Barnes leads Danville to state semifinals

LEXINGTON — Preston Barnes was ready for anything.

When Danville needed a big hit and the fastball came in just above the belt, he was ready. When the Admirals needed an out in the worst way and the ball appeared to be on its way to left field, he was ready.

Barnes made two of the biggest plays on the biggest stage Wednesday night to help Danville defeat Lafayette 3-0 in a KHSAA State Baseball Tournament quarterfinal before 2,084 fans at Lexington Legends Ballpark for its 40th victory of the season.

“It’s actually unbelievable,” Barnes said. “I’m kind of shaken up right now, so it’s hard to talk, but it’s been one heck of a journey.”

The journey continues Friday when Danville plays McCracken County for a berth in the state finals.

“We’re going for that title, so we’re ready for everybody,” Barnes said.

Barnes supported his good friend, pitcher Ethan Wood, with a majestic two-run home run in Danville’s three-run fourth inning. In the sixth inning, he got Wood out of a bases-loaded jam with a stellar defensive play from his shortstop position.

“P-Barnes is my boy,” Wood said. “He had my back in the field, he had my back at the plate. Today was his game.”

Danville (40-3) became only the sixth team in Kentucky baseball history to win 40 games in a single season. The other five all won state championships: Madison Central (1982), Harrison County (1997), Covington Catholic (2002), Paul Dunbar (2003), and Pleasure Ridge Park (2017).

“That just puts more pressure on us,” Danville coach Paul Morse laughed and said. “But, no, winning 40 games is special in the state of Kentucky.”

The Admirals, who have won 18 consecutive games, can tie Dunbar’s state record of 41 wins with a victory in their semifinal at 5 p.m. Friday. If they defeat McCracken, they will play for the championship at 7 p.m. Saturday.

Danville appeared to be a more relaxed team against Lafayette (34-8) than in its semi-state victory over Beechwood last Saturday, and Wood was certainly more at ease than the last time he was on the mound in the 12th Region final.

“Well, I didn’t hit anybody,” he said.

Actually, he did hit the leadoff batters in the second and fourth innings.

“Oh, gosh, I did,” Wood said. “It feels like nobody after I plunked four in three innings against Somerset.”

Nevertheless, Wood (9-1) was effective in what was almost certainly his final high school pitching appearance. The University of Louisville signee allowed five hits and one walk and struck out eight batters in a complete-game win that lowered his earned-run average to 1.31.

“He’s been a big-game situation pitcher all of his life. He thrives in these situations,” Morse said. “Tonight his fastball had some hop on it … and he was throwing that slider whenever he wanted for strikes, which makes him almost unhittable.”

“I had a few innings where the slider was real good,” Wood said. “I couldn’t get it to work the whole time, but the fastball was pretty good.”

Wood was locked in a pitchers’ duel with Lafayette’s Micah Cowen (9-2), who allowed three runs on four hits over five innings, until Danville broke through in the fourth inning.

Brady Morse, who had two of Danville’s five hits, got the Admirals’ offense started with a single up the middle. He stole second base, then scored when Christian Howe’s fly ball into the right-field corner fell barely fair and resulted in a double.

Then came Barnes, who said he was looking for a fastball after he saw Cowen shake off a sign. He got one and pulled it deep down the left-field line, pausing to watch as it stayed fair and sailed well above the foul pole.

“You see that ball so big coming into the plate, and then when you hit it, it just gets smaller and smaller and smaller,” he said. “You can’t feel anything in the bat, you just know it’s gone. I was waiting for that pitch, and I took advantage of it. I was ready.”

It was the 16th home run of the season for Barnes, who ranks third on his team and fourth in the state in homers but who was not among those on the All-State first, second or third teams or honorable mention list released earlier this week.

“That kid’s had an awesome year,” Paul Morse said. “He’s another kid that when the lights are on, he likes to play.”

Two innings later, Barnes stepped up on defense to stifle a Lafayette rally. Wood hadn’t given up a hit until the fifth inning, but he was in trouble in the sixth after the Generals used an error and a single to put runners on first and second with one out, then loaded the bases on Carter Owens’ two-out bunt single.

Owen Jenkins hit a hard grounder that seemed destined for the hole between third base and shortstop, but Barnes went to his right to make a sliding, backhand play, then popped up, set his feet and fired a strike to first baseman Bryson Young to end the inning.

“That’s a big-league play,” Paul Morse said.

“He doesn’t make that, that’s two runs. That’s 3 to 2, and that’s a new ballgame,” Wood added. “I was like, ‘Yes, sir!’”

Danville threatened in the bottom of the sixth against reliever Jaden Basham but left the bases loaded. Wood retired Lafayette in order in the seventh, getting the final out on a ground ball to Barnes on his 103rd pitch.

Lafayette was shut out only twice this season, both times by Danville, which defeated the Generals 7-0 during the regular season.

Danville now turns its attention to McCracken (34-5), which reached the semifinals for the fifth consecutive season with a 13-2 win over Collins. The school opened in 2014 and has reached the state tournament in all seven of its seasons, finishing as runner-up to Tates Creek in 2019.

Like Danville, McCracken is an offensive juggernaut. The Admirals average 10.23 runs per game; the Mustangs average 9.74. They rank fifth in the state in batting average at .364 — Danville is first at .407 — and second only to Danville in hits and runs.

“They really swung the bats well today,” Paul Morse said. “We’re going to come out and give it our best effort and see what happens.”

McCracken’s offense is led by right fielder Ben Higdon, a University of Memphis signee who is hitting .466 and ranks fourth in the state in hits with 61, trailing only Howe (73), Wood (68), and Boyle County’s Eli Glasscock (62).