HARROGATE, Tenn. — The Middlesboro Yellow Jackets were finally able to get the 2013 baseball season started on Thursday as they pulled out a 3-1 win at Cumberland Gap. Rain, wet field conditions and cold weather had pushed back the first game of the John Smith coaching era at MHS since Monday.
Junior Lucas Crawford was sharp on the mound for Middlesboro. He went the distance while scattering three hits and giving up just an unearned run. Crawfrod struck out eight, walked four and hit a batter.
“He was pretty much our go-to guy last year as a sophomore,” Smith said. “He comes out today and gets up over 100 pitches, we’ve got our throwing program going so he was ready to throw that many, but he did a heck of a job for the first game out.”
Brian Hale, a senior transfer from Cumberland Gap, led the Jacket offense with a two-run single and a double and also walked twice in the game. Junior Brandyn Ball also had two hits and scored a run while Crawford singled for the other MHS hit and sophomore Ryan Pittman drew a bases-loaded walk for an RBI.
Panther senior Matt Wade was also very effective with his curveball. He held the Jackets to just five hits and three runs over six innings while striking out nine and walking seven. Sophomore Gavin Burns pitched a perfect seventh inning with a pair of strike outs.
“Getting ahead of hitters and throwing a curveball for a strike, those are things we try to preach to our pitchers. Having Matt, a senior, out there doing that will hopefully open some of the younger guys’ eyes,” said Cumberland Gap coach Nick Huckaby.
Cumberland Gap’s hits were singles by Brad Fleeman, Wade and Jeremiah Lorens. Freshman shortstop Hunter Bayless reached on a fielder’s choice and scored the lone Panther run on a wild pitch.
Wade faced the minimum through the first two innings and the Cumberland Gap struck first in the bottom of the second. Wade walked, then Bayless hit into a fielder’s choice to third and advanced to second on an error. Bayless took third on a Fleeman ground out and then scored on a wild pitch for a 1-0 Panther lead.
In the top of third, Ball reached on a bunt single and advanced to second on a throwing error. With two out Jake Brock walked and was off and running when Hale drilled a two-run single to right field to put the Jackets on top 2-1.
Middlesboro added an insurance run in the fourth as Crawford singled to right with one out and courtesy runner Jesse Hoskins stole second and third. With two down, Hunter Collett walked and stole second. Ball was hit by a pitch to load the bases and Pittman worked a walk to force in Hoskins, but Wade recovered to get out of the inning.
Hale led off the Middlesboro fifth with a double to deep center. Wade struck out two around walks to Tyler Yoakum and Brandon Hale and then got Collett to hit a grounder to Bayless at short for a fielder’s choice to end the inning.
“It was a good job from our defense. Hunter Bayless is a freshman out there at shortstop and making plays. I think we had one error, which is a step up from last night (a 10-3 loss at Grainger),” Huckaby said. “We took a step forward in pitching and defense, but we’ve got to hit it. That’s the name of the game.”
Cumberland Gap threatened in the bottom of the fifth as Fleeman led off with a single and Dylan Gamrbel walked. But Crawford got Nathan Hatmaker to fly out to left around a pair of strike outs to get out of the jam.
The Panthers had an even bigger rally going in the sixth as Brandon Bailey and Jake Elliott drew walks and Wade reached on a bunt single to load the bases with no outs. Bayless followed with a little flair into shallow left but Hale ran it down and was able to turn and throw to home in time to retire Bailey, who had tagged up a third on the play.
“It’s early, it’s cold and we saw a very quality arm there in the Crawford kid. Hats off to him (but) I felt like we got pitches to hit and we fouled them off or took them,” Huckaby said. “We can blame it on the fact that it’s early in the season, but at some point we have to be accountable and get a big hit when we need one. Somebody has to step up.”
It was still 3-1 going into the bottom of the seventh and Lorens led off with base hit just past third. But Jacket catcher Tyler Prater was able to throw him out trying to steal second and Crawford retired the final two batters to end the game.
Smith is now 1-0 as the head coach at Middlesboro. He was a standout player for the Jackets in the early ’90s and served as an assistant under longtime MHS coach Bill Powell for several years. Smith has been the head coach at Whitley County and Bell County before returning to MHS the last two seasons as an assistant. He was the choice to take over the program after Powell retired following last season.
Smith is joined by a coaching staff made up of a who’s who of some of Middlesboro top players over the past twenty or thirty years: Mark Carter, Vince Powell and David Kelly.
“Coach Carter played on some great teams back in the ’80s that won a couple of regional titles. Vince, of course played for his dad when I was an assistant with him before I went to Whitley County. He was a great hitter and a heck of a catcher, he’s running our catching staff and calling our pitches,” Smith said. “(First base coach) David Kelly played on that ‘97 team that went to the final four. He was great football and baseball player and went on to play at LMU. I graduated in ‘92 and had the luxury of coaching these guys as they came up through Senior League. We’ve got a good coaching staff and they know we’re no-nonsense and come out here to take care of business day-in and day-out.”
Middlesboro is coming off a 26-9 season that included a 52nd District championship and an appearance in the 13th Region championship game. Seven seniors graduated from that team, but strong core returns including Crawford, Brock, Yoakum and John Millett.
“Pitching is going to be our strong point I think,” Smith said. “A lot of the guys coming back pitched a lot for us last year. Lucas was pretty much our ace and Youkum gave us a lot of innings. Pittman is back out there strong this year for us, probably our three or four man in the rotation. Jake Brock is our center fielder and a lefty, he’s going to throw some for us. And we’ve got Brian Hale, a senior transfer from Cumberland Gap, he’s our one or two there with Lucas.”
Prater is the catcher, freshman Brandon Hale is at first with Ball at second and Brian Hale at short. Yoakum and Crawford will share time at third, depending on who is pitching. Brock is in center with Pittman in left and Millett in right. Collett was the DH on Thursday with Hoskins providing defense and speed off the bench.
The Jackets could miss the power provided last year by seniors Thomas Epperson, Timmy Helton and Bubba Brock.
“We graduated seven starters so it could be a rebuilding year. But we feel like pitching and defense is going to be our strong suit,” Smith said. “We’re looking to play a lot of small ball.”
As for Cumberland Gap, the Panthers lost just three seniors from last year’s 14-14 team: Logan Gilbert, Corey Smith and Joseph Jenkins. But they also saw Hale leave for Middlesboro, paving the way for Bayless to take over at short.
Bailey replaces Smith behind the plate with Fleeman moving to first. Burns saw significant time at second last year while Elliott returns as third. Hatmaker is back in center field with Joe Giddens and Dylan Gambrell flanking him.
“I think the goals first and foremost are to get better every day. We got better today from yesterday, now tomorrow we’ll see if we take a step forward or a step back,” said Huckaby. “Stuff like wins, stuff like hitting hopefully will come — It’s going to be a long season if it doesn’t. But I think it will because we’ve got a great core of seniors and upperclassmen that know the ropes and know the expectations and they’re going to carry us through. Our expectations are high as far as that goes.”
Cumberland Gap also lost Logan Marcum, who was killed in a car wreck back in February.
“He was one of our guys and it’s been tough on the team. They’ve faced adversity, that’s something I didn’t have to deal with when I was 17,” Huckaby said.
The team dedicated the flag pole at the baseball field as a memorial to Marcum in a ceremony before Thursday’s game.
“I don’t think it can be said enough that Logan was a very positive kid, a very good, moral kid. He had a positive impact on everybody, he was always smiling and he lived life. We miss him dearly and wish he was here each and every single day,” Huckaby added.
Cumberland Gap (0-2) and MHS (1-0) play again today at Middlesboro starting at 5 p.m.
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Middlesboro…002 100 0 — 3 5 2
Cumb. Gap…..010 000 0 — 1 3 1
Crawford and Prater; Wade, Burns (7) and Bailey. W — Crawford. L — Wade.