MIDDLESBORO — With one swing Monday, Scotty Bailey took away the pressure and sent the Harlan County Black Bears steamrolling into the 52nd District Tournament finals.
Held to one hit by Austin Miller on April 21 in the first Harlan win over Harlan County in school history, the Black Bears appeared a tad tight early with Miller on the mound in the opening game of the tournament at Middlesboro.
But Bailey, Harlan County’s senior shortstop, took away any magic Miller still had left from the earlier matchup and deposited it over the fence in left field for a grand slam to cap a six-run second inning as the Bears coasted to an 11-1 five-inning win.
“I guess the pressure was on us a little, especially after we didn’t score the first inning, but we rolled after that,” Bailey said. “I had been hitting it pretty well, and I was looking for him to try to get ahead with the bases loaded.”
“They did have a lot of pressure on them,” Harlan County coach John Lewis said. “They adjusted to the slower pitching because we’ve seen a lot of different pitching the last few games. After that home run, everyone exploded.”
Harlan County (20-16) collected eight hits against Miller in four-plus innings on the mound, led by Bailey with a homer and single. Blake Rutherford singled twice. Connor Leisge, Brendan Rutherford, Anthony Jenkins, Chance Brown and Sawyer Fields added one single each.
Tyler Cornett, a senior righthander, earned the win on the mound for the Bears as he scattered five hits with five strikeouts and two walks.
Brendan Rutherford singled with one out in the second and moved to third on Jenkins’ sacrifice. Miller was only one out away from escaping another jam when Brown ripped an RBI single to left. Fields’ bloop bunt hit to second base and Blake Rutherford’s infield single loaded the bases. Leisge was hit by a pitch to force in the second run, then Bailey stepped to the plate and drove Miller’s first pitch over the fence.
“If it was where I was looking, I was swinging hard,” Bailey said. “I wanted to at least drive in a couple of runs.”
Harlan picked up its run in the third inning as Caleb Hogue beat out an infield hit, then took second on an errant throw from Jenkins at third and scored on Jacob Hensley’s single to center.
Cornett took control from there, facing only one batter over the minimum as he held the Dragons without a hit over the final two innings.
“He settled down after the first inning. That’s always the toughest inning for any pitcher,” Lewis said.
Harlan County continued to pick up runs, scoring one in the third when Brendan Rutherford walked and courtesy runner Dylan Cornett stole second and eventually scored on Brown’s ground out. The Bears added another run in the fourth inning when Blake Rutherford singled, stole second and scored on a wild pitch.
The game ended in the fifth with three more HCHS runs. Jenkins singled and Brown walked to mark the end of Miller’s day on the mound. Fields was safe on an error to load the bases. After Blake Rutherford was retired on a fly ball to shallow center, Leisge ripped a single to left for one RBI. Two more runs scored when the ball skipped away from Patrick Smallwood, the fifth and final error for the Dragons as the game ended via the 10-run mercy rule. Hogue gave up one unearned run on one hit in 1/3 of an inning on the mound.
“A few errors, then a couple of bloops and a blast killed us,” Harlan coach Robbie Burns said. “I think that grand slam took the wind out of our sails. Austin got behind and had to throw it down the pipe, and they were waiting on it.”
Hogue had two singles to lead the 20-13 Dragons. Noah Busroe, Hensley and Corey Burns added one single each.
It was the seventh straight first-round exit for Harlan, but the Dragons did post their second straight 20-win season and Burns like the progress he has seen.
“I’m ticked to death with the season we had. We’ve worked hard,” Burns said. “Like John (Lewis) and I were talking, we’re for each other when we don’t play each other, so we wish them the best.”
The Dragons will lose four senior starters but return Busroe and Hogue at the top of the order, along with Ben Abraham, probably their top hitter the past two seasons, and Tye Patrick in the middle of the lineup. Andrew Saylor and Austin Wilson will also return after earning starting jobs as freshmen this season.
Harlan County will play the winner of the Bell County-Middlesboro game on Tuesday at 7.
Leisge, a senior who beat Middlesboro in last year’s district finals, will likely open on the mound for the Bears.
Harlan 001 00 — 1 5 5
Harlan County061 13 — 11 9 2
Miller, Hogue (5) and Saylor, Miller (5). Cornett and Brendan Rutherford. WP — Cornett (4-5). LP — Miller (5-4). HR — Harlan County (Bailey).