In a season that has been spent trying to dig out of a hole, the Harlan County Black Bears had reached the .500 mark three times before this week, at 2-2, 7-7 and 10-10, only to fall below with a loss in the next game.
The Bears reached .500 again at 12-12 with a win Tuesday at Middlesboro and finally went over with a hard-fought 6-4 victory Saturday afternoon over a Letcher Central team that had beat them twice earlier this year in Whitesburg and had won nine straight.
In the course of winning, the Bears saw several positive signs going into the final week of the regular season, both on the mound and at the plate.
Senior lefthander Gage Burkhart, who was expected to be the Bears’ No. 2 pitcher this season but had been slowed by an injury for much for much of the year, pitched three strong innings in relief to earn the win, giving up one run on three hits with three strikeouts and one walk.
The Bears also had one of their best days at the plate with 11 hits, led by junior shortstop Sean Johnson with three hits in three official triples to the plate. Dylan Cornett added two singles. Burkhart had a double. Jared Sizemore, Caleb Carmical, Cameron Nease, Devon Rodrigues and Ethan Maggard added one single each.
Sizemore also played a big role in the win as he took over on the mound with the bases loaded in the sixth inning when the Bears were clinging to a one-run lead. Sizemore struck out Keaton Maggard, the Cougars’ No. 3 hitter, to end the threat, then retired Letcher in order in the seventh to earn the save.
Carmical started on the mound and allowed three runs on three hits in two innins, with two strikeouts and two walks. Nease gave up two hits and a walk in two-thirds of an inning.
John Potter and Andrew Fields, the top two hitters in the order, led Letcher (18-8) with two singles each. Maggard, Max Baker, Gregory Kincer and Isreal Terry added one hit each.
Nease had a two-run single in the first inning to give HCHS an early 2-0 lead. Johnson singled with one out and Burkhart walked. Brendan Rutherford was hit by a pitch to load the bases before Nease’s hit. Carmical was hit by a pitch to load the bases again and knock Kincer out of the game. Andrew Fields came in to strike out Hunter Nease and end the threat.
Letcher (18-8) responded with three runs in the second inning, all with two outs. Kincer walked, Terry singled and Potter brought in a run with a hit to right. Fields dropped a two-run single into center field for two more runs.
Consecutive singles by Rodrigues, Cornett and Johnson to open the bottom of the second pulled the Bears even. Burkhart’s grounder to first put Harlan County ahead 4-3, but Fields retired the next three to work out of a jam.
Sizemore’s two-out single in the fourth inning pushed the Bears’ lead to 5-3. Johnson picked up his third single of the game with one out in the inning and scored on Sizemore’s hit.
Letcher picked up a run in the fifth inning on an RBI single by Maggard after Potter opened the inning with a single.
Kincer singled, Potter walked and Fields singled to help Letcher load the bases in the sixth inning before Sizemore came in to extinguish the threat.
Burkhart lined an RBI double to deep right to give the Bears an insurance run in the sixth inning. Cornett led off with a walk and advanced on Johnson’s sacrifice.
Harlan County (13-12) returns to action Monday against Pikeville.
Letcher Central 030 010 0 — 4 7 2
Harlan County 220 101 x — 6 11 0
Kincer, Fields (1), Potter (5), Baker (6) and Gibbs; Carmical, Burkhart (3), Nease (6), Sizemore (6) and Rutherford. WP — Burkhart (1-0). LP — Fields. Sv — Sizemore (1).
Reach John Henson at 606-909-4134