In a situation in which just six games determine whether a Central Conference team gets to make it to the State Tournament, every one of those six is crucial. That’s why the Bryant Hornets’ 3-2 loss to Little Rock Catholic on Tuesday, May 31, was particularly gut-wrenching and why, on Tuesday, April 7, at home, an 8-7 loss to the Conway Wampus Cats in 13 innings was so doubly excruciating.
Both games ended with Bryant in the midst of a rally, with the potential tying and winning runs on base.
And thus, with two down and four to go — two against Van Buren and return tilts with Catholic and Conway — the defending Class 7A State champion Hornets find themselves shockingly alone in last place among the four teams that are vying for three spots at State.
Van Buren knocked off Catholic on Tuesday, 6-0, leaving Conway atop the 7A group at 2-0, Catholic and Van Buren at 1-1, and Bryant at 0-2.
Bryant travels to Alma for a conference doubleheader against the 6A Airedales this Friday. Then the Hornets face a near must-in situation at Van Buren on Tuesday, April 14.
“From here on out, it’s big,” declared Bryant coach Kirk Bock. “We’re behind the eight ball right now. We need to battle up. We can continue to be the nail or we can start being the dad-gum hammer.”
As in any one-run game, particularly one that goes 13 innings, both teams had multiple opportunities to break it open and then to win it.
The game included 34 hits, 20 of them by Conway. The 10 pitchers that took the mound between the two teams combined on 30 strikeouts.
Bryant had a 5-3 lead going into the top of the seventh inning but Conway freshman pinch-hitter Parker Gavazzi beat out a bunt single — the first of his three hits — and, a pitch later, McCall Dail cracked a game-tying home run.
That chased Bryant starter Blaine Knight, who gave up five runs on 10 hits over his six-plus innings. Conway sophomore Colby Reck, who had four hits in the game (all on two-strike pitches) greeted reliever Alex Shurtleff with a single to left. Bock then turned to his second conference starter Blake Patterson who got Jacob Adams to line into a doubleplay and clean-up hitter Grayson Pinkett to bounced out to Dylan Hurt at short.
Conway used six pitchers in the game including one of them twice. The first three worked two innings each. Nick Starr, the fourth pitcher, opened the seventh and issued a one-out walk to Evan Lee who stole second and took third on a passed ball but was stranded when Starr fanned the next two batters.
It went to the ninth tied 5-5. In the top of the inning, Warner made one of three or four sparkling defensive plays to retire Eli Davis. But Gavazzi singled up the middle and stole second. Patterson fanned Dail and had a 2-2 count on Reck. It appeared he had him struck out on a checked swing but the umpires said he held up and, on the very next pitch, Reck lined a single into center to put the Cats up 6-5.
In the bottom of the inning, Bryant tied it and made a bid to win it but, again, didn’t get the call on a very close play. Warner was hit by a pitch to start the inning. Lee singled up the middle to put runners at the corners. Patterson tied it with a sacrifice fly. It was the Hornets’ first tally since their five-run second, which included half of their 14 hits.
Starr gave way to Matt Strickland at that point. Lee stole second then was balked to third. But Strickland fanned Garrett Misenheimer bringing up senior Trey Breeding who appeared to get a game-winning single, a bouncer up the middle that Strickland got a piece of. Ranging far to his left, Adams, the Conway shortstop, got to the ball and fired to first. On a bang-bang play, Breeding, who dove at the bag was called out as Lee crossed the play, negating the run.
Patterson and Strickland dueled through the 10th, 11th and 12th innings with neither team mounting much of a threat except Conway in the 10th when Tucker and Condit singled to put runners at the corners with one out. The Cats put on the squeeze but Leach missed on the bunt attempt and pinch-runner Matt Boley was tagged out after a brief rundown.
In the 13th, Conway’s Collin Condit drew a lead-off walk. That brought up Brayden Leach, who had struck out four times in the game. Patterson, working in his seventh inning of relief, got within a strike of making it five times but Leach got a bunt down into no-man’s land between first and the mound. He beat it out for a hit. Saxon Smith followed with another bunt but this one stayed in the air and Warner made a diving catch before it hit the ground. He tried to get up and double up Leach at first but couldn’t get enough on his off-balance throw. That brought up Gavazzi who stroked his third hit, an RBI single to center to put Conway up 7-6. A base hit by Dail made it a two-run lead.
Patterson induced a grounder to third by Reck. Warner threw to second for a force but the ball wasn’t hit hard enough for the Hornets to turn a doubleplay. Connor Tatum’s relay to first was late.
With the left-handed hitting Adams coming to the plate, Bock called in Lee, a lefty, and he struck him out to end the inning.
In the home half of the 13th, Tatum worked a walk, resulting in a pitching change. Turner, who was the third pitcher of the game for Conway, became the seventh. With one out, Drew Tipton shot a single into center. That brought up Warner, who yanked a base hit to left to drive in Tatum, making it a one-run game.
With Lee at the plate, Tipton got caught roaming off second too far. He took off for third and got in safely when the throw to new third baseman Dylan Fluesmeier couldn’t hold the ball.
So the potential tying and winning runs were in scoring position. But Tucker got Lee to pop up, though it took Tucker himself to make a staggering catch in foul territory. He then struck out Patterson to end the game.
“Again, I think we played really hard,” Bock said, echoing his comments after the loss to Catholic a week earlier. “We just didn’t play well at times.
“We had them right where we wanted them,” he added. “We just didn’t execute. That’s got a lot to do with guys that haven’t been in it when it’s big. I’m not making excuses but we’ve got a lot of guys that haven’t ever been out there, that have seen it done but they have never done it before. We’ve got some growing pains going on right now.”
Conway took a 1-0 lead in the first inning when four of the first five batters cracked singles. Knight got a lift when, after the third hit, Dail tried to score from second only to have Tipton hit Patterson, the cut-off man, who whirled and fired to Breeding in time to nail him at the plate.
With two down, however, Tucker singled in the run.
Knight then retired the next eight batters while his teammates surged into the lead with the big second inning uprising. Patterson singled to start things off then Misenheimer beat out an infield knock. Breeding got a bunt down and legged it out for a single. A late throw from Tucker at third got away and Patterson scored to tie the game.
With runners at second and third with one out, Tatum came through in the clutch with a liner to right for an RBI single. Jason Hastings ripped the next pitch to left for a two-run single and it was 4-1.
Tipton beat out a bunt single then Warner rapped a base hit to left to load the bases. Hastings scored on a wild pitch but the Hornets stranded two.
And they were shut out over the next seven innings, managing just two hits against the procession of Conway pitchers.
One of those was a single by Hurt with two out in the third. Tatum reached on a third-strike wild pitch but they were both stranded. The other hit was a single by Tatum in the eighth just moments after Hurt had fouled off four 3-2 pitches as he worked for a walk. Again, however, the Hornets couldn’t bring them around.
The Wampus Cats whittled on the 5-1 lead. They got one in the fourth on a one-out single by Tucker and a triple by Condit. But Knight fanned Leach and Smith to force the Cats to strand Condit at third.
Pinkett opened the sixth with a single to left. Gavazzi, in as a courtesy runner for the catcher, took second when Warner robbed Tucker of a hit. Condit singled him to third then he scored on a bouncer to short by pinch-hitter Andrew Hreha, making it 5-3.