Conner, Iacona secure home field for Trojans in opening round of playoffs

WORTON — No one’s sigh of relief was as expressive as that of pitcher Noah Iacona, whose game-ending strikeout on Friday, May 3 secured a first-round playoff game at home for the Trojans.

Iacona took a deep breath, exhaled and then smiled before tossing his glove toward the Kent County dugout in a celebratory gesture.

In his first high school pitching appearance, the sophomore right-hander got Jaden Ferguson looking at strike three to wrap up the 7-5 defeat of Cambridge-South Dorchester in the regular-season finale.

Kent County (3-15) is the fourth seed in the Class 1A East Region I baseball tournament that begins today (Thursday, May 9), and will host fifth seed Cambridge (2-16) in the rubber match.

Cambridge at home defeated Kent in their first meeting last month, 16-5.

On Friday, Iacona (one strikeout, one walk) threw 28 pitches in 1 1/3 innings of scoreless relief. He left runners on the corners in the top of the sixth and runners on second and third in the seventh.

Junior Jace Conner picked up the win. His line included nine strikeouts, one walk and one hit batter.

Conner came off the hill when he reached the pitch limit of 105, after retiring the first two batters in the top of the sixth.

Head coach Jason Conner said this Kent-Cambridge game was “10 times better” than the first meeting between the schools on April 11.

“Last time we didn’t hit. This time we actually hit,” coach Conner said in an interview at the field immediately after the game.

“The biggest difference was pitching,” he added. “Pitching and hitting.”

Jace Conner and Iacona singled back to back to open the first inning and ultimately scored, respectively, on Tanner Beck’s flyout to center and Braden Wilson’s first-pitch, two-out single up the middle.

Cambridge pushed three across in the top of the second with two away to take its only lead, 3-2. Noah Marshall singled to the left-center field gap with two away to plate Collin Bair (single) and Ferguson (walk) and scored the go-head run one batter later on Justin Marshall’s double that glanced off the left fielder’s glove.

Conner avoided any more run damage after getting the next batter on a groundout to second baseman Liam Tidaback.

The Trojans regained the lead for good, 4-3, after plating two unearned runs in the second. With one away, Noah Taylor reached on a bang-bang play when Cambridge’s first baseman pulled his foot off the base. With two away, Iacona deposited a single into shallow right field near the foul line. One batter later, Taylor and Iacona came home on an error that allowed Beck to reach safely.

Beck alertly went to second on the play at the plate when Iacona scored, but was stranded there when Kent County’s next batter bunted into a groundout.

Kent County left two runners on in the third after Jack Walters singled through the left side of the infield with two away and Trice Moore drew a free pass.

With the top of their order coming to bat in the last of the fourth, the Trojans tacked on two more runs to double up their guests, 6-3. Conner drew a leadoff walk, swiped second and then third, and scored one batter later on Iacona’s full-count line drive into left field.

Iacona advanced on a Scottie Ford groundout and ultimately scored what would hold up to be the winning run on a passed ball.

With two away, Tidaback was hit in the leg and Wilson drew a walk. Ball four to Wilson got away from the catcher, which is how Iacona scored. That was enough to chase Cambridge’s starting pitcher.

Tidaback had gone to third on the passed ball, but subsequently was picked off by the catcher for the third out.

Cambridge closed to 6-5 after run-scoring singles from Landon Ludolph and Nate Huber with two away in the top of the fifth.

Huber, representing the tying run, moved over to second on a wild pitch but was left there when Conner got Bair on a swinging strike three.

Kent County left two runners on in the last of the fifth — Taylor, who reached on a two-out error, and Conner, who followed with a walk.

Conner retired the first two batters in the top of the sixth after Moore in center field tracked down a long fly ball for the first out and then a strikeout, but by then he had reached his pitch limit.

So he and shortstop Iacona swapped positions.

It was a bit of a rocky start for Iacona, who was making his high school pitching debut. He walked the first batter he faced and the next man up reached on an error. With runners on the corners and two away, third baseman Beck bailed out his pitcher by catching a pop fly in foul territory.

Kent County added to its lead in the last of the sixth, 7-5.

With two away, Walters singled into center field to score Ford, who had jumped on the first pitch for a base hit to the edge of the outfield in shallow right, advanced on Wilson’s fielder’s choice and stole third.

Iacona retired the first two batters in the top of the seventh on a fly ball to Moore in center and a pop fly to Conner now at shortstop.

The Vikings extended the inning when designated hitter Huber doubled to the left field fence and Bair singled behind him. Bair, representing the tying run, stole second without drawing a throw to give the guests two runners in scoring position.

The rally ended there as Iacona then punched out Ferguson on a called strike three for the final out.

NOTES: The Kent-Cambridge game is the only first-round game in the 1A East Region I bracket. The winner will face top seed Colonel Richardson (17-1) on Saturday.

St. Michaels (15-2) will host North Dorchester (9-9) in the other region semifinal.

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