There's a lot to unpack if you're the only non-Lexington team in 42nd District baseball and seeing where all the other ones are ranked in the early-season, statewide coaches' poll.
With No. 4 Sayre, No. 10 Henry Clay and No. 19 Frederick Douglass all standing in the on-deck circle for Scott County on the other side of spring break, it would be easy for the Cardinals — who haven't been in that conversation since a fabulous, four-year run from 2016 to '19 — to enter that fray with an inferiority complex.
If the Cards keep taking down other traditional powers from the city and neighboring counties, though, it will be difficult to deny them the same lofty status.
SC extended its longest winning streak in four years to four games with two more signature triumphs, 8-3 on Monday over Lafayette at Sutton Field and 7-0 Wednesday over No. 24 George Rogers Clark in Winchester.
“I'm happy with the way we played,” SC coach Scott Willard said. “The one thing I like is this bunch genuinely like each other and pull for each other. It's kind of the old verbiage that the strength of the team is the team.”
Sophomore left-handed ace Jack Willhite now has two wins and a no-decision, all against ranked teams, after six innings of two-hit ball against GRC. He struck out a season-high 10 against one walk.
After walking the first batter he faced and hitting the next with a pitch, Sebastian Arden struck out two looking and a third swinging to punctuate the shutout.
The recipe of strong starting pitching, economical relief, speed to burn and timely line drives into open real estate continues to spell old-school success for Scott County (5-2).
Tyler Robinson (2-for-4, triple and RBI single) was the only repeat hitter at Clark County. Leadoff speed merchant Justin Stevenson had an RBI double and three stolen bases.
“T-Rob is one we were kind of expecting to break out,” Willard said. “He didn't have a lot to show for hitting balls hard early in the season, and Luke (Valencia) was the same way. Those things will start to fall for you.”
Arden, Shawn Rowe and Jay Wilson each knocked in a run against GRC (5-2).
SC did all its damage early with two runs in the top of the first inning, four in the second and one more in the third.
That the Cards are currently flapping their wings under the radar is no surprise. They're coming off 12-19 (2021) and 14-23 (2022) seasons.
Brennan Liebenauer, the only senior on the roster, is two games back from a season-opening injury. Veteran power hitter Jacob Blair is still rehabilitating from winter health issues.
“We don't really have any superstars. We have 10 or 11 pretty good position players that are all kind of battling for spots,” Willard said. “I let Blair DH in the JV game (against Lafayette). He hasn't had a live at-bat since last summer.”
Rowe's sacrifice fly and an RBI single from Robinson staked Scott County to a quick lead on the road.
Stevenson doubled to right field and knocked home a run to ignite the second frame. Two GRC wild pitches and an RBI groundout by Jay Wilson maximized the damage. In the third, Robinson's triple set the table for Arden's hit to account for the final margin.
Willhite made the most of that comfort zone. He struck out the side after an SC error to open the second and later retired the last seven GRC batters he faced.
The Cards similarly struck early against the Generals, sandwiching four-run outbursts in the bottom of the first and third around one in the second and two in the third from Lafayette (3-7).
Landon Whitson, the other half of the Cardinals’ one-two southpaw punch atop the rotation, allowed three hits and one earned run in his five innings of work.
“We got out there with four in the first inning, and that helped relax Landon,” Willard said. “We made a few errors, but for the most part I thought we played well.”
SC turned three double plays behind Whitson and reliever Connor Caudill, who struck out a pair to punctuate the four-hitter.
Valencia turned a double play with AJ Wands to usher Whitson out of the second inning. Whitson helped himself by gloving a sacrifice bunt attempt on the fly and firing to Arden at shortstop to retire the lead runner in the next frame.
The Cards made lighter work for Caudill in the sixth when Stevenson, Arden and Robinson collaborated on an 8-6-5 twin takedown.
“When Landon kind of figured out not to throw the ball by everybody, he started getting ground balls and the ball started moving, and he threw his breaking ball for strikes,” Willard said. “Connor did exactly what a relief pitcher's supposed to do.”
Robinson, Wands and Rowe were repeat hitters and combined for six RBI to lead the Cardinals. Valencia and Liebenauer also knocked in runs.
Owen Risalvato's two-run blast over the fence in right lowered Lafayette's deficit to a single run, but a flurry of hits from Wilson, Rowe, Robinson and Wands provided an authoritative answer.
In addition to Henry Clay, Frederick Douglass and St. Xavier, Lafayette's brutal early schedule included a district sweep at the hands of Lexington Catholic after the trip to Scott County.
“It's good to catch Lafayette when they've got two district games Tuesday and Wednesday, and we're catching Anderson County (Thursday) the same way, so smart scheduling,” Willard quipped.
SC will take on teams from Virginia, Illinois and New York in addition to Kentucky foes West Jessamine, Russell and Bullitt East next week in Vero Beach, Florida.