Photos by Matt Roth/The American Legion
SHELBY, N.C. — Some days, 90 feet seems like it’s an arm’s length away. Others, it might as well be a mile.
The Bryant Black Sox won over 40 games this summer and in many of those victories they made the 90 feet from third base to home plate seem like nothing with clutch hit after clutch hit. They rode that, excellent pitching and solid defense all the way to the American Legion World Series and, on Monday, stood a win away from playing for the championship.
But 90 feet proved to be a long way to travel too often in their rain-soaked Series semifinal contest with the Henderson, Nev., Blue Sox.
(Yes, the Sox were Black and Blue and soggy, particularly for the outfielders who splashed their way through puddles all game long. The second semifinal between Creighton Prep of Omaha, Neb., and Randolph County, N.C., was suspended due to the conditions with Nebraska winning 2-1 after one inning.)
Of the nine men Bryant stranded in the game, four of them were in scoring position as the Nevada team dodged one bullet after another, twice with the game hanging in the balance.
The seven-inning contest was tied 2-2 until Henderson put up five runs in the top of the ninth to forge a 7-3 victory that put them in the championship game and ended a remarkable season for the Black Sox.
“It was tough,” acknowledged Bryant manager Darren Hurt, whose youngest son Dylan was the team’s catcher, middle son Ozzie was an assistant coach and oldest son Devin played in Bryant’s only other World Series appearance in 2007. “We had so many chances. We just didn’t get it done. Some guys are really kicking themselves but, heck, they gave me the best summer of my life. I’m proud of all of them.
“If you would’ve told me coming in (to the season) that we would end up where we did, I might’ve laughed at you,” he related. “But it was very special to see these kids go further than I even thought was possible. Of course, the goal is always to get to Shelby.
“We had a lot of guys that had to step up on the mound,” the manager noted. “And we had some young guys that had to step up for us, especially in the State, the Regional and the World Series. Some really young guys were put in some tough spots.
“I’m proud of them and, heck, we could’ve won that game,” he concluded. “We could’ve been playing for the world championship tomorrow night. We were just one hit away two different times and had two shots at it each time. If you had told me that a month ago, I’d have probably taken that.”
It’s a team that was in must-win situations repeatedly in that post-season run and they kept delivering. So, it was kind of a shock to the players, coaches and fans that they couldn’t pull it out this time.
Bryant trailed 2-1 going into the bottom of the fifth and tied it in vintage textbook fashion: Get ‘em on, get ‘em over, get ‘em in.
Scott Schmidt led off the inning with a double just inside the right-field line. Coby Greiner sacrificed him to third and Logan Allen came through with a sacrifice fly to make it 2-2.
While Beaux Bonvillain continued to shackle Henderson in relief of starter Myers Buck, the Black Sox threatened in each of the next three innings.
In the sixth, Dylan Hurt singled with one out and, after a pitching change, so did Alex Shurtleff. A hit away from taking the lead, they were stopped by Henderson’s right-hander Nick Thompson. Jake Wright fouled out to the catcher and Aaron Orender flew out to center.
In the seventh, Greiner stroked a one-out single to center and Allen yanked a base knock to left. Jake East walked and the bases were loaded. Ninety feet away from winning the game and advancing, the Black Sox were denied as Thompson struck out Seth Tucker and retired Dylan Hurt on a grounder to short that resulted in a force at second, sending it to extra innings.
“I thought about putting the squeeze on right there because I knew (Thompson) was going to groove us one. But the fact that he’d thrown five balls in a row — anyway, we thought we’d take our chances swinging away. Nine times out of 10, Seth gets a sac-fly or a groundball that scores the run.”
In the eight, Shurtleff reached on an error and Logan Chambers provided a pinch-hit sacrifice to move him into scoring position, again representing the winning run. Brandon Hoover’s fly to right allowed Shurtleff to reach third but there he remained 90 feet away as Schmidt was robbed of a hit on a circus catch of his bloop in shallow center by second baseman David Hudleston.
With closer Boston Heil on in relief of Bonvillain in the top of the ninth, Thompson started the winning rally by legging out a double on an 0-2 pitch that he lined to left. John Howard Bobo sacrificed Thompson to third then, on a 1-1 delivery, Roger Riley singled in the go-ahead run.
Heil followed with a strikeout and, after an intentional walk to clean-up hitter Jack Thomas Wold, was within a strike of getting the Black Sox back at the plate.
But it didn’t come and the inning turned into a nightmare that included two more hits and a pair of errors.
“He’s been so, so good for us,” said Darren Hurt of Heil, who was 3-0 with a 1.34 earned run average and five saves during the regular season. “It was a rough way to end. He threw strikes and he got groundballs. They just weren’t at us. A couple of them were just in the hole where we just couldn’t make a play.”
In the bottom of the ninth, Allen’s final American Legion at bat resulted in his second home run of the tournament, a bomb over the signage in left field. It was, however, all the Sox could get.
At the start of the game, Buck, one of the most pleasant surprises of the summer for the Black Sox going 7-1 with a save and a 2.40 ERA, pitched around a pair of singles in the first and a lead-off walk in the second.
In the third, a one-out double by Riley was followed by singles from Ryne Nelson and Wold to make it 1-0.
Bonvillain was called upon to relieve and a wild pitch allowed the second run to score. An error followed before the left-hander retired Garrett Giles and J.J. Smith to keep it at that.
In the bottom of the third, a two-out double by Allen and one of those clutch singles by East plated Bryant’s first run. Tucker bunted for a hit, sending East to third.
After the first pitch to Dylan Hurt, Riley, the Nevada catcher, whipped a throw to third to try to pick East off. Despite the fact that third baseman Jesse Fonteboa caught the ball and blocked East’s path back to the bag, there was no interference and the inning ended.
Bonvillain gave the Black Sox a chance as he worked around a two-out single by Bobo in the first and a lead-off walk to Nelson in the fifth. In the top of the sixth, Hudleston singled with one out. With Hudleston on the move, Bonvillain struck out Thompson and Hurt gunned a throw to Tucker at second. Hudleston slid past the bag but Tucker stayed with it and tagged him out as he tried to get back to the bag, ending the inning.
A single by Nelson in the seventh came to naught and another by Smith with two out in the eighth was wasted by the Blue Sox.
Once again, the Black Sox wore the green and camo jerseys in the game, the ones they’d worn on Saturday when they bombed three homers and turned their fortunes around at the Series. Alas, that good fortune ran out on Monday.
Ah, but what a ride it was.