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HODGENVILLE - Not storms, nor cold bats, nor even a graduation could stop the Bullitt East Chargers from winning the Section III Baseball Tournament last week at LaRue County High School.
The final piece of the puzzle came on Saturday night when the red and gold rode the pitching arm of Brandon Alphin to the title in the best-of-three series against Elizabethtown, winning the third game 6-0. The junior allowed only three hits and only one Panther runner reached third base.
The post-game celebration was a completely different scene than the first game in the tournament when Alphin and the Chargers lost to the Panthers 6-1.
After two rain delays forced the second game to Friday, Bullitt East trailed 4-0 before scoring eight runs in the bottom of the sixth inning for an 8-4 victory that put momentum back on the side of the red and gold.
That was all Alphin and the Chargers needed. Bullitt East scored four times over the first three innings on Saturday and then Alphin did the rest, shutting down the Fifth Region champions as they sent only 25 batters to the plate for 21 outs.
The victory moved Bullitt East into this week’s Kentucky State Baseball Championships at Applebees’ Park in Lexington. The eight-team event will start on Thursday with Bullitt East playing in the first game at 1:30 p.m. against South Laurel. It will be Bullitt East’s first trip ever to the state baseball finals.
“Tonight, I was a pitcher and not a thrower,” Alphin said during the celebration on the field after the win. “I walked a couple, but I wasn’t raring back and just trying to throw it as hard as I could.”
Alphin had pitched six innings on Monday, but he wasn’t feeling any tiredness over the last couple of innings on Saturday.
“I guess adrenaline kicked in for the sixth and seventh innings,” the junior said after his eighth win of the season against three losses. “I didn’t feel anything in my arm. I felt good.”
Alphin did a better job letting the game come to him. He struck out only three batters, but he only walked three. That was an improvement over the six he walked on Monday. Three of the players that walked in the first game eventually scored.
Bullitt East head coach Jeff Bowles said that the game plan didn’t change at all during the week, but that Alphin made the most of his second chance.
“He located his breaking pitches better,” the coach said. “We just wanted to execute the game plan. He just spotted his pitches better. He is very coachable. He bought into it and it worked.”
The rain delays in the middle of the week didn’t hurt the Chargers, but everything changed with that eight-run sixth inning on Friday.
“That’s why they call it an average,” Bowles said of his players’ turnaround at the plate. “They shut us down for over a game and a half. Then we busted out for a game and a third.”
Because rain had twice forced delays in the tournament, Alphin was available on Saturday. Bowles didn’t make that decision until the team got to Hodgenville and the squad was warming up.
“We didn’t make the decision until we consulted every coach we have,” Bowles said. “Any time you trot Brandon Alphin out there, you have to feel good. But, we had Pat (Revel) and Justin (Jones) ready also. That’s a good situation to have.”
Elizabethtown also came back with its first-day starter on Saturday, but senior Zach Riney could not fool the Chargers this time.
The momentum stayed with the Chargers when senior Zack McCarthy led off the second inning with a massive home run to left center field.
“It was an inside fastball,” the big senior said. “I just swung hard in case I hit it.”
Did he think it was going out when he hit it?
“It felt good,” McCarthy said. “I didn’t know if it was out or not. By the sound of the crowd and (first base) coach (Craig) Sharpe I had a good idea.”
Justin Jones followed that with a double and Riney was on the ropes. Josh Whitmer was next and he walked and then the bases were loaded when designated hitter Robby Gibson’s bunt was misplayed at third base.
Riney did strike out the next two batters, but that brought the top of the line-up to the plate. Junior Matt Bowles lined a sharp single back up the middle and that scored both Jones and Whitmer.
An inning later, Alphin hit a ball to the wall in right field and he raced all the way to third with a triple. That was it for Riney as the Panthers brought Carter Elmore in to pitch.
McCarthy was the first batter for the new pitcher and that is a daunting task for anyone. McCarthy launched a shot to center field that was plenty deep enough to bring Alphin home from third.
Alphin ran down the line and was met at the plate by Elizabethtown catcher Michael Thomas. Alphin opted not to slide and crashed into Thomas despite the fact that the ball never made it to the plate.
Elizabethtown coach Don Pitts stormed out of the dug-out to argue that Alphin should have slid. The four umpires met in the middle of the field but allowed the play to stand. That was not good enough for Pitts and he was ejected. One of his assistant coaches, who had gone out to pull the coach back, was also tossed.
Those four runs were more than enough for Alphin. It was all icing on the cake in to the top of the seventh inning when the Chargers closed out the scoring. Bowles doubled with one out and then Jimmy Hoffman blasted a shot that easily cleared the fence in left field.
Bullitt East finished with nine hits in the game. Hoffman and McCarthy each had the home runs while both Alphin and Jones had triples. The Chargers also got doubles from Jones and Bowles. Jones, McCarthy and Bowles each finished with two hits in the win.
“After the first game I was 0-2 with two strike-outs so I went out and tweaked my stance,” Jones said after receiving the Tournament Co-MVP awards along with Alphin. “I felt better at the plate. I can see the ball better and that helps.”
Bullitt East had momentum after scoring eight runs in the sixth inning of the Friday game and coach Bowles felt that the team got a boost from a perceived lack of respect from Elizabethtown, a team that had also beaten the Chargers 3-2 during the regular season in the Louisville Invitational Tournament.
“With all due respect to Elizabethtown, but they had motivated us,” Bowles said after the game. “You don’t need to give us a reason to get up. I have a lot of respect for coach Pitts and his program, but deep down I don’t think their kids had enough respect for us. It is what it is.”
The win was the 30th of the season for the Chargers against eight losses. It is the first time the Bullitt East program has ever won that many times in a season.