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Danville downs Somerset for 12th Region title

Danville didn’t forget.

Two years after one of the most disappointing losses in Danville baseball history, the Admirals applied the lesson in a similar situation to avoid a similar result.

Somerset was charging from behind in the 12th Region baseball tournament final, just as it had in the most recent regional final two years earlier. But this time Danville slammed the door, holding on for an 8-7 victory Monday night that gave the Admirals their first regional title in 12 years.

“That was probably the most fun we’ve ever had,” Danville’s Christian Howe said. “It means a ton, especially (because) we played that same team in that same type of game two years ago. We’ve had two years to think about that.”

Danville lost to Somerset 10-9 in the 2019 regional final despite leading 9-6 after five innings. That game has been on the Admirals’ minds ever since, through 2020 when the COVID-19 pandemic wiped out the season and right from the start in 2021. And it was on their minds Monday before the game, after they built an 8-0 lead and after the Briar Jumpers began chipping away at that lead.

“Literally every inning of the game, we kept telling each other that,” Danville shortstop Preston Barnes said. “We kept that in the back of our minds … and then when the game got closer, like it did two years ago, it hit us all. And we all came in together, talked about it, controlled ourselves, (took) deep breaths and that was ballgame. We knew it, and we felt good about it, even though it got close.”

It couldn’t have been much closer than it was in the bottom of the seventh inning. Somerset had scored three times in the sixth to pull within one run, and Danville coach Paul Morse reminded his players about 2019 one more time before they took the field in the seventh.

“It drove us, man,” pitcher Brady Baxter said. “Coach brought it up right before I went out to pitch (the seventh), and that’s all I could think about. I didn’t want it to happen again.”

Somerset came within about 5 feet of tying the game before Baxter got the final out to give host Danville its 16th consecutive win and its first regional championship since 2009.

The Admirals had been runners-up three times since last winning the region. They lost the 2010, ’12, and ’19 finals by a combined four runs.

“It’s pretty sweet because you’ve been that close two years ago and multiple other times to finally get back to winning it,” Morse said. “It’s definitely a good win, and to see the guys grow up through the program and get to this point, it’s been a pretty awesome ride.”

The ride continues Saturday, when Danville (38-3) will make its first state tournament appearance. Danville teams that won the 12th Region in 2006 and ’09 lost best-of-three semi-state series to Lexington Catholic in an era when only eight teams made the state tourney. The field now consists of all 16 regional winners.

The Admirals, who were ranked No. 2 in the final coaches poll of the season, will face No. 13 Beechwood (31-6), the 9th Region champion, in a semi-state game — the equivalent of a first-round game — at 1 p.m. Saturday at Kentucky Proud Park in Lexington.

“We’ve worked on this for years,” Baxter said. “We came up short my freshman year (2019), when my brother was on the mound, and this was a tough moment. It’s just emotional, man. We’re going to state!”

Baxter was the last of three Danville pitchers needed to put away Somerset (25-14), which had lost 12-0 to the Admirals in the first week of the season but had won 14 of its previous 16 games.

“Being able to have that depth is a plus, knowing that we had fresh arms that hadn’t thrown yet,” Morse said.

Brady Morse, who pitched two innings in relief of starter Ethan Wood, hadn’t pitched since May 24. Baxter, who worked the last two innings, had thrown only one inning since that date.

Both hit some rough patches during Somerset’s rally, which started with a three-run fourth inning.

Baxter came on after Somerset’s first two batters reached base in the sixth, and he gave up a three-run home run to Dylan Burton on the first pitch he threw. It was the last of 24 home runs in the seven regional games.

Baxter didn’t allow another hit, however. Two Jumpers reached base with two outs before he ended the inning with a groundout.

In the bottom of the seventh — Somerset was designated the home team because of its place in the bracket — Baxter got two quick outs before Kade Grundy launched a fly ball to right field that easily cleared the fence but was about 5 feet to the right of the foul pole.

“Kade loves going to the right side. He’s done that his whole career,” Paul Morse said. “But it was also strength for strength. BB’s strength is fastballs low and away, and that one he just got up a little bit. … Luckily it went 4 or 5 feet foul.”

“I just watched it,” Baxter said. “If it went over, we’re going to extra (innings) and I’d get the next guy. I wasn’t even nervous. My nerves were calm, and I just … attacked the (strike) zone.”

Baxter struck out Grundy on the next pitch to end the game.

Danville built a big lead with five unearned runs in the third inning, when a two-out error opened the floodgates and five consecutive batters reached base. There were consecutive singles by Howe, Barnes and Baxter, as well as a hit batsman, a balk, two wild pitches, and a delayed double steal on which Baxter scored.

Barnes opened the scoring when he led off the second inning with a home run, and Howe drove in two runs in the fourth with a double.

Howe was named the tournament’s most valuable player after he went 8 for 11 at the plate with three doubles, one home run, nine RBIs, and six runs in three games and threw a four-hit shutout in the Admirals’ semifinal win over Pulaski County.

Two University of Louisville signees, Wood and Grundy, started the game on the mound, but neither fared well.

Wood allowed only two runs but was wild from the beginning. He hit two Somerset batters in the first inning and two more in the fourth, and he also issued four walks and threw two wild pitches.

Wood escaped a bases-loaded jam in the first inning after he hit two batters and walked two — he picked off one runner — but he was pulled in favor of Brady Morse after he hit the first two batters in the fourth, which raised tensions on the field and in both dugouts.

“We made that pitching change to try to calm everybody down and get everybody refocused,” Paul Morse said.

Grundy allowed all eight Danville runs, and he gave up six hits and two walks and struck out four batters before Howe’s fourth-inning double prompted a pitching change.

Dakota Acey got the final out of the fourth inning and blanked the Admirals the rest of the way, allowing three hits in 3 1/3 innings.

Even so, Danville held on to take the title for the first time since its current players were in their earliest years in baseball.

“It’s really unreal,” Barnes said. “This hasn’t happened in so long, I don’t even know how many years. Everything that we’ve been through, COVID and all the challenges up and down, it was unreal.”

It is not, however, the Admirals’ ultimate goal.

“We want to win state. That’s our end goal,” Baxter said.

Danville took Tuesday off before beginning its preparation for Saturday’s game against Beechwood.

“We’ll be ready to go,” Paul Morse said. “We know it’s going to be a tough matchup.”

All-tournament team
Dakota Acey, Somerset; Kaleb Adams, Pulaski County; Preston Barnes, Danville; Brady Baxter, Danville; Seth Caton, Mercer County; Luke Gaffney, Boyle County; Andrew Geis, East Jessamine; Eli Glasscock, Boyle County; Kade Grundy, Somerset; Christian Howe, Danville; Jacob Jackson; Wayne County; Brady Morse, Danville; Tyler Pumphrey, Southwestern; Camden Ryan, Somerset; Logan Smothers, Danville; Chance Todd, Pulaski County.