FERN CREEK – Small ball paid big dividends for the Bullitt East Chargers on Wednesday in the championship game of the 24th District Baseball Tournament.
After Fern Creek had tied the game at 3-3 after scoring twice in the top of the sixth inning, the Chargers responded with two runs in the bottom of the frame. Junior pitcher Kendall Henson then finished his complete game outing with three consecutive strikeouts in the top of the seventh to secure a 5-3 victory.
The championship was the second straight for the Chargers with both coming over their northern neighbors. In fact, Bullitt East and Fern Creek have met in seven of the past nine 24th District finals (there was no tournament in 2020 due to Covid). Over that span, Bullitt East has a 6-1 record with the only loss to the Tigers in the post-season coming in 2021.
Bullitt East’s two runs in the bottom of the sixth inning came without the Chargers getting the ball out of the infield. For the most part, the red and gold weren’t trying to get the ball to the outfield.
The frame started with sophomore catcher Luke Renfrow being hit by Fern Creek starter Colin Knopp. Chase Meredith, courtesy running for Renfrow, then moved to second when senior Landon Troklus bunted the ball on the third base side of the mound. Knopp fielded the ball and threw out Troklus.
Luke Lamarre was the next Bullitt East batter to the plate and the senior hit the ball in the hole on the left side of the infield. Shortstop Ashton Prectal got his glove on the ball, but it trickled away and both runners were safe.
Bullitt East head coach Jeff Bowles, who often likes to be aggressive in these situations, did that again, calling for the suicide squeeze. Bryce Elder got the bunt down perfectly with Knopp having no play at the plate on Meredith or at first base.
If it works, keep doing it. Bowles then had Brayden Lewis bunt. This time Knopp got to the ball, but he bobbled it and then threw wildly to first base, allowing Lamarre to score and the other two runners ending up at third and second.
Bowles’ luck then ran out when he had Elder try to steal home. There was a rundown and Elder may have beat the tag at the plate, but he was called out.
By that time the Chargers had the 5-3 edge and the ball in the hands of Henson. The junior got the final three outs on just ten pitches.
Henson, who picked up his seventh win in nine starts (the other two were no decisions), had not pitched in the regular season meeting as Bowles didn’t want to tip his post-season hand.
The pitcher was not too worried that Bowles was going to come get him in the sixth inning.
“I knew I would keep on pitching,” the junior said after the game. “The defense was behind me.”
Henson said his game plan was pretty simple.
“I just wanted to mow everyone down,” he said with a smile. “You can’t be scared on the field.”
Henson allowed just four hits and all three runs were earned. He struck out seven and walked just two, but did hit a batter.
The top of the sixth was the only real trouble for Henson. He hit the first batter and after an out, walked the next hitter. Fern Creek’s next batter, Lucas Bolin, then drove an outside pitch to the right of centerfielder Chris Logan. The double plated both runners to tie the game.
Henson then got out of more trouble by picking Bolin off second base. He then ended the inning with a strikeout.
Bowles did consider taking Henson out after the double in the sixth.
“We talked about it,” the veteran coach said. “But I feel that 80 percent of Kendall is better than 100 percent of most pitchers. In the dugout after the sixth he told the team to get him a run and we would win it. We got him two.”
Bullitt East scored twice in the bottom of the first to take the early advantage. After an out, Jack Willard reach on an infield popup that found the grass. Cade Owen then reached on an error at shortstop. Fern Creek then picked Willard off at second, but Renfrow followed with a double that scored Owen from first. Troklus then singled back up the middle and Meredith, the courtesy runner for Renfrow, beat the throw to the plate.
After Fern Creek cut the lead in half with a run in the third, Bullitt East matched that in the fourth. Renfrow reached on a single. After an out, Lamarre hit the ball hard and it was misplayed at third base with Meredith racing around to third. As they would do two innings later, Bullitt East got the bunt down by Bryce Elder. Knopp had no play but to throw to first as Meredith scored.
“This keeps our momentum going,” Bowles said of the team’s seventh win in the last 11 games. “It’s always better to win instead of losing.
“We left some runs out there,” the coach pointed out. “You don’t have to be the best team in the state, but just the best team on the field that day.”
Both Bullitt East and Fern Creek advance to this week’s Sixth Region Tournament. First round games on Monday will be played at the site of the district winners. The semifinals on Wednesday and the championship on Friday will be played at the University of Louisville’s Patterson Stadium. The draw was held on Friday and appears at the bottom of this page.
DeSales is the two-time defending regional champions, having beaten Bullitt East 2-1 a year ago and Fern Creek 7-2 in 2021 in the championship games.
Before the team trophies were handed out, there was an All-24th District Tournament team named. Bullitt East was represented on the honor team by Henson and Renfrow as well as Bryce and Devin Elder.
The Fern Creek players on the team were Knopp, Prectal and Zurkhulen. Rounding out the team was Jackson Redmon of Jeffersontown.