After three seasons of disappointing district tournament finishes, the Middlesboro Yellow Jackets were able to celebrate on Tuesday, at the same place they celebrated when they won their last 52nd District Tournament title in 2012.
Middlesboro rallied for two runs in the seventh inning to claim a 3-2 walkoff win over Harlan County as Jacob Mike and Daniel Webb had back-to-back RBI singles with one out.
“I couldn’t be more proud of this team,” Middlesboro coach John Smith said. “We’ve had our ups and downs, but this is a scrappy group, and they don’t give up.”
Middlesboro (20-12) was two outs away from losing as HCHS senior lefthander Gage Burkhart had limited the Jackets to one run through six innings. Tyler McCullough, the Jackets’ top player and leadoff hitter, ripped the first pitch he saw in the seventh inning into left field for a single to start the comeback. Matthew Mike then drew a walk to put the tying and winning runs on base. McCullough caught everyone by surprise when he took off for third and barely beat a throw from catcher Brendan Rutherford.
“He’s a heads up player,” Smith said. “We were getting a pretty good read, so he had the green light.”
Jacob Mike singled into left field to bring home McCullough with the tying run. Webb slapped a hit past diving second baseman Devin Rodrigues to end the game.
“This group of seniors came in with this coaching staff as freshmen, and I think they were overlooked a little,” Smith said. “I hope they were able to open some eyes and prove some people wrong.”
McCullough pitched a two-hitter to earn the win, striking out 11 and walking only one.
Burkhart gave up three runs on eight hits with eight strikeouts and two walks.
“Gage did a good job, but he may have gotten a little tired at the end,” Harlan County coach John Lewis said. “I think (McCullough) attacked us. We let him get ahead too many times.”
McCullough, Matthew Mike, Jacob Mike, Webb, Chase Elliott, Jacob Spurlock, Josh Arnold and Brennan Hale each had one single for the Jackets.
Dylan Cornett and Caleb Carmical had the only hits for the 15-15 Bears.
Middlesboro picked up a run in the third inning as Hale led off with a single, moved to second on Van Ball’s bunt, took third on Matthew Mike’s hit and scored when Sean Johnson misplayed a ground ball hit by Jacob Mike with two outs.
Harlan County broke through in the sixth after Rodrigues drew a leadoff walk and Cornett singled. Johnson laid down a good bunt, and McCullough had to make a hurried throw to first that bounced off Arnold’s glove, allowing Rodrigues to score. Burkhart’s fielder’s choice grounder to shortstop brought in the go-ahead run.
Both teams advance to the 13th Region Tournament, starting Monday at Lynn Camp High School.
Harlan County* 000* 002* 0* — 2 2 1
Middlesboro* 001* 000* 2* — 3 8 1
Burkhart and Rutherford; McCullough and J. Mike. WP — McCullough. LP — Burkhart (2-1).
Reach John Henson at 606-909-4134