LEXINGTON — With just one swing of the bat, it became clear that Mercer County wasn’t going to stay as long at the state tournament this year.
The Titans were trading zeroes with third-ranked St. Xavier in their first-round game Monday in the Kentucky National Insurance/KHSAA State Baseball Tournament, which might have been the best-case scenario for them.
But everything changed in the sixth inning when Andrew Willinger sent a towering home run into the left-field bleachers at Whitaker Bank Ballpark.
The two-run homer was too much for Mercer, which was unable to generate any offense against a dominant pitcher and was doomed to a 4-0 loss.
“We ran into a tough draw, and probably the best team in it — we’ll find out in a few days. They’ve got an awfully good baseball team,” Mercer coach Jeremy Shope said. “We gave ourselves a chance. We played extremely well.”
Mercer, the state runner-up a year ago, wasn’t expected to win their region after losing five starters to graduation. The Titans (23-13) returned to the state tourney after becoming the first 12th Region team to repeat in 12 years, and they were going toe to toe with third-ranked St. Xavier until things unraveled in the sixth inning.
The Tigers (30-11) scored all of their runs in that inning, and once they took the lead on Willinger’s home run, the Titans’ backs were squarely against the wall.
They weren’t getting anyone on base against St. Xavier pitcher Sam Melchior, and that didn’t change in their last two at-bats. The junior right-hander retired the last 13 batters he faced in a one-hitter and didn’t throw more than 10 pitches in any of the last four innings.
Mixing a fastball that was consistently in the mid-80s with a curveball and changeup, Melchior had eight strikeouts and retired the 22 Mercer batters he faced on only 81 pitches.
“You just don’t see those guys every day. His velocity was there, and he had a heck of a breaking ball,” Shope said.
“Sam’s done that all year long,” St. Xavier coach Andy Porta said. “You can’t ask for more out of him. He just dominated, and that’s nice to see.”
Mercer pitcher J.T. Long matched Melchior for five innings until St. Xavier got to him in the sixth.
“Youve got to give them credit, that kid pitched a heck of a ballgame for five innings and shut us down,” Porta said. “But that’s baseball: You just keep plugging along and put the ball in play, and good things eventually happen. Willinger’s home run was huge for us, obviously. I think everybody was able to relax and exhale there, and we played St. X baseball.”
Long stranded four runners in the first five innings — two of them in scoring position — and two more were caught stealing before the Tigers broke through. After a leadoff walk to Austin Clemons, Willinger hit the seventh pitch of his at-bat halfway up the bleachers.
“It was sickening because I had battled so hard against him,” Long said. “But I’ve got to give it to him: He had a great at-bat. He’s a good baseball player, a good hitter.”
Shope had intentionally walked the 6-foot-6 Willinger, a Florida Southern signee who has six of the Tigers’ nine home runs this season, with first base open in the first inning,
“It was a great at-bat by that kid,” Shope said. “I put him on early in the game, and we weren’t in a situation where we could do that right there. J.T. made some great pitches to him that he was able to foul off, and he finally was able to sit on a changeup that was up and able to park it.”
Long said the plan based on the scouting report was to pitch Willinger “low and away, and I had kept him there, but he kept fouling them off, fouling them off, so I threw a changeup and it ran high and inside, and he was all right with that.”
Josh Osborne followed with a single and pinch-runner David Gahafer scored on an error on pinch-hitter Gunnar Wagoner’s sacrifice bunt to make it 3-0. McCormick made it to third on the error, then scored on a squeeze bunt by Zach Montgomery.
Mercer missed its one and only chance to take the lead in the third inning when Jon Banks led off with a single to left field and Austin Horn walked with one out. A double play ended the threat, and the Titans never got another base-runner.
“We were a base hit away from going up 1-0, and you never know when you take a lead in these kinds of things,” Shope said. “We didn’t get that, but J.T. kept battling, our defense kept making plays, and it gave us a chance.”
Melchior retired the Titans in order in the other six innings.
“Their pitcher was tough. He had a lot of speed and he had a really good breaking ball. We just had to get on the first fastball down the middle,” Banks said.
St. Xavier threatened in the first inning before two fielder’s choices stranded runners at first and third, and Willinger was stranded at third after a leadoff double in the fourth when Mercer catcher Alex Guay threw out his second runner in as many innings.
Long allowed four hits and two walks and had two strikeouts in six innings before giving way to reliever Jackson Stoeckinger, who got the first two outs in the seventh inning, then picked a runner off first base who had reached on an error.
“I’m extremely proud of (Long) and extremely proud of our defense and the way we come in and competed,” Shope said.
Kentucky National Insurance/KHSAA State Baseball Tournament
St. Xavier 000 004 0 — 4 4 0
Mercer County 000 000 0 — 0 1 3
Sam Melchior and Zach Montgomery. J.T. Long, Jackson Stoeckinger (7) and Alex Guay. W—Melchior (9-1). L—Long (7-4). 2B—Andrew Willinger (SX). HR—Willinger (SX).