By John Lachmann
FLORENCE, Ky. – When Highlands’ six-run lead dwindled to two in the bottom of the seventh, it was a sight that was all too familiar for Bluebirds coach Jeremy Baioni.
But this one had a happy ending for Highlands.
The Bluebirds held off a late rally by Dixie Heights to beat the Colonels, 6-4 in a 9th Region semifinal at Florence Freedom Field on Wednesday.
Highlands, which advanced to its first regional final since 2002 with the win, will play Newport Central Catholic in the championship game at 5 p.m. on Thursday.
“Unfortunately this year we’ve been in every situation,” Baioni said. “We’ve been up a bunch in the beginning, we’ve been down a bunch in the beginning. We’ve come back, we’ve been come back on. So we have experience in all those different aspects of the game.”
The Bluebirds wasted no time getting on the scoreboard. Junior center fielder Hector Molina reached on an error and went to third on a double by junior catcher Quentin Murray.
Freshman shortstop Jake Whitford followed with a two-run double to right center field. Whitford stole third base and scored on a suicide squeeze by junior left fielder Jake Lester, giving Highlands a 3-0 lead.
“(Dixie Heights) is a good team – you’ve got to get on them and stay on them,” Whitford said. “We did a good job of keeping our momentum and when they got it, we got it back.”
The Bluebirds tacked on another run in the fourth when junior right fielder Jacob Heck doubled and eventually scored on a balk, making it 4-0.
Dixie Heights had its chances to cut into the lead, but sophomore right-hander Joey Cochran pitched his way out of two major jams.
Colonels senior first baseman Parker Stansberry singled to lead off the bottom of the second but was caught stealing. One out later, senior right fielder Clayton McKinney singled and sophomore catcher Seth Caple followed with a double, but Cochran induced an inning-ending groundout to short.
In the bottom of the fourth, Cochran walked the bases loaded with one out, but he snagged a hard grounder up the middle and forced the lead runner at the plate.
Cochran retired the final batter of the frame on a weak pop up to second base.
“That saved my life,” Cochran said. “I was shaking when I had the bases loaded.”
The first two Colonels grounded out to start the bottom of the fifth, but after an error kept the inning alive, Cochran walked back-to-back hitters to load the bases before finally getting the hook.
Enter Murray, who moved from behind the plate to the mound and ended the threat by striking out McKinney.
Highlands extended its lead to six in the top of the seventh. Heck led off with a single and was bunted to second.
Molina smacked an RBI double over the right fielder’s head to score Heck, and Murray followed with a grounder through the left side to extend the lead to six.
“We knew we had to score as many runs as we possibly could – that was key,” Baioni said. “Those two runs (in the seventh) were huge, now that you look back at it.”
After tossing a scoreless sixth, Murray walked the first two hitters in the bottom of the seventh. One out later, he issued another free pass and McKinney followed with a two-run single.
Murray induced a weak pop up to second base for out No. 2, but the next two Colonels hitters reached on errors, scoring two more runs and bringing the potential game-winning run to the plate.
But Murray struck out the ninth man to hit in the inning to end the game with the tying run still standing on first.
“It took forever,” Baioni said. “That was a long bottom of the seventh, that’s for sure.”
HIGHLANDS 310-000-2—6 9 3
vs. D.HEIGHTS 000-000-4—4 5 1
WP: Cochran (4-2). LP: Sexton. HITTING LEADERS: H—Molina 2B; Murray 2-4, 2B; Whitford 2B, 2 RBI; Lester 2-2, 2B; Heck 2-3. DH—McKinney 2-3, 2 RBI; Caple 2B. RECORDS: Highlands 18-21-1, Dixie Heights 27-12.
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