File photo by Kevin Nagle
LITTLE ROCK — Hard lessons, learned early, often make a baseball team that much tougher later when things are really on the line.
But that doesn’t make it any easier to withstand in the moment.
The Hornets held a 5-2 lead over the arch-rival Conway Wampus Cats on Friday at Little Rock Christian High School and stood just one out away from victory and a spot in the finals of the Central Arkansas Invitational Tournament.
But they couldn’t get that last out.
Seven consecutive Conway batters reached base as the Cats rallied for four runs to take the lead. In the bottom of the inning, right-hander Jackson Hull worked around a one-out walk to Austin Ledbetter to close out the unlikely victory.
Hull, who relieved with no one out in the bottom of the third, stopped the Hornets on two hits over the final five frames, fanning just one and walking three.
Bryant held a 4-0 lead through three innings but only managed to add one run after that, stranding runners in scoring position in the third, fifth and sixth innings.
It was just the third loss of the season for Bryant. All have been heartbreakers, 1-0 to Hot Springs Lakeside to open the campaign, 2-1 at White Hall on March 16 (on a bogus balk call) and now Conway. At 9-3-1, they’ll take on Sylvan Hills in the tournament’s third-place game on Saturday at 3 p.m., at Lamar Porter Field in Little Rock.
Weather permitting (and rain is predicted this week), Bryant will get back to more important 7A-Central Conference games at home against Little Rock Central on Tuesday and Fort Smith Southside on Thursday.
The Hornets and Wampus Cats will see each other at least two more times with league games at Conway on April 10 and at Bryant on May 4.
“You hate to lose a game at any point,” asserted Bryant head coach Travis Queck. “But, luckily, this isn’t the semifinals of the State tournament because that would be a tough pill to swallow. It’s tough enough now. We’ve got to learn from it and move on.”
Asked what more he wanted from his team other than a clutch hit or a strike or two more, Queck fired up, saying, “Life. Energy. Just cheering on your teammate. Cliché stuff but it’s very important to stay focused. And energy breeds focus and attention to detail.
“And, you know what? It’s something that we’ve been fighting for the last five or six games,” he continued. “I’ve mentioned it. ‘It’s going to get us. I don’t know when but it’s going to get us.’ And it got it us at a crucial point — in a game when we had two outs and nobody on, up three in the last inning.
“Obviously, I’ve done a poor job of getting them focused and understanding that,” the coach stated. “I promise, I won’t make that mistake again.”
Though not tagged with the loss, the game marked another tough result after a strong performance on the mound for junior right-hander Will McEntire. Through six innings, he allowed just two unearned runs on six hits with two walks and two strikeouts. His defense helped him get out of a jam or two and, when it let him down, he battled through even after the two runs scored in the top of the fifth.
Ledbetter, a flame-throwing freshman, relieved in the top of the seventh with McEntire at 83 pitches. He eased past the first two batters and had a 2-1 count on senior lead-off man Parker Gavazzi. But Gavazzi, a three-year starter, swatted a double down the left-field like and it kind of knocked Ledbetter off his stride. He walked the next two batters to load the bases. Worse, it allowed Conway’s best player, senior Jordan Wicks, an Arkansas State University commit, to come to the plate.
Trying to get ahead, Ledbetter threw a strike and Wicks, who was held hitless by McEntire, bounced one through the right side. Had he pulled it four feet more, first baseman Brandon Hoover could’ve gotten to it. But, as it was, it was a two-run single to make it 5-4.
Logan Catton relieved for Bryant and his first pitch was in the dirt and past catcher Jake Wright. Matthew Lloyd scored on the wild pitch to tie it.
James Martindale then singled to put Conway ahead. Base hits by Cade White and Clay Tollett loaded the bases again for the Cats, but Catton got Reed Hughes to ground to third for a force at second to end the uprising.
Peyton Dillon led off Bryant’s seventh with a line out to Lloyd at short. After Ledbetter drew his third walk of the game, speedster K.J. Merriweather came on as pinch runner, but Hull got Coby Greiner to fly to center and Hoover to pop to first to close it out.
Conway will play Morrilton for the tourney title at Little Rock Christian on Saturday.
In the first inning, Gavazzi singled but was forced at second when Jack Stroth hit one up the middle that Greiner got to from shortstop in time to force Gavazzi at second. Lloyd followed with a single to right, but outfielder Myers Buck charged the ball and fired a strike to Greiner the cutoff man who relayed to Logan Chambers at third in time. Chambers was waiting for courtesy runner Garett Fusilier with the ball.
Wicks popped to Scott Schmidt at second to end the inning.
The momentum that gave the Hornets carried over into a three-run home first, starting with a double into the right-field corner by Chambers off Conway starter Drew Hreha. Schmidt sacrificed him to third and, with two down, Matthew Sandidge slapped an RBI double over the third-base bag.
Hreha then walked three in a row, the first of nine walks by Conway pitchers. He also hit Hoover. Sandidge scored on a wild pitch and Dillon scored on an errant pickoff throw to second by Stroth.
With the bags full, Buck hit a grounder up the middle that Lloyd made a nice play on. His throw was in the dirt, but Wicks dug it out to keep it 3-0.
McEntire retired the Cats in order in the second. For the Hornets, Chambers walked and, with one out, Wright singled. On a pitch in the dirt that just got past Stroth, Chambers got too far off the bag at second and was caught trying to dive back in. Sandidge then drew a walk but a chopper by Dillon to third resulted in an inning-ending force.
Hughes led off the top of the third and it appeared McEntire had him struck out when the umpire raised his right fist on a 1-2 pitch but called it a ball. The count went to 3-2 and Hughes singled to left.
But McEntire picked him off first with Will Kennedy at the plate. Kennedy walked on a 3-2 pitch. Gavazzi hit a grounder to Schmidt at second. Thinking of getting a force, Schmidt came up too quickly and bobbled the ball. He was too late to get Kennedy at second and the speedy Gavazzi beat his throw to first.
Stroth followed with a long drive to left-center that Sandidge tracked down near the fence. Another error kept the inning alive and loaded the bases for Wicks only to have McEntire induce a grounder to second for the final out.
Ledbetter led off the bottom of the third with a sharp single to left then Hreha issued his sixth walk to Greiner. That produced the pitching change. Hoover got a sacrifice bunt down to move runners to second and third then Buck bounced one up the middle for an RBI single. Lloyd’s diving stop behind the bag on the play prevented the Hornets from getting a second run in as Greiner had to hold at third.
Hull then got Chambers on a one-hopper back to the mound, which resulted in an inning-ending doubleplay.
Martindale opened the fourth with a single but a grounder to Greiner at short started a doubleplay. McEntire fanned Tollett on a knee-buckling breaking ball.
Hull, however, waded through the 2-3-4 spots in the Bryant line-up in the fourth to get some momentum back for the Cats.
Hughes beat out an infield hit to start the fifth. Kennedy’s grounder got past Greiner and into the left-center gap putting runners at second and third for Gavazzi who singled up the middle to plate them both.
McEntire stopped the uprising there, however. Stroth hit a sharp grounder that took Greiner to the bag for another doubleplay then Wicks rolled out to Schmidt at second to keep it 4-2.
And the Hornets got a run back in the bottom of the inning when, with one out, Ledbetter walked. Greiner smacked a single to the gap in right center that sent pinch-runner Noah Davis to third. Hoover then executed the safety squeeze to get Davis home with the Hornets’ fifth run.
Greiner was stranded at second when Hull ended the threat with a strikeout.
McEntire, with the help of some defense from Greiner at short, worked around a one-out walk in the top of the sixth.
Chambers walked to lead off the home sixth and was sacrificed to second by Schmidt. But Hull retired Wright and Sandidge on pops to short and right, respectively, to send it to the seventh.