It’s been a successful season for the Middlesboro by any measure, but one key ingredient has been missing. Senior Thomas Epperson was expected to serve as the team’s ace on the mound, instead he’s struggled to find the plate more often than not.
That all changed Friday as Epperson fired a complete game no-hitter with 15 strikeouts to lead the Jackets to an 8-3 win over Knox Central in their home finale. Epperson walked two and had a wild pitch and three Middlesboro errors helped the Panthers to score the three runs. But for the most part Epperson just overpowered the Knox lineup.
“I couldn’t be more pleased. A great performance, a great effort. The kid has worked so hard and had some struggles and I just can’t tell you how happy I am for him,” Powell said. “It means volumes for the team because in order for us to accomplish our goal, which is to win the region, we have to have three guys who can step up and win a game. Thomas proved that not only do we have three guys, but we’ve got some outstanding pitching.”
Powell said Epperson came in the other day to throw a bullpen and looked “awesome.”
“It just started clicking again. I hoped that it would translate on the field and it did. I can’t say that it’s any one thing, he’s worked hard all fall all winter and all spring. It’s never been a lack of effort or lack of intensity on his part.”
Epperson said it meant alot to him to have such a fine performance in his final home game.
“I have worked and I have worked and worked. This is the last game I’ll ever play on this field and to do that and go out with a bang is really special,” he said. “It’s a confidence-booster going into the district and region.”
He said he could tell from the first pitch that he was going to have a good game.
“The first innings of my last few games nothing ever went right,” Epperson said. “The first pitch I threw was a strike, started out with two strikeouts and a ground out and I knew it was going to be something.”
The Panthers actually took a 1-0 lead in the top of the second as Dustin Bingham drew a lead off walk and advanced to third on a wild pitch and a passed ball. He scored the first run as Jeff Ledington reached on an error.
Middlesboro got that run back in the bottom of the inning as Timmy Helton walked and went to third on John Millett’s base hit. Bubba Brock followed with an RBI ground out to even the score at 1.
The Jackets pulled ahead in the third. Nick Capps led off with a base hit and went to second on a balk. Austin Baker’s hit put runners at the corners and Capps then scored on Jake Brock’s RBI ground out for a 2-1 lead. Epperson singled to score Baker from second and advanced to second on an error. He then scored as Helton reached on an error to put MHS up 4-1.
Middlesboro tacked on four more runs in the fifth. Capps reached on an error and stole second, Baker singled and Epperson followed with another RBI single. An errant pick-off throw put the runners at second and third, but it wouldn’t have mattered as Helton jerked a triple over the right-fielder’s head to score them both. Millett followed that with an RBI ground out to short to put the Jackets up 8-1.
Knox Central’s Seth Hill took the loss. He allowed five earned runs on eight hits over six innings while striking out four and walking two.
“I think he was a guy that they thought would be very successful against us,” Powell said. “He throws off-speed and some people around the region feel like that one of the keys to beating Middlesboro is to throw somebody like that to keep us off balance. Sadly sometimes it is effective. Certainly with Thomas’ performance we did enough to overcome that.”
Epperson cruised through the middle innings with two strike outs in the third, one in the fourth, and then needed just 11 pitches to strike out the side in the fifth.
The Panthers were able to put up a pair of runs in the sixth. Matthew Barger walked to start the inning and stole second. One out later Epperson made an athletic play to snag a come-backer off the bat of Tyler Stewart, but his throw to first was off line and Barger scored on the error. Stewart later scored on a passed ball to make it 8-3.
Epperson retired the final five batters and struck out the final four. He again needed just 11 pitches to strike out the side in the seventh to close it out.
Offensively, Austin Baker led the Jackets with three hits and scored two runs. Epperson had two hits and two RBI. Helton tripled, walked, reached on an error, scored twice and drove in two. Jake Brock reached on an error, stole a base and had an RBI. Bubba Brock had an RBI grounder, walked and stole a base. Millett singled and had an RBI. Capps singled and reached on an error, scored two runs and stole a base.
Both teams return to action on Monday with Middlesboro (21-7) playing at Clay County and Knox Central (7-22) hosting Perry Central.
— — —
Knox Central 010 002 0 — 3 0 5
Middlesboro 013 040 x — 8 8 3
Hill and Helton; Epperson and BBrock. W — Epperson. L — Hill.