When Nathan Lawson stepped to the plate, a light but consistent sprinkling rain had starting coming down.
The Russell County Lakers were up 8-0 against Woodford County in the bottom of the sixth inning of the state semifinals. Mayes Gosser was on first base. Two runs would put the 10-run rule into place and end the game, sending Russell County to its first-ever state championship.
Head coach David Rexroat gave the go-ahead to swing for the fences for his senior slugger, who holds the program’s single season home run record.
“We gave him the green light,” Rexroat said.
And that’s just what Lawson did, adding to his home run total with his 13th of the year.
With one swing of the bat, the Lakers were officially headed to the state championship game.
“It doesn’t even feel real, honestly,” Lawson said. “It’s still not kicked in yet. That’s what you dream of, hitting what was technically a walk off.”
The Lakers looked like they would be headed to a blowout early in the game, loading the bases with no outs in the bottom of the first.
Isaac Roy hit a grounder to the shortstop to score Trace Stringer for the first run of the game in what would end up as a fielder’s choice.
That would be the only run the Lakers would score in the first inning, though, and it would be the only run either team would score until the fifth inning.
In the top of the fifth, Mayes Gosser made the highlight of the state tournament up to this point with an amazing diving grab in center field.
“At first, I didn’t really read the ball off the bat,” Mayes said. “Every single fan’s got white ‘Final 4’ stuff on, and the ball literally blended in, so I got a late jump. I still had to gain a lot of ground, so I kicked it in gear, I guess, and had to track it down.
“It felt great. Trace Stringer was there to greet me as soon as I got up. He was going to be there right behind me to throw it in if I missed it. It was just a great feeling having him there right beside me.”
Still clinging to a 1-0 lead heading into the bottom of the fifth, the Lakers found some separation thanks to timely small ball.
Evan Hammond got the inning started off by advancing to second base after an error on the throw to first.
“Well, I rounded first and the guy kind of got in front of me,” Hammond said. “I was thinking maybe it would be interference. I just turned and took off, and luckily, I still made it there on time.”
Camden Carpenter followed that up with a successful bunt that moved Hammond to third safely and was safe himself at first.
“I just knew I had to get the bunt down and get the team going a little bit,” Carpenter said. “At the time, we just needed something, and we ended up getting [six] runs in that inning.”
Maxon Gosser laid down a squeeze to score Hammond and make the score 2-0.
A bunt by Trace Stringer loaded the bases, still with no outs for the Lakers, and Mayes brought home Carpenter to increase the Lakers’ advantage to 3-0 and kept the bases loaded with no outs.
Lawson brought home Maxon, and Roy broke the game open even more by scoring Stringer and Mayes to make the game 6-0.
“Playing for this team and trying to win a game with these guys, that means more than anything,” Roy said. “Personal stats are out the window, especially in games like these … Throughout the tournament, we’ve hit the ball, and we’ve scored enough runs to win the game. It felt good to have a blowout like that.”
Hammond made contact again in his second at-bat of the inning, and another Woodford County error allowed courtesy runner Owen Loy to score.
Senior Landon Walters got his first at-bat of the state tournament before the inning was over, and the Lakers took a 7-0 lead into the sixth, which would end up being the final inning in the state semifinal matchup.
Stringer hit a standup triple in the sixth. Mayes brought him home with a single, setting up Lawson’s massive homer to end the game.
“We got one run early and was getting a little worried, so we just started bunting the daggone ball,” Rexroat said. “We started getting hits, and they started making mistakes. Before you know it, we’re looking at the scoreboard and it’s 10-0 when Nathan hit the two-run bomb to end the game.”
In the complete game shutout on the mound, Lawson struck out eight batters and allowed only four hits.
“It’s just an unbelievable experience,” Rexroat said. “This ride we’ve been on, it’s just a special group of boys here, you know. Nathan came through on the mound today … You’ve got to have good pitching and good defense and hopefully score a few runs, and that’s what we did today.”
And for the players, the experience is one that they won’t soon forget.
“It feels amazing.” Stringer said. “It feels like a dream, honestly. I can’t really believe it. I’m just glad to be a part of this team and [make the state finals] with this group of guys.”
“I’ve played four years of high school baseball before this, and I haven’t ever made it past the region finals.” Nick Aaron added. “You’ve just got to stay humble and do your thing. We’ve got to stay calm and in the moment and keep hitting the ball and we’ll be good.”
With the win, the Lakers will take on the St. Xavier Tigers at 6 p.m. CT at Kentucky Proud Park. Read a full preview of the matchup here.
“We’re not done yet,” Lawson said. “We have our big lefty, Cody Luttrell, on the mound. We’re going to do our part behind him defensively. We’re going to hit the ball as well as we can. We want it.”