LEXINGTON — J.T. Long was much more at ease when he walked to the mound Monday at Whitaker Bank Ballpark, and he felt much better when he walked off the field as well.
Long has been the losing pitcher in each of Mercer County’s last two games at the Kentucky National Insurance/KHSAA State Baseball Tournament, but the second game he pitched couldn’t have been more different than the first.
He was given the ball last year as a freshman in the state championship game, and the results were not pretty. He was given the ball again 353 days later in Mercer’s first-round game against St. Xavier, and even though the Titans left with a 4-0 loss, he felt much better about the way he pitched in his second start on the state tournament stage.
“This year it was big and it meant a lot, but it felt like going out and throwing another baseball game,” Long said. “Last year, it was, ‘Oh, crap. Everybody’s eyes are on me, everybody’s watching me, all these people are here, I can’t make any mistakes.’ But this year I just went out and played good baseball, pitched how I could. This year was a lot more comfortable.”
Long allowed all four St. Xavier runs on four hits, and he kept Mercer in the game by holding the Tigers scoreless on two hits through five innings.
His line was far better than in his start in last year’s championship game against Central Hardin, when he allowed seven runs on six hits in 1 2/3 innings in a 21-2 defeat, and he said he was glad to get an opportunity to redeem himself.
“For me, it’s an aerose feeling. I’m glad that (Mercer) coach (Jeremy) Shope has confidence in me to run me out there, especially against a team like this,” he said. “He said if I could keep them off balance I could do all right against them, and, you know, I did. I mean, one or two pitches here and there. I threw five innings of two-hit baseball, and they’re a good baseball team.”
Long and his teammates weren’t expected to make it back to the state tournament this year, and they didn’t really expect it themselves.
“Just making it back, for me, is a huge accomplishment, especially when everybody said this is our down year and we didn’t have a chance to make it back,” he said.
The Titans didn’t win their own district, but they rebounded to win three games at the 12th Region Tournament to earn their second straight state berth with a lineup that included four returning seniors, two seniors who were injured last season, two juniors and a sophomore.
“It feels great to come back two times in a row, and, I mean, it’s possible three times in a row,” junior pitcher-third baseman John Banks said. “We actually didn’t think we’d come this year, and we were saying next year is going to be our strongest year, but we’re just glad to be back, and we’re glad for those seniors that were hurt last year (catcher Alex Guay and left fielder Matthew Sims) to come back and be able to play in it at least one year.”
Just as Mercer is a different team than it was a year ago, Long is a different pitcher than he was a year ago, when he was 5-3 as Mercer’s No. 3 starter — he was the winning pitcher in the Titans’ stunning semifinal comeback against Pleasure Ridge Park — and the best option available for the championship game.
“He got thrown into the fire as a freshman in high school, coming out and pitching in the state championship game,” Shope said. “What an experience for him. He learned a lot from it and learned how to pitch, keeping the ball down, changing speeds. He’s developed into a very good arm for us.”
“Getting thrown out there against probably one of the best hitting teams in a long time was going to make him better. Especially a kid like him, because he’s highly competitive, and he wasn’t going to let that happen again.”
Long was the Titans’ top pitcher throughout this season, going 7-4 with a 2.22 earned-run average in a team-high 69 innings.
“Last year I had pretty good control of what I have, but this year I’ve really learned how to read batters and read what they’re going to hit if I throw it to them. Watching their first swing, watching them warm up, you can tell what they’re going to be able to hit, and I think that’s helped me out a whole lot this year,” he said.
Next year the Titans will return four experienced pitchers who combined for 22 of their 23 wins: Long, Banks, Jackson Stoeckinger and John Ingram, and for the second straight year they’ll be able to build off the experience of a good postseason run, even if this one didn’t last as long as they would have liked.
“We have a lot of pitchers coming back, and this is still really good experience,” said Ingram, who is also the starting second baseman. “We’ve just got to come back and start off where we ended off.”