County recorded two seeing-eye singles and a fielder’s choice and took advantage of a Bulldogs error. Hacker and Devon Stevens collected RBIs in the frame.
“That really gave me so much confidence just to work, play my game and get every out I possibly can,” Hacker said.
Conversely, it got Lawrence County in trouble immediately.
“There’s no doubt that that game should’ve been 0-0 in the fifth,” Bulldogs coach Travis Feltner said. “Anybody that was here knew that, but that’s the way the ball bounces sometimes.
“I’m not gonna take anything away from (Rowan County). They’ve got a fine ball club. Our kids weren’t intimidated. I’m just being honest with you — we belonged here. We knew we belonged here.”
Lawrence County mustered four baserunners and had multiple runners on only once. Tyler Maynard reached on a two-out error in the top of the fourth, and Blevins perfectly executed a hit-and-run, punching the ball into right field. Maynard motored to third.
But Hacker induced a groundout to Vikings shortstop Ryan Mullen from the next Bulldog batter to end the threat.
“That was really our only chance that we had a legitimate threat,” Feltner said. “We weren’t able to get the one hit (with a runner in scoring position), and it’d have been interesting to see what that thing would’ve been had we been able to. Even Blevins’ ball, if that thing scoots on through, that’s a run right there. Tyler can fly.”
Lawrence County didn’t get another runner into scoring position. Hacker didn’t need it, but he gave himself some cushion an inning after the Bulldogs’ near-miss.
“I did ask him if he couldn’t hit it a little bit further to get it out of here,” Collins cracked of Hacker’s bases-clearing single. “That was huge right there.”
Concurred Feltner on the Morehead State signee and potential selection in next week’s MLB Draft: “There’s a reason that kid’s going Division-I level. I don’t care, he may not be going as a position player, but that’s what those type of guys do in big moments, and he did it.”
Lucas Maynard started on the mound for Lawrence County and took the decision, allowing two runs — neither earned — on three hits, with one strikeout and no walks.
He retired nine straight Vikings from Stevens’ first-inning run-scoring fielder’s choice until Corey Binion’s fourth-inning single. Courtesy runner Bradley Garner advanced to second base on a Bulldogs throwing error, but Maynard got the next Rowan County batter to fly out to Ethan Whitt in right field.
“Just like in the regional tournament, it was no doubt,” Feltner said of the decision to start Maynard. “He’s a strike-throwing machine.”
Hacker just happened to throw a few more.
“It’s cliche, but it’s so true — the bigger the game, AJ wants the ball,” Collins said. “Any time we’ve got him out there, you know he’s gonna be ready to go. You just hope everybody else is ready to go as well, and today we were.”
Both teams had already registered a program record for wins entering the game. For Lawrence County, what Feltner called his favorite season in 21 years as a coach ends at 35-6.
How the Bulldogs closed it likely exemplifies why. Senior catcher Austin Roe threw out a Viking stealing second base for the second out of the bottom of the sixth. After Tyler Maynard fanned the next Rowan County hitter, Roe stopped to shake home-plate umpire Dane May’s hand before heading to the dugout.
“We’ve won some regions,” Feltner said. “This goes down as No. 1 for me. ... It’s been a special group to coach.”
LAWRENCE CO. 000 000 0 — 0 2 2
ROWAN CO. 200 030 X — 5 5 1
L. Maynard, Fairchild (5), Blevins (5), T. Maynard (6) and Roe; Hacker and Binion. W—Hacker. L—L. Maynard.
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