By Rob Patrick
NORTH LITTLE ROCK — It was beginning to look like Bryant Black Sox right-hander Jordan Taylor and[more] Texarkana Razorbacks lefty Tim Buchanan might duel all night in the winners bracket game between their teams at the 2012 Senior American Legion State Tournament.
Though both teams managed to get runners on base in almost every inning, the two hurlers kept making the pitches that got them off the hook. For most of the game, neither team was able to come up with the clutch hit they needed to snap the 1-1 deadlock.
With the winner claiming a spot in the championship round of the tournament, the game went to the bottom of the eighth deadlocked. Bryant had the 5-6-7 spots in the lineup coming to the plate and a game-breaking rally ensued. Clutch RBI singles by Hayden Lessenberry and Ozzie Hurt (the latter when the inning was a strike away from being over) gave the Sox a 3-1 lead that Taylor held up by retiring the Hogs in order in the top of the ninth.
Bryant, now 31-5 on the season (and 4-1 against Texarkana along the way), is the final unbeaten team in the tournament. The Sox are set to play Paragould 7-Up tonight at 7:30 or so, while Texarkana, the two-time defending State champion, takes on Rogers in the other semifinal.
Tyler Nelson led off the eighth with a hump-back liner to left for a single. With one out, he was awarded second on a balk by Buchanan. Lessenberry, who had been handcuffed by the Texarkana lefty in his previous three at-bats, worked the count to 2-2 then reached for a high delivery and hooked a liner to left that chased Nelson home with the go-ahead run.
Lessenberry, who 10 games ago was mired in a slump and hitting just .158, has gone on a tear since then, hitting at a .522 clip to raise his average to .324.
Yes, and the Sox weren’t done. Marcus Wilson, almost just as hot (.419 over the last 10 games) belted a long fly to right. Lessenberry had to hold up at second as Texarkana’s Daniel Thompson headed toward the fence to try to track down the ball. But it fell beyond his reach. Lessenberry tried to score on the play as Wilson motored into third but a perfect relay caught him at the plate.
So, with two down, Hurt came to the plate with Wilson at third and, on a 1-2 pitch, laced a liner to right-center for a crucial hit that provided some breathing room for Taylor.
“A two-run lead going into the ninth was huge compared to a one-run lead,” stated Bryant manager Darren Hurt. “It takes one at-bat away from tying it. Ozzie stepped up and got that hit. Less got a big hit with two strikes. Those were big at-bats in the game.”
Taylor walked two, hit a batter and struck out 11. He allowed seven hits but five of them didn’t get out of the infield.
“He was a horse,” declared Hurt. “We told him from the start, ‘This is your game, bud. We’ve got no help over here for you. This one’s yours.’ And he went out there and treated it that way. He threw a few more pitches than we wanted him to throw. Nine innings was stretching it a little bit but he wanted the ball. He was in control of that game the whole time.”
Hurt and coach Wayne Taylor discussed bringing in someone else to pitch the ninth when Jordan Taylor had hit the 120-pitch mark through eight innings.
“When he came in after the eighth, Wayne talked to him, I talked to him and Jordan said, ‘I’m going out for the ninth,’” Hurt related. “At that point, we just went back to our business and let him do his thing. We weren’t going to over-rule him.”
And, as it turned out, Taylor only needed nine pitches to get through the ninth.
At the plate, the Sox were facing a pitcher that had shut them out on five hits during the regular season. This time, however, they hammered out 12. Because of the earlier shutout, Darren Hurt wanted his team to break out in front early and they did. In the first, Tyler Brown drilled a liner to right that Thompson tried to haul in with a diving attempt. He came up short and the ball ricocheted off him into foul ground. Brown legged out a triple then scored on Taylor’s sacrifice fly.
Texarkana tied the game in the third when Trevor Rucker beat out an infield hit, stole second and third then scored on a one-out double by Josey Langston, the first of his three hits.
Despite threats in the third, fifth and sixth innings, the Sox couldn’t muster much against Buchanan after the first. In the third, Hunter Mayall, hitting .522 on the season, ripped a singled up the middle. (He’s now hit in 22 of the last 23 games including the last eight in a row.) With one out, Taylor hit a sharp grounder to first. Trey Hart fielded the ball and fired to second to try to get a force, but his throw drew shortshop Josey Langston off the bag and the Sox had two aboard. Moments later, though, the Hogs turned a doubleplay to end the inning.
In the fifth, singles by Wilson and Mayall at two aboard with two out. Taylor pulled a grounder to the right side that appeared to be headed to right field but the ball hit Mayall for the third out of the inning.
The Sox got a runner to third in the sixth when Landon Pickett hit a grounder to Alan Copeland at third. Copeland’s throw forced Hart into Prickett’s path and the two collided. Pickett, an offensive lineman in his football-playing days at Bryant High, got the better of it and because Hart didn’t hang onto the ball, was awarded first. Nelson followed with a bunt that Buchanan fielded. He went for the force at second but his throw hit Pickett and both runners were safe. And when Josh Pultro’s bunt went for a hit, the bases were loaded with nobody out.
Buchanan then did his best pitching, retiring the next three to keep the game knotted.
Meanwhile, Texarkana had chances in the fourth, seventh and eighth only to be turned back by Taylor and his teammates, who played errorless defense. In the fourth, Taylor hit Hunter Wilcher with a 2-2 pitch then issued his lone walk to Copeland. Justin Buchanan got a bunt down but Brown charged in from third, fielded it and threw to Nelson covering third from his shortstop spot and got the force on Wilcher. Taylor then fanned Hart and Rucker to escape.
In the seventh, Rucker walked and stole second with one out. With two down, Langston beat out an infield hit to put runners at the corners. But Taylor got Thompson to ground out to Pickett, who handled a tricky hop and stepped on first to retire the side.
Luke McGuire led off the eighth with an infield hit and Wilcher sacrificed him to second. He took third on a grounder to Nelson at short but got no further. Justin Buchanan’s tap was pounced on by Lessenberry, the Sox’ catcher, and he ended the inning with his throw to Pickett at first.
It was the 11th time in the last two seasons that Bryant and Texarkana have tangled. They were the finalists last summer and played an 11-inning championship game. The Hogs were 4-2 against the Sox last season. This year, Bryant has won four of the five meetings.
And, if both win today, they’ll be at it again with the championship on the line on Tuesday.
BRYANT BLACK SOX 3, TEXAR RAZORBACKS 1
Senior American Legion State Tournament
Razorbacks ab r h bi Black Sox ab r h bi
Thompson, rf 4 0 1 0 Mayall, lf 4 0 2 0
McGuire, cf 4 0 1 0 Daniel, cf 0 0 0 0
Wilcher, dh 2 0 1 0 Brown, 3b 4 1 1 0
Copeland, 3b-1b 3 0 0 0 Taylor, p 3 0 1 1
J.Buchanan, c 4 0 0 0 Pickett, 1b 4 0 1 0
Hart, 1b 2 0 0 0 Nelson, ss 4 1 1 0
Watkins, ph-lf 2 0 0 0 Pultro, rf 4 0 2 0
Rucker, lf-3b 3 1 1 0 Lessenberry, c 4 0 1 1
McMahan, 2b 3 0 0 0 Wilson, cf-lf 4 1 2 0
Duncan, ph 1 0 0 0 Hurt, 2b 4 0 1 1
Langston, ss 3 0 3 1
T.Buchanan, p 0 0 0 0
Totals 31 1 7 1 Totals 35 3 12 3
Texarkana 001 000 000 — 1
BRYANT 100 000 02x — 3
E—McMahan, Hart 2, T.Buchanan. DP—Texarkana 1. LOB—Texarkana 7, Bryant 10. 2B—Langston, Wilson. 3B—Brown. SB—Rucker 3, J.Buchanan, Copeland. S—Wilcher. SF—Taylor.
Pitching ip r er h bb so
T.Buchanan (L) 8 3 3 12 0 7
Taylor (W) 9 1 1 7 1 11
Balk—T.Buchanan. HBP—Wilcher (by Taylor), Mayall (by T.Buchanan).