By John Lachmann
SILVER GROVE, Ky. – Highlands’ pitching staff made a statement to the Region 9 baseball field this week.
In their 10 innings pitched in the District 36 tournament, the Bluebirds allowed just one infield hit in a pair of shutouts, capped off by a 10-0 blanking of Bellevue in the championship game at Morscher Park on Thursday.
Sophomore Ricky Raisor no-hit Newport in his first varsity start, and senior Joey Cochran and junior Joe Martin combined for a one-hitter in the finale.
“We think pitching’s a strong point for us – our guys have thrown well all year,” Highlands coach Jeremy Baioni said. “The key has been playing defense behind them and we’ve done that the last couple games.”
Cochran and Raisor were both named to the all-tournament team, and senior Evan Allen – who was outstanding at second base and drove in two runs in the semifinal – was the most valuable player.
Highlands was at .500 entering its last game of the regular season but entering next week’s regional tournament on a three-game winning streak.
The Bluebirds jumped all over Tigers senior right-hander Brian Dill, touching him up for five earned runs in the bottom of the first.
Highlands junior shortstop Jake Whitford grounded out to first to open the scoring, and a wild pitch brought Allen home.
The Bluebirds loaded the bases again and junior catcher Luke Hennigan made it 3-0 with a single. Senior right fielder Mitchell Gesenhues drew a walk to force in another run, and another wild pitch extended the Highlands lead to five.
“(That was) huge because these are always emotional games,” Baioni said. “We know that’s a good (Bellevue) team over there, and when you get on somebody early and they’re trying to play from behind there’s definitely a lot more pressure.”
Bellevue did have a runner reach on a throwing error in the top of the first, but he was erased on an inning-ending double play.
Cochran threw four innings and allowed just one more baserunner – senior catcher Zach Poinsett hit a hard grounder to third that was knocked down and the throw pulled the first baseman off the bag.
It was ruled a hit and was the only one Highlands pitchers allowed in the district tournament.
Pitching to contact, Cochran did not walk a batter and fanned three.
“Joey fills up the strike zone,” Baioni said. “He has all year, has for the last three years really. We know what we’re going to get out of Joey.”
Martin mowed down the Tigers in the top of the fifth, allowing just one hitter to reach on an error.
Dill settled down and did not allow another run in his four innings of work, but the Bluebirds scored five more runs in the bottom of the fifth to induce the mercy rule.
After a fly out opened the frame, Gesenhues and senior pinch hitter Ben Vermeil singled in a run each. Junior left fielder Brady Murray made it 8-0 on a sacrifice fly.
A dropped fly ball that should have ended the inning instead was dropped for a run-scoring error, and Whitford’s sharp double to right center plated Highlands’ 10th run.
The bottom of the Bluebirds’ lineup impressed. Spots six through nine reached base in 10 of 12 plate appearances, knocked in four runs and scored five.
“We talk about it all the time that you don’t always have to best team, you have to be the best team at the right time, and I think we’re coming along really well offensively,” Baioni said.
BELLEVUE 000-00—0 1 2
HIGHLANDS 500-05—10 8 2
WP: Cochran (3-5). LP: Dill. HITTING LEADERS: H—Whitford 2B, 2 RBI; Hennigan 2-3; Gesenhues 2 RBI. RECORDS: Highlands 20-17, Bellevue 15-17.