RACELAND Rowan County baseball coach Scott Collins is an insurance adjuster by day. He collects benefits of insurance runs by night.
After pitchers AJ Hacker and Austin Mullins locked down and dueled for six innings, the Vikings poured it on Boyd County in the seventh to eliminate the Lions, 8-0, in the 16th Region Tournament at Raceland. Rowan County will make the program’s 17th all-time region championship game appearance today at 6 p.m. against Ashland.
Hacker tossed a two-hit shutout to extend Rowan County’s state-record string of consecutive shutouts to seven. The Vikings haven’t allowed a run in their last 46 innings.
“It’s been really special,” Collins said. “We knew going into the year that we were going to have a strong pitching staff. I didn’t realize we would be as strong as we are now.”
The first of two Corey Binion bombs helped Hacker, Kentucky’s Gatorade Player of the Year, sense less pressure heading into the bottom of the fourth with a 1-0 lead.
“It just took all the weight off my shoulders and just let me do my thing on the mound, and just go to work,” said the Morehead State signee.
Hacker fanned BB Layne for his seventh strikeout in eight batters — he amassed 10 total punchouts — before walking Bryce Carley.
Carley created a stir when he decided to aggressively pursue third base as a wild pitch danced away from Binion. The ball popped up and struck Binion hard near his Adam’s apple before scooting a short way up the first-base line in foul ground. As Carley darted toward third, first baseman Mason Moore scooped up the ball and rifled a fastball to the bag. Chase Alderman applied the tag. Carley was out, but Binion was down.
“At first, I didn’t feel it,” Binion said. “A few seconds into it, it was just a rush of pain, headaches, really bad. Thank God for Allyson (Ewigman, the team’s trainer). She came over and poured cold water on me and it kinda brought me to it. Then I could drink water, then I could talk. I couldn’t talk at first.”
Binion let his bat do the talking for him.
The senior lefty took full advantage of one of very few mistakes made by Mullins. Before taking a ball to the throat, he went for Boyd County’s figurative jugular vein, turning a first-pitch offering into a frozen rope that barely cleared the right-field fence.
“High, down-the-middle fastball,” Binion said. “He’d been changing speeds on me really, really well, so I knew I needed to sit back and drive it somewhere. I wasn’t really swinging for the fence on that. I was just trying to put it in the gap somewhere, get something started. I ran like it was a double because I thought it was going to hit the fence.”
Mullins, one of nine Boyd County seniors, concluded his career with a memorable outing. He surrendered only four hits and two runs while striking out 10 and issuing three free passes. He led the Lions with 47 2-3 innings pitched this season.
“You couldn’t ask for more from him,” said Lions first-year head coach Frank Conley, who shared a quick hug with Mullins when he exited. “He gave everything he had. He’s done that all year. He’s a changed kid. He came out and pitched his butt off tonight.”
Pinch-hitter Aiden Leuenberger smoked Mullins’ final delivery up the middle past a fully extended Jake Biggs into right center field for a double. Ten batters later, he fouled out to end a seven-run frame. In between: Boyd County made two pitching changes; Rowan County recorded four more hits, including a two-run single by Nick Eastham and no-doubt home run by Binion; and the Lions committed two errors on top of a wild pitch and passed ball.
“We’re dangerous when we pour it on. When we hit like that, that’s what we want,” Binion said. “We would like to do that in the first inning.”
Said Hacker: “Once we get going, it’s hard to stop us. That dugout is just crazy loud once we get rolling like that. It’s so much fun.”
Boyd County (26-7) had a promising start when Hunter Morgan led off the first with a sharp single to center. The senior third baseman made a solid connection in each at-bat against the hard-throwing Hacker.
“Hunter’s got quick hands,” Conley said. “He’s always been able to hit the fastball pretty well, so it doesn’t surprise me that he was the guy making good contact.”
Morgan and Layne were the only two Lions to reach third. In the first, a Carley flyout moved Morgan to third. With two outs, Hacker recorded a strikeout looking. In the sixth, Layne reached third with one out. Hacker promptly mowed down the next two batters.
“That’s AJ. AJ does what AJ does,” Collins said. “Any time he does allow a baserunner on, he takes that personally. He tries to ‘bulldog’ out of it. Tonight, he was fortunate enough to do just that.”
Rowan County (37-3) has plenty of arms available for tonight’s finals, including Moore, Alderman and Binion. The Vikings have won 29 straight games.
ROWAN CO. 000 100 7 — 8 8 2
BOYD CO. 000 000 0 — 0 2 2
Hacker and Binion; Mullins, Ratliff (7), McNeil (7) and Hutchinson. W—Hacker. L—Mullins. 2B—Hacker (R), Leuenberger (R), Alderman (R). HR—Binion 2 (R).
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