Justin Bartlett never bothered to go out for the track team at Lincoln, and in retrospect it looks like he made a pretty good choice in opting for baseball instead. After all, the Cougars aren't much of a threat to win a state track championship, but on Saturday afternoon they captured their second baseball title this decade.
They did it in great part, however, because of Bartlett's hurdling talents.
When the senior third baseman leaped over Point Pleasant catcher B.J. Lloyd's certain tag-out and scored, it turned what could have been a simple one-run inning into a six-run explosion. And that was enough to give Lincoln a 6-2 win over the Black Knights for the Class AA state championship at Appalachian Power Park.
"I don't know if he planned that or he just got lucky," said teammate Kenneth Healey, the Cougars' winning pitcher. "But it sure worked out."
And no, Bartlett didn't plan it.
To set the stage, Healey and Point Pleasant's Tyson Jones, a couple of pitchers largely overshadowed by the aces on their own staffs, were locked in a scoreless duel through 41/2 innings. Healey had given up four hits in five frames and had allowed just one runner to reach second base.
Jones was even better, throwing four no-hit innings and facing just two batters over the minimum. He got into a bit of trouble to start the fifth when he grazed leadoff hitter Cody Winters with an inside pitch and then gave up an infield single to Bartlett. But a strikeout and a sacrifice by Matt Payton later, Jones had two outs and runners on second and third.
The game changed dramatically in the next at bat when leadoff hitter Josh Harlow - who pitched Friday's semifinal win over Independence - got a sharp hit through the left side of the infield to score Winters from third and take a 1-0 lead. Point Pleasant left fielder Brock McClung - the winning pitcher in a 7-3 semifinal win over Sissonville - threw home to try to stop Bartlett from scoring from second on the play and Lloyd caught the throw perhaps 15 feet up the line just as Bartlett approached. Tag him out and the inning is over.
"I knew if I slid I was out. He had me dead," Bartlett said. "I thought, why not just try to jump over him?"
Bartlett had only a split second to react after Lloyd caught the ball. He stutter-stepped just slightly and leaped up over the catcher's outstretched arm, landed and took the last few steps home and scored.
"All I know is it worked," Bartlett said. "And it really got everybody fired up."
If the hurdle doesn't work, Lincoln (19-11) leads just 1-0 and perhaps, when Point's Titus Russell slams a two-run double to the right-center field wall a half-inning later, it gives the Black Knights - playing in their second straight title game - their first state baseball championship.
Instead, as Point coach James Higginbotham said, "The floodgates opened." Healey and Dale Martin singled [Healey past a third baseman who came up guarding against a bunt], Jones threw two wild pitches with runners on third and Benji Riddle singled. When it was over, Lincoln had five hits - the only ones it would get all day - and it was 6-0.
"We couldn't stop the bleeding," said Higginbotham, who allowed Jones to face 10 batters in the inning before bringing on freshman left-hander Eric Roberts. "I thought about walking the leadoff hitter [Harlow, with first base open and two out], but their two, three and four guys all hit, too."
It looked like Point (20-11) might not be finished when Healey threw six straight balls to open the top half of the next inning and then gave up a single to Eric Veith and Russell's double. But just as he had done after Point Pleasant got two on with no outs in the second, he retired the side with three strikeouts. Healey only had 22 strikeouts all season, but he fanned eight Black Knights.
"I don't try to strike out batters," said Healey (5-2), who along with fellow junior Harlow gives the Cougars their top two pitchers back for next season. "I just try to keep the ball down and let them put it in play and trust my defense."