By Rob Patrick
CONWAY — Add another corker to the canon of the rivalry between the Bryant Hornets and the[more] Conway Wampus Cats.
It’s been something just this year. In football, the Hornets escaped the Wampus Cats with a last-minute field goal after their 28-7 halftime lead had been erased. In basketball, the Hornets’ scintillating run to a State Tournament bid that reached all the way to the semifinals really began when they wiped out a 16-point deficit to capture their first win ever at Conway.
Now, the Hornets’ baseball team has had its turn. After watching an 8-0 lead get whittled down to 8-5, the Hornets got out of jams in the sixth and seventh innings to frustrate the Cats on the diamond as well with an 8-6 victory that knocked Conway out of a share of first place in the 7A/6A-Central Conference.
The two teams are tied in the standings with 4-2 marks going into the final games of the first half of the league schedule. They trail only Russellville, which improved to 5-1 in conference with a 7-0 win over Van Buren on Friday.
Bryant hosts Cabot on Tuesday while Conway visits Van Buren and Russellville travels to Little Rock to play Catholic (3-3).
On Friday, it was all Hornets early as they took advantage of a Conway miscue with three hits to score three in the second then keyed by a three-run triple by Tyler Nelson added five in the third.
Conway trimmed two off the lead with the help of a pair of Bryant errors in the fifth. In the sixth, the Cats had scored three more unearned runs and had runners at first and third with two out and their clean-up hitter at the plate. Conway had all the momentum but Jordan Taylor, on in relief of Dylan Cross, had a 2-1 count on Colin Fluesmeier when he whipped a pickoff throw to Cross at third. In a bang-bang play, Alex Smith, the runner at third, was called out.
Conway coach Noel Boucher raised a stink — an extended stink — and it looked like he had good reason but the call stood and Bryant went to the dugout with an 8-5 lead.
But the Cats didn’t let down. Fluesmeier opened the seventh with a single, which brought more derision from Boucher toward the field umpire. A single by Cody Russell followed then Taylor hit Cody Rhoades with a pitch to load the bases with nobody out.
With speedy Zach Crenshaw at the plate, Taylor fell behind 2-0 and Bryant head coach Kirk Bock went to the mound.
“You don’t ever know if he’s frustrated,” Bock said of Taylor. “He’s got that same demeanor. It doesn’t matter if they just hit a grand slam or struck out. I asked him, ‘Everything feels fine?’ He said, ‘Yeah.’ I said, “Because it looks good. Just relax and get a ground ball right here and we’ll get a doubleplay and we’ll go from there.’ And that’s what happened. Then we got a tremendous play by (Trevor) Ezell at the end there.”
Indeed, Taylor’s next pitch was rolled to Ezell at short. He flipped to Ozzie Hurt at second who relayed to first in time for a double play. Though Fluesmeier scored, the Hornets were an out away from a win.
Still, the potential tying run was at the plate in pinch-hitter Ricky Paloma. Within a strike of ending it, Taylor induced a slow hopped to the left of the mound. Ezell can charging in from short, extended to reach the ball at grass level and, on the run, fired to first in time for the out that ended the game.
“It’s never easy,” Bock acknowledged. “Going in, I thought it was going to take 10 runs to win it. It took eight but even when we were up 8-0, I knew they weren’t going to quit. And, if you make a mistake, it’s like cutting your dad-gum wrist and jumping into a pool of sharks. I mean they feed off of those mistakes. And they do a great job doing it. They usually capitalize on someone’s mistakes. They’re a great baseball club.”
But the Hornets too made the most of Conway’s mistakes. It just came early.
“We did,” Bock allowed. “Nelson kind of set the tone. After his first AB, he got three hits right there. That triple was huge.”
Cross, who had two hits in the game, started Bryant’s second-inning uprising by stroking a single to left. Chase Tucker came in as a courtesy runner for the pitcher and advanced to second when Taylor shot a single up the middle.
Conway starter Hayden Strickland then hit Hayden Daniel to load the bases. With the infield in, Tyler Green hit a grounder to Fluesmeier at third. He came in on the ball and threw to the plate to try to cut off the lead run. His throw was toward in the infield but it was dropped by Rhoades, the catcher, allowing Tucker to score.
Ezell did the exact same thing but, this time, Fluesmeier’s throw was in the dirt and Rhoades came up with it to get the force.
Ozzie Hurt followed with a tap that Strickland bounced off the mound and fielded. But, instead of coming to the plate, he whirled and threw to second to try to start a conventional doubleplay. His throw was in time to retire Ezell but Hurt, busting it down the line, beat the relay as Daniel crossed the plate.
A pitch later, Nelson pulled a single into right to make it 3-0.
After Cross worked around a walk and a hit batsman in the bottom of the inning, the Hornets’ big inning commenced with a walk to Josh Pultro. Cross yanked a double into the left-field corner. With runners at second and third, Conway brought the infield in with Taylor at the plate. The runners held when he hit a chopper to second for the first out but, when Daniel hit a bouncer to Smith at short, Pultro was off on contact. So when Smith had to back up a bit to handle a high bounce, his throw home was too late and Bryant led 4-0.
With two down, Ezell kept the inning going with an infield hit that loaded the bases for Hurt who picked up his second RBI when he was hit by a pitch, forcing in a run. With the bags still juiced, Nelson got a 1-0 pitch up into the wind to right and banged it off the fence, just missing a grand slam.
Down 8-0, the Cats got their first hit in the bottom of the third on a roller up the third-base line that refused to go foul. But Cross worked around that and the error that preceded it to preserve the shutout.
Conway turned to Connor Williams to relieve Strickland in the fourth and he finished by stopping the Hornets on two hits the rest of the way.
Cross overcame a lead-off double by Russell in the fourth and should’ve gotten through the fifth with no damage. He surrendered a single to Jacob Adams to start the fifth then got Kipley Powell to ground to third. Taylor made the play at threw to Hurt for the force at second. That brought up Smith who bounced one to Taylor’s left. Taylor made a good play on the ball but stumbled and tried to throw for the force at second from his knees. The throw was in the dirt and got past Hurt but, though he was safe, Powell had to hold because Daniel was backing up the play aggressively.
And when Tyloer Langley hit a grounder into the hole at short, Ezell got to the ball but had no play. The infield single had the bases loaded with Fluesmeier up. He hit another grounder to Taylor who fired to second for a force on Langley. But when Hurt’s rushed relay to first was in the dirt, Fluesmeier was on and Smith had scored to make it 8-2.
Cross ended the frustrating inning with a strikeout of Russell.
“Cross did a tremendous job on the mound,” Bock emphasized.
In the sixth, Rhoades beat out an infield hit on a slow roller up the third-base line then Crenshaw did the same. Cross fanned Reid Blaylock and got Adams to pop to Taylor.
The inning appeared to be over when he got Powell to lift a fly to right that Daniel settled under and appeared to make the catch. But, at the last instant, the ball came out. Courtesy runner Coda Jones scored and Crenshaw, who had stopped running hard around second, made it to third. A single by Smith got him home though and a base hit by Langley knocked in Powell, making it 8-5.
Enter Taylor to pitch to Fluesmeier then make the pickoff.
“That’s been our Achilles heel all year,” Bock said of his team’s four errors. “We can’t put all three parts of the game together. Either we swing it good and pitch well or we don’t play good defense. There’s always one piece missing. As soon as we can get all those pieces together, we’re going to be pretty good.
“We hung on,” he concluded.
The two teams, which met for the State title last year, will meet one last time in conference play at Bryant on May 1 — May Day.
BRYANT 8, CONWAY 6
Hornets ab r h bi Wampus Cats ab r h bi
Nelson, dh 4 0 3 4 Powell, rf 4 2 0 0
Lessenberry, c 4 0 0 0 Smith, ss 4 1 1 1
Caldwell, cr 0 0 0 0 Langley, cf 4 0 3 1
Pultro, 1b 2 1 0 0 Fluesmeier, 3b 4 1 1 1
Cross, p 4 0 2 0 Russell, dh 3 0 2 0
Tucker, cr 0 2 0 0 Rhoades, c 3 0 1 0
Taylor, 3b 4 0 1 0 Jones, cr 0 1 0 0
Daniel, rf 3 2 0 1 Crenshaw, lf 3 1 1 0
Green, lf 3 1 0 0 Blaylock, 1b 3 0 0 0
Akers, ph 1 0 0 0 Paloma, ph 1 0 0 0
Ezell, ss 4 1 2 0 Adams, 2b 3 0 1 0
Hurt, 2b 2 1 0 2 Strickland, p 0 0 0 0
Wilson, cf 0 0 0 0 Williams, p 0 0 0 0
Totals 31 8 8 7 Totals 32 6 10 3
E—Rhoades, Taylor 2, Fluesmeier, Hurt, Daniel. DP—Bryant 1. LOB—Bryant 6, Conway 8. 2B—Cross, Russell. 3B—Nelson. SB—Caldwell.
BRYANT 035 000 0 — 8
Conway 000 023 1 — 6
Pitching ip r er h bb so
Cross (W) 5.2 5 0 8 1 5
Taylor (Save) 1.1 1 1 2 0 0
Strickland (L) 3 8 5 6 1 2
Williams 4 0 0 2 0 2
Balk—Williams. HBP—Daniel, Hurt (by Strickland), Crenshaw (by Cross), Pultro (by Williams), Rhoades (by Taylor). WP—Cross, Williams.