TEXARKANA — To say the doubleheader between the Bryant Black Sox Senior American Legion team and the TEXAR Razorbacks was heated would be an understatement in more ways than one.
Literally, the temperature reached triple digits. And there was controversy.
But, in the end, the Sox extracted a pair of come-from-behind victories, 7-4 and 9-7, over a team that threw a pair of college pitchers with designs on pulling into a tie for first place in Zone 4 with them. For the eighth year in a row, Bryant sewed up the regular-season Zone title. The Sox will be the top seed at the District Tournament, which they host beginning Friday, July 17.[more]
"Eight years in a row with the regular-season title is really a great accomplishment for our program," stated manager Craig Harrison. "Step one is a success for us, with the league title. Now, it's time to go play some Regional and World Series type teams in Tennessee (the Independence Day Classic in Columbia, Tenn., beginning Thursday), then come back and prepare for step two, the District tournament. Our District will be tough — each team is capable of pulling off several wins to win it. We are 19-2 but when that starts, we are 0-0."
The Sox trailed the first game on Saturday, 4-3, going into the top of the seventh but rallied for four runs to take the lead. Justin Blankenship led off the inning with a walk and took second on a wild pitch. Caleb Garrett got a bunt down to try to sacrifice and Texarkana went to third to try to retire the lead runner but Blankenship beat the throw.
That spelled the end for the Texarkana starter, Michael Nava, who pitched at Northeast Texas Junior College in the spring. After fanning seven and walking seven, Nava gave way to Marc McRae. A wild pitch got far enough away that Garrett reached second but Blankenship had to hold at third. Tyler Sawyer worked the count to 3-2, fouling off a pair of two-strike deliveries, then hit a no-doubter over the wall in right field to put the Sox up 6-4.
Hunter Mayall followed with a hit and, with two down, Brennan Bullock doubled him in to make it 7-4.
Trent Daniel, the Bryant starter, retired the side in order in the bottom of the inning, ending it with a strikeout.
"We never quit," Harrison emphasized. "After the sixth inning, it didn't look good but we made things happen in the seventh. Saw battled, and instead of a sac fly that he usually delivers, he did one better and got all of it. And TD made it stand up."
The Sox made Nava work in the heat right from the start. Blankenship singled to start the game and Garrett drew a walk. After a wild pick-off throw, Mayall delivered a run with a one-out single.
Though Garrett and Mayall were stranded, Harrison said, "The inning was a success in the end because (Nava) threw a lot of pitches."
Texarkana took advantage of a pair of walks by Daniel in the bottom of the inning with a two-run double by Josh Stringfellow to take the lead. The Razorbacks added an unearned run in the third but had a second runner tagged out at the plate to end the inning.
The Sox tied it in the fifth. Austin Benning walked and, after Blankenship lined out, Garrett drew a pass. Sawyer singled sharply to left to load the bases for Mayall. A wild pitch allowed Benning to score and when the late throw from the Texarkana catcher evaded the pitcher covering the plate, Garrett, going full speed from second, raced home to score the tying run.
Nava got Mayall to fly out, however, and the Razorbacks reclaimed the lead in the bottom of the inning with a pair of hits on 0-2 counts, the first a double, the second a single by Stringfellow to bring him home.
The controversy began in the sixth. Kaleb Jobe drew a walk and, an out later, Bullock singled to right. With Ben Wells at the plate, a 2-1 delivery came up and in.
"It hit his hand and his bat simultaneously," Harrison recounted. "The umpire called foul ball, but I argued as Wells' had was blue from getting hit and swelling up. The umpire didn't change the call."
Harrison was ejected from the game and Nava struck out the next two batters to end the inning.
But Daniel worked through the bottom of the inning, setting up the dramatic finish.
"It was hot and we faced a lot of adversity but we still came out ahead," Harrison said. "I give my team — and (assistant coach) Tic (Harrison) for his coaching after I was gone — a tip of the hat for pulling this one out. It was a good feeling sitting out in the weeds beyond left field to see us get the victory."
Controversy continued at the start of the second game. First, the Texarkana coaches contested the fact that Bryant would be the home team. "We've been doing this for many years since we don't play home and home because of the distance," Craig Harrison noted. Indeed, when Texarkana played at Bryant last year, the Sox were the home team in the first game and the Razorbacks the home team in the nightcap.
"Tic took the lineup care out but when the umpires saw me in the dugout, they told me I was out of the second game," Harrison continued. "When I told them that was a high school rule only and Legion goes by Major League rules, the home plate umpire said he didn't care about rules and that I was not able to coach. I said he couldn't do that and he said, 'Fine, I'll just throw you out of this game,' with no reason."
So Harrison returned to the weeks beyond left field.
The two teams traded big innings. Bryant scored five in the second, Texarkana scored seven in the fourth. The Sox countered with three in the bottom of the fourth, added one in the fifth then, behind Sawyer's relief pitching, held on for the win. Sawyer had come on in the top of the fifth to work out of a bases-loaded jam. He fanned two in the sixth and two more in the seventh on his way to shutting the Razorbacks down to close out the game, earning the save.
Again, Sawyer also had a clutch hit. In the home fourth, B.J. Ellis was hit by a pitch but forced at second on a failed sacrifice attempt by Benning. Blankenship singled then Garrett walked to load the bags for Sawyer who cracked a 1-2 delivery down the left-field line for a two-run double to tie it. A sacrifice fly by Mayall brought Garrett home with the go-ahead run.
"T-Saw was good today, at the plate and in the field," Harrison said. "He is another in a long line of players (and current roster included) that loves to play and does whatever it takes to win. He's a lot like J-Wellsy (Justin Wells) in his passion for our program.
"Again, we showed great composure," he added. "After I was relegated to left field, we took a 5-0 lead but saw it slip away with some poor play. But, to our credit, our players battled back against another college pitcher and we found a way to win."
The Texarkana starter was Austin O'Donnell, a redshirt freshman this spring at Southern Arkansas University. He ran into second-inning trouble when he walked Jobe and Brady Butler followed with a single. Another walk to Bullock loaded the bases. Ellis, facing an 0-2 pitch, grounded a single to left to plate two runs and, after Benning drew a walk to fill the bags back up, Blankenship ripped a two-run single to make it 4-0.
Sawyer reached on a third-strike wild pitch, beating a late throw to first by the Texarkana catcher. On the throw, Benning sprinted home just beating the return throw to make it 5-0.
Wells, starting despite the swollen left hand, cruised through three innings but ran into trouble in the fourth. A lead-off walk and a pair of grounders that found holes for base hits loaded the bases. A pair of grounders that either might've been doubleplay balls were booted and runs scored on each. A pair of groundouts and a double had the game tied.
Caleb Milam relieved for the Sox but was greeted with an RBI double. With two down, a walk was followed by an RBI single to make it 7-5.
Austin Queck was called upon at that point and got the final out on a long fly to right to end the inning.
The Sox made Queck the winning pitcher with their answering rally in the bottom of the inning. Jobe relieved in the top of the fifth but a hit batsman, a one-out single and a two-out walk filled the bases. With Stringfellow coming up, Sawyer came on and induced an inning ending fly to Bullock in left.
In the home fifth, Butler singled and stole second. Bullock followed with a grounder to short that drew a wild throw to first allowing Butler to score to make it 9-7.
The Sox play at Maumelle before their trip to Tennessee.