MARTINSBURG — When Jefferson moved Cullen Horowicz up into the leadoff spot of the lineup for the Class AAA, Region II baseball championship game at P. O. Faulkner Field on Tuesday, June 15, the Cougars thought Martinsburg might try and pitch around him. They had good reason to.
Horowicz is Jefferson’s leading hitter, usually batting second, and holds the school record for home runs in a single season. So when he came to the plate in the top of the fifth inning, with the Cougars clinging to a 1-0 lead, Martinsburg did just that, opting for the intentional walk for the second time in the game.
The Bulldogs thought they might be off the hook since they had been taking the bat out of the hands of Jefferson’s top hitter. What Martinsburg hadn’t planned on was someone else delivering a huge, momentum-seizing blast in the fifth.
Zac Rose, sitting in the No. 4 spot in the batting order, made the Bulldogs pay dearly for the intentional walk they gave Horowicz.
With the bases loaded and two out, Rose got into all of a Joe Paulson fastball, belting it well beyond the 309-foot mark in right field for a grand slam.
It was the final blast of momentum the Cougars would need to complete a two-game sweep of Martinsburg.
Jefferson went on to win its first regional championship since 2016, and 25th in school history, defeating the Bulldogs, 6-1, to advance to the Class AAA state semifinals on Thursday at Charleston.
“I knew when I made contact with the ball on the swing, it was going out,” Rose said. “It was right on the sweet spot. The hit had a good feel to it, no sting on contact.”
Typically, if contact is made off of the sweet spot in the bat, a resonating sting can be felt all the way up the barrel of the bat into the handle. Not something a batter wants to feel when he takes that swing.
For Rose, who also threw two-hit baseball, with 12 strikeouts over 6 2/3 innings, it was all sound and no bite from the ball on the grand slam. The sound echoed around the ballpark.
The win means Jefferson (27-3) will face a tough tournament field. The Cougars face Bridgeport (32-3) on Thursday in the state AAA semifinals.
Bridgeport, moved up from Class AA, where had won five straight titles before the COVID-19 pandemic, will be no easy opponent, says Jefferson coach John Lowery.
“When you reach this stage of play, all of the teams are good,” he said. “I know it sounds like a cliché, but every team has been state tournament-tested and have previously won state titles. They’ve all got that savvy. The championship is definitely up for grabs. It’s all going to come down to whoever plays the best.”
The Jefferson-Bridgeport winner will face the Hurricane-St. Alban’s winner for the state AAA championship at 10 a.m. on Saturday. Hurricane and St. Alban’s play at 4:30 p.m. on Thursday. The Jefferson-Bridgeport matchup follows approximately 30 minutes later.
The Cougars had swept Martinsburg in the regular-season, home-and-home series, and was already up in the best-of-3 regional championship series, 1-0, having blanked the Bulldogs at Sager Field on Monday, June 14, 7-0. But when a regional championship is on the line, what’s happened in previous outings doesn’t mean a whole lot.
Paulson contained Jefferson through four innings, with no-hit baseball. The only run he allowed was an unearned run in the third, when the Cougars scored on an error.
In the top of the fifth, with two out and none on, Horowitz made his third plate appearance. He had popped a fly to right field in the first for an out and was intentionally walked in the third in the previous trips to the plate.
Martinsburg opted to intentionally walk Horowicz again. Paulson then walked Connor Bailey and Regan Allinger to load the bases, bringing Rose to the plate.
Paulson had struck out Rose in the first and fourth, but this time, Rose took the first pitch for a ball, then unloaded on Paulson’s next pitch, a fastball, on a high and long journey over the fence in right for his grand slam, giving Jefferson a 5-0 lead.
“It was a fastball, breaking to the inside,” Rose said. “I just waited on it and took a steady, strong swing.”
Lowery agreed that was the defining moment of this championship game.
“It couldn’t have come at a better time,” Lowery said of Rose’s slam.
For his part, Horowicz wasn’t upset Martinsburg opted to give him two passes to first.
“I thought that was awesome,” Horowicz, who is headed to West Point in a few weeks, said of the intentional walks. “That’s the ultimate sign of respect.”
Lowery, knowing he had fast runners in the lineup with Peyton Corwine batting ninth and Bailey batting second, decided to have Horowicz lead off in this game.
“If they didn’t pitch to Cullen, we start the game off with a runner on first,” Lowery said. “He was also surrounded on both sides by our speed guys (Corwine and Bailey).”
On the mound, Rose, who is headed to Shepherd this fall, was dominating. His mix of fastball, curveball and changeups kept Martinsburg guessing.
“Zac was sharp, kept the ball down, made the big the big pitches,” Lowery said. “He has above-average velocity for a high school pitcher, he’s left-handed. All of those things came into play.”
Rose would’ve liked to have pitched a complete game, but with two out in the seventh, he had to leave the mound when he reached the maximum pitch-count limit of 110. Lowery brought on Kamien Gonzalez as the closer.
Gonzalez coaxed a pop fly out to Corwine in right from the Bulldogs’ Matt Asanovich to end the game. The celebration in the Jefferson dugout and in the bleachers began.
“Kamien’s done that for us a couple of times this year,” Lowery said. “He’s got a good breaking ball, something that’s crucial at this stage of the game.”
Horowicz had a double in the seventh for the only other extra-base hit of the game for Jefferson. Jack Reisenweber had two hits with a double for Martinsburg.