Ryan Mullen took a swing. Then he took another. And then another.
Carrying the weight of the Vikings’ fate on his shoulders, Rowan County’s 150-pound senior shortstop wasn’t going down without an epic duel.
Eleven pitches after he dug into the batter’s box, Mullen walked to put runners at first and second as the Vikings were on the wrong end of a one-run game.
McCracken County’s Dylan Schneider entered in relief, retired the next batter on a foul flyout and the Mustangs survived a sweat-producing state quarterfinals contest, 2-1, at Whitaker Bank Ballpark on Thursday.
“These kids, they never quit,” said Vikings coach Scott Collins. “They’re going to battle until the very last out.”
Mustangs senior right-hander Jacob Ehling dealt a gem, but hit a rocky road in the seventh thanks to clutch at-bats by Chase Alderman, pinch-hitter Aiden Leuenberger and Mullen.
With two outs in the bottom of the seventh, Alderman lined a sharp single to right field and Leuenberger grounded a double down the left-field line — the ball skipped over third base — to slice the margin to 2-1. Mullen then made Ehling labor through an 11-pitch face-off. He fouled off six deliveries.
“Give all the credit in the world to Ryan Mullen,” Collins said. “He’s done it for us all year. That is one thing about this team. Sometimes somebody else steps up, not necessarily the ones you think of all the time.”
Alderman and Leuenberger’s hits were just the third and fourth for the Vikings. Following Mullen’s free pass, McCracken County coach Geno Miller called on Schneider.
“We’ve had that situation come up a couple times this year with both of those guys where one would start and the other one come in behind them, and both handled it really well throughout the year,” Miller said. “That’s a tough spot. Rowan County’s a heck of a team. … They put some things together because their kids have a lot of fight in them.”
Ben Higdon snagged a foul pop off the bat of Matthew Gagliano to send the Mustangs (32-7) to their fourth semifinal appearance in as many years. McCracken County will encounter either Hazard or Trinity tonight at 8:30, if the schedule holds to form. Hazard-Trinity, originally slated for Thursday night, is set for 11 a.m. today.
The Mustangs had to trump Mr. Baseball to reach this point. It wasn’t easy, Miller said.
“Their pitcher, Hacker, man, he was as advertised,” Miller said of AJ Hacker, also Kentucky’s Gatorade Player of the Year. “We just had some guys step up and found some barrels and got some runs across.”
Higdon jumped on Hacker’s first pitch, an 89-mph fastball. Higdon drilled it to right center field for a leadoff double. After Hacker induced a groundout and fanned Grant Davis, cleanup hitter Logan Verble bounced a double down the right-field line to plate Higdon. Hacker was saddled with his first earned run since April 12 — a span that covered 54-plus innings.
“Our philosophy is, going against a kid like that, you can’t sit there and take pitches,” Miller said. “You get swings on him, you’re upping your chances to put balls in play. Even against a kid like AJ that’s so very well respected across the state, if you’re putting balls in play, sometimes that’s a mental game for a guy that’s usually going out there getting 11, 12 strikeouts a game.
“I can’t compliment their team enough,” Miller added. “Everybody I talked to were spot-on with how good that team is. We feel very fortunate and blessed to move on.”
Hacker still struck out eight Mustangs. He gave up seven hits — two more than any other opponent managed all season — and tossed 100 pitches.
Gagliano tallied three punchouts in relief of Hacker in the sixth. One strike-3 was a wild pitch that allowed Kiael Waldon to reach first.
McCracken County made its cushion much more comfortable with a top-of-the-seventh run. Grant Godwin poked a two-strike, two-out single to right field to drive home Elijah Wheat, who had been plunked by Corey Binion. Binion had replaced Gagliano on the bump. Godwin was previously 0 for 3 with two strikeouts.
“Grant, up to that point, had a little bit of a rough night,” Miller said. “Man, he stepped up for us.”
Ehling nearly completed a seven-frame outing, but Miller lifted him after the walk to Mullen. He went 6 2-3, surrendering only four hits while striking out six. At one point, he retired 14 Vikings in a row. Collins said he offered effective off-speed pitches.
Gagliano walked and Nick Eastham singled with nobody out in the first, but Ehling escaped trouble by getting Shane Taylor to fly out, Hacker to strike out and Devon Stevens to ground out.
“Baseball’s a funny game,” Collins said. “We’re sitting there thinking, 3-4-5 coming up, and we come in with zero on the board. I definitely liked our chances at that moment, but the ball didn’t fall our way that inning.”
Rowan County’s 31-game winning streak came to a halt. The Vikings (39-4) made their second state tournament appearance in three seasons while recording a program high in victories.
“These kids never got down, never got shook, never got nervous,” Collins said. “They just expected to show up and play the next day. They didn’t let the moment get too big for them.”