By Justin Sokeland
BEDFORD – Unidentified and uninformed, the bewildered Floyd Central fan sitting along the first-base line muttered and shook his head, asking aloud what the team in his dugout was wondering: “Who is this kid?”
That, my friend in green, was the real Joey Thacker.
Bedford North Lawrence’s junior right-hander, last year’s ace but this season’s wildcard, twirled five superlative innings on Saturday afternoon, striking out 9 before finally faltering after a season-high 116 pitches. By the time he tired in the heat, BNL’s offense had the Highlanders in hand.
The Stars cranked out 13 hits and hit double digits for the second straight sectional clash while thumping Floyd Central 10-4 in the Class 4A semifinal. BNL (20-10 with 8 straight wins) advanced to the championship on Monday at 1 p.m.
Dalton Nikirk and Ethan Baer had 2 hits and drove in 2 runs each, sparking an attack that has now averaged 8 runs per game during the current streak.
Thacker was an ace in the hole. Last year, he was 5-3 with a minuscule 0.86 ERA, and BNL coach Jeff Callahan kept waiting for that kind of dominance to emerge. But until the last two outings, Thacker was 1-2 and scuffling.
Not anymore. He was late arriving this year (and to the ballpark on Saturday, paying for his tardiness with some postgame laps around the outfield), but his postseason appearance was perfectly timed.
“That’s the longest we’ve gone with him this year,” Callahan said. “He’s pitched well the last two weeks. That’s good to see. It’s a good time to be pitching well, that’s for sure. He was able to throw his second and third pitches over for strikes and that’s a key.”
Thacker, flashing over the plate whatever BNL catcher Evan Waggoner asked for, surrendered only 2 hits until the sixth, when Floyd broke through for its 4 runs. Fortunately the Stars had a 7-run working margin at that point, and they added 3 in the seventh as insurance.
Thacker’s biggest moment came in the fourth, when the first two Floyd batters banged hits. With two outs and a 5-0 lead, Thacker plunked a batter to load the bases, but he got the third out on a fly ball to right.
“I’m a little more confident right now,” Thacker said. “It was tough. I’ve been in that situation before. I just needed to focus, get dialed in and hope for the best.”
BNL gave Thacker plenty of breathing space, scoring twice in the first (three walks and an error) and another in the third (Nikirk’s clutch 2-out single chasing home Cole Karr). The Stars added 2 more in the fourth as Thacker’s one-out double set the table for Baer’s RBI groundout and Zane Harrison’s ringing RBI single to left.
Thacker’s sacrifice fly in the fifth made it 6-0, and Logan Shelton smacked a two-out RBI double in the sixth.
The Highlanders finally came to life in the sixth, starting the frame with four straight hits. Caleb Kimm laced a RBI double, Carson Stiller greeted BNL reliever Braydon Brown with a RBI single, and Blake Barrett followed with a sacrifice fly before the Stars escaped further damage.
In the seventh, Garrett Watson scampered home on a passed ball, Baer singled in another, and Floyd’s third error allowed the final run.
“That was huge to extend the lead,” Callahan said. “It makes it that much more difficult for the other team.”
Waggoner and Harrison added 2 hits each for the Stars, who roughed up four Floyd hurlers.
“We’re getting hot at the right time,” Nikirk said. “All the hard work we’ve done all year is starting to pay off, at the most important time. When we were patient and saw the fastball, we jumped on it.”
BNL will chase its 15th sectional title, after winning its last in 2017, against Jeffersonville. The Red Devils clipped New Albany 5-3 in the second semifinal as Blayden McMahel crushed a 2-run homer in the fourth and added a 2-run double in the seventh.
“I’d take 10 runs again on Monday,” Callahan said. “I’ll take whatever, just one more than the other team. We’ll have to come out ready to play and try to win a sectional championship.”
“It’s going to take a really good game,” Nikirk said. “No mistakes. Those can’t happen.”