Lexington first-year coach Brian Hucks had little debate on who he was going to send to the mound with the No. 1-ranked Wildcats’ season on the line.
Facing an elimination game against rival White Knoll, Hucks turned to A.J. Hart to keep the hope alive. The senior right-hander was up to the task as he pitched Lexington to a 5-1 victory against the Timberwolves in the Class 4A playoffs Thursday night to earn a spot in the Lower State championship tonight.
“We’re sitting in an elimination game and I gave the ball to the toughest kid on our team,” Hucks said. “He was a warrior out there.”
Lexington (27-3) must travel to Ashley Ridge tonight and win twice to advance to the state championship series next week. Ashley Ridge has to win once to advance.
Hart scattered five hits in the complete-game effort and pitched his way out of a huge jam in the first inning. Trevor Bradley led off the White Knoll first with a double but was picked off second by Hart for the first out.
White Knoll eventually loaded the bases with a single by Carl Wise sandwiched around two walks. Hart got a ground ball to third that Colie Bowers threw home for the force out. Hart then got a fly ball to left to end the threat.
“We get off to a good start with the double but have a momentum killer with the pick. But, even with that, we still get going,” first-year White Knoll coach Brooks Shumake said. “That was big there for us to come away with nothing after having the first four batters reach base.”
Hart, who improved to 7-0, threw 30 pitches in that first inning but once he got out of the jam, he felt settled in. He struck out three and walked two.
“I knew once my adrenaline started pumping I was going to throw that complete game,” he said. “After that first inning, I knew I had to throw more strikes. I was getting behind too many batters and that is what happens when you get behind a bunch of good hitters, you find yourself with the bases loaded and one out. I was glad to get out of it with no damage.”
The Wildcats jumped on top 1-0 in the first inning on a sacrifice fly by Collin Steagall that scored Bowers. White Knoll tied it in the third inning when Wise scored on a wild pitch with two outs.
After the third inning, Hart held White Knoll (23-8) to one base hit as he retired 12 of the final 13 batters and the final 11 in order.
“After the third inning, he gave up one hit against a very good-hitting lineup,” Hucks said. “I was worried we were going to have to make a move in the third or fourth but he settled in.”
The fourth inning proved the difference. A walk, a balk and a hit batter put runners at the corners with one out. White Knoll pitcher Ricky Harrison got a slow roller back to the mound to get the second out but No. 9 hitter Dalton Addy delivered a two-out, two-run single to take the lead.
Bowers reached on an error to extend the inning and Austin Bello had a bloop single that landed just out of reach of a diving fielder to score both runs and make it 5-1.
“That fourth inning was big,” Hucks said. “All of that came with two outs. We always talk about it’s not how many hits you get, it’s when you get them and those two-out hits are special.”
It was the third time this season Lexington has beaten White Knoll but this time more was riding on it than a region championship or bragging rights. When Hart got the final out on a fly ball to left field, he turned and blew a kiss towards the Timberwolves dugout in a show of emotion.
“They were trying to get in my head all night so I was just playing games back,” Hart said of the kiss.
WP: AJ Hart (7-0). LP: Ricky Harrison (2-3). Hitters: L — Colie Bowers 2-3; Austin Bello 2-3, 2RBI. WK — Carl Wise 2-3. Rec: L 27-3; WK 23-8.