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Pitchers get little help in Smokies

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By John Herndon

Good pitching will beat good hitting.

It's the oldest truism of baseball, but it contains the unspoken assumption that good pitching will have adequate defense behind it. Just ask the Central Kentucky Mudcats.

The local traveling team won just one of five games in the Smoky Mountain Classic, held July 31-Aug. 3 in Dandridge, Tenn., as Mudcat fielders repeatedly let the pitchers down with shoddy glove work.

"You talk about a frustrating weekend for pitchers, wow!" said Mudcat coach Chris Copenhaver.

In 35 innings pitched, Mudcat hurlers gave up just eight earned runs for an ERA of 1.60 in the tournament.

Underscoring the frustration was the line for right-hander Aaron Burkhead, who gave up just one earned run and struck out 18 in 13.1 innings, yet ended up 0-2 for the weekend.

In fact, after the first two games in Tennessee, the Mudcats had given up 13 unearned runs on five hits.

"This was one of the strangest weekends I have ever seen as we couldn't make a play and couldn't catch a break," Copenhaver said. "Unlike two years ago when we won it, nothing fell into place for us."

The Mudcats absorbed an 8-5 loss to the Western North Carolina Tar Heels in the tournament opener as Burkhead gave up eight unearned runs on three hits, two walks and a hit batter.

He also had 12 strikeouts.

Kyle DeLong came on with one out in the sixth inning and struck out both batters he faced.

"What a ballgame from Burkhead," Copenhaver said. "I don't know if I have ever seen such a strong pitching performance that ended up in a loss. We had to make 18 outs and we struck out 14 batters. I would guess that your would win 99.5 percent of games where you had to make four plays, but we found the 0.5 percent in this one."

Twice, Burkhead struck batters out, only to see them reach base on a passed ball then score.

Offensively, the Mudcats had just four hits, but Copenhaver said, "We put the ball in play against a good pitcher and five runs was more than enough to win the game."

The Mudcats repeated their performance against the Barnyard Patriots from eastern Tennessee, committing six errors to waste a combined two-hit pitching performance from DeLong and Jeremy Turpin. The Patriots prevailed, 5-3.

"We gave up two hits and two bases on balls and still couldn't reward our pitchers with any kind of defense," Copenhaver said.

Ryan Pike had two hits to lead the Mudcat attack. "We didn't kill the ball, but we hit it around, got some bunts down, stole bases and did enough to win but we just couldn't make a play," Copenhaver said.

The Mudcats' only win came in their third game, a 7-5 win over eventual tournament champion Pasco, Fla. Pike went the distance in his final game, giving up five earned runs on nine hits and a walk. He struck out three.

"(Pasco) averaged around 12 runs a game for the tournament and Pike held them to five," Copenhaver said. "We finally played some defense and that was the difference."

The Mudcats managed just three hits but took advantage of Pasco errors.

"We put the ball in play, got the bunt down again and stole some bases, so put keeping the pressure on them, we took advantage of their mistakes. It was a total role reversal as we made the plays and they didn't."

Making what appears to be the final pitching performance of his career, Pike overcame a bit of a sore arm for a win over the team Copenhaver called the best the Mudcats played in Tennessee.

Right-hander Daniel Goodlett turned in a gem against Springfield, Ohio, another team that was capable of scoring runs in bunches, but took a 2-0 loss. Goodlett scattered eight hits and walked five but turned in another stellar mound performance.

"I just can't say enough about Goodlett and the progress he has made this summer. He finished up 5-1 on the summer and this game was the culmination of his progress. He is in the Daniel Dadisman mold as he doesn't throw the ball real hard, but he is learning to spot his pitches and use his defense.

"We made some outstanding plays in the field in this game, turning a 3-6-3 double play and Joe White threw a guy out at home with one out after he caught a fly ball."

DeLong, who also got two outs on the mound, delivered two hits. It was the first game all summer that Pike did not have a hit.

In the final tournament game, Burkhead was back on the mound but took a 4-3 loss to a team from Kalamazoo, Mich. Burkhead gave up one earned run on three hits, a walk and two hit batsmen, but Copenhaver said, "Once again, our defense hurt us, but (Kalamazoo was) solid, like all the other teams we played and you can't make that many mistakes against teams of this caliber.

"What can you say about Burkhead as I think there is no double that he is recovered from his surgery. He had an unbelievable weekend to be 0-2."

Pike and Jacob Brown led the Mudcat attack with two hits each, while Turpin drew three walks. As a team, the Mudcats stole four bases against Kalamazoo.

"This game just sort of summarized the entire weekend as we couldn't catch a break," Copenhaver said.

"In the top of the sixth, we had runners on first and third with one out and Turpin up. He hits a screaming line drive at the second baseman and DeLong gets doubled up at first.

"We finished up 1-4, but were a play or break here or there from being 5-0 as the scores show. I thought the first two games, we were a little flat, but the last three, I was pleased with."

The Mudcats finished 13-14 on the season.

"I thought our pitching was simply outstanding against five teams that could really hit the ball," Copenhaver said of the Tennessee trip.

"If you watched the other games, it was like a carousel when those guys were hitting but our pitchers just shut them down. The biggest difference that I saw was that our kids have at least two pitches that they can consistently control and some of them have three pitches like Aaron and Ryan. Most teams relied on the fastball. That is a testament to our kids understanding how to pitch and not be just throwers.

"As they say, good pitching and good defense always beats good hitting. And if we would have had the second part of that equation, we would have come home 5-0 again this summer."