Jeremy Shope’s weekend trip to a baseball game was no joyride. In fact, the trip the Mercer County coach and his staff made Saturday to scout their state tournament opponent gave him cause for concern.
Shope said what he saw in Vanceburg was a Boyd County team that was better than he thought it was — and he already thought it was pretty good.
“I¿knew we were going to have to play a good team, but after going to watch them, I realize we’re going to have our hands full,” Shope said. “We can compete, but they’re going to be good.”
Boyd (26-10) will meet Mercer (25-9) in the final first-round game Tuesday at Whitaker Bank Ballpark in Lexington in the state tournament debut for the Titans.
Boyd won 11 regional titles and the 2001 state championship from 1987-2002 under Jody Hamilton, who now coaches Mercer’s chief 46th District rival, West Jessamine. However, the Lions last played in the state tourney in 2006, so they have no more experience there than Mercer.
“It’s the first time for these kids ... but when you have a little tradition, sometimes you handle yourselves differently,” Shope said.
Boyd has won 12 straight games and 16 of its last 18, beating Ashland Blazer 4-1 on Saturday for the third time in four meetings to win the 16th Region title. Shope said he believes Mercer will face the same pitcher who won that game, senior Cody Clark, who threw a complete game and allowed three hits and no walks.
“He threw 70 percent breaking balls and had good velocity on his fastball,” Shope said. “He’s got good command of his curveball, and he can throw it at any time.”
Clark, a Pikeville College signee, has a 7-1 record that includes three postseason wins and a 2.09 earned-run average.
The Lions also have junior Trey Salisbury (6-3, 1.96), who has 93 strikeouts in 50 innings, and senior Kyle Pauley (3-1, 2.47), who threw a one-hitter against Fleming County in the regional semifinals.
Boyd’s offense is short on power — the Lions have only eight home runs — but long on execution.
“They do the little things. They bunt kids over, they do the little things to try and produce runs,” Shope said.
Left fielder Austin Smith, the leadoff hitter and one of seven seniors in the Lions’ lineup, is batting .469 with 31 stolen bases. Senior Eli Maloy, who hits behind Smith, is hitting .408 and went 3 for 4 in their win over Ashland, and No. 3 hitter Salisbury (.339) has a team-high 37 RBIs.
Mercer’s top pitchers are Miami (Ohio) signees Matthew Honchel (8-2, 3.04) and Clay Cinnamon (5-0, 3.00), and Shope said he isn’t sure which of them will get the start Tuesday.
“That’s something we’re still debating,” Shope said. “At this point in time, you have to go out with your best, and we have to figure out who that is.”
Honchel, who also plays center field, is also the leading hitter in a lineup that features four starters hitting .398 or better. He’s at .496 with seven home runs and 36 RBIs, followed by third baseman Seth Heath (.404, 26 RBIs), catcher Addam Gooch (.400, 3 HR, 20 RBIs) and first baseman Colin Buckner (.398, 39 RBIs).
Designated hitter Tyler Devine (.270) also has three home runs, and shortstop and leadoff hitter John Ingram (.345) is second on the team with 30 RBIs.