By Rob Patrick
EL DORADO — Winning is always its own incentive, of course, but on Tuesday when the Bryant[more] Hornets traveled to El Dorado, there were a few in addition.
First of all, the Hornets needed a win to move ahead of the Wildcats in the South Conference standings and to keep pace with the first-place Benton Panthers. Then there’s the fact that they’ve got to do everything they can to win as much as they can to try to keep up with the teams in the West Conference, where they’ll be seeded for the Class 7A State Tournament, something they’re trying to do without playing any of the West teams as conference games.
And there was this:
They wanted to win for assistant coach Greg Harris who was making his first return trip for a game in El Dorado since he served as the Wildcats’ head coach. Harris was replaced after the 2011 season by Sam Tyler last year and the Wildcats — with all due credit to Tyler — won a Class 6A State championship.
Fast forward to Tuesday when the defending 6A champion Cats hosted the defending Class 7A champion Hornets at the El Dorado/Union County Recreation Complex.
And, though it wasn’t Bryant’s best performance (particularly on defense with an uncharacteristic four errors), behind strong pitching from lefty Jason Hastings, who allowed one unearned run on four hits over 6 2/3 innings, getting last-out help from Nate Rutherford, who picked up a save in a 4-1 win.
Bryant improved to 18-5 overall and 5-1 in league play. El Dorado dropped to 7-9 and 4-2. The win sets up a showdown with the Panthers for a share of first place at Benton this Friday. The Panthers improved to 6-0 versus the league with a win over Pine Bluff Tuesday. In the earlier meeting between the Saline County rivals, Benton prevailed 1-0.
Against El Dorado, the Hornets struck for three runs in the third inning highlighted by Trevor Ezell’s two-run blast to left center. They added a key run in the top of the seventh without a hit to ease the tension for the Wildcats’ final at-bat. Lead-off man Tyler Green’s base-running accounted for that.
“I was telling the guys, it felt like we were just trying to hold on instead of pulling away,” noted Hornets coach Kirk Bock. “There was no reason for us to feel that way we just did, for whatever reason. But we won and that’s our goal. As long as we’re one run better than the next guy, I’m happy.”
Hastings picked off runners in each of the first two innings. The initial pick erased his first walk and ended the bottom of the opening frame. The second came after an errant throw to first that had allowed El Dorado’s Eli Lester to reach. Another miscue followed on a tough play at third for the Hornets’ Brandan Warner off the bat of Mason Clay but Hastings got Matthew Lansdell to pop to Ezell at short to end the inning.
In the top of the third, Hayden Lessenberry plugged the gap in left center for a lead-off double. He advanced to third on a wild pitch and scored on Warner’s sacrifice fly to center.
After Korey Thompson was robbed of a hit on a liner that Lansdell back-handed at third, Green swatted a single to left after fouling off a trio of 3-2 pitches from El Dorado right-hander Jeremy Paul. A pitch later, Ezell unloaded for his two-run dinger, making it 3-0.
“That put us over the edge,” Bock commented. “That was a big one.”
In the home half, Justin Childs and Ty Owens each had singles, the first hits for El Dorado. But Ezell made an over-the-shoulder catch of a pop into shallow left-center to retire Clay Henry then catcher Trey Breeding made a nice play on a foul pop near the screen to keep it 3-0.
Paul worked around a one-out walk to Hayden Daniel and another double by Lessenberry in the top of the fourth and his teammates got on the board in the bottom of the inning. Matt Hammock led off with a solid single to right. Lester, on what looked like a doubleplay ball, reached on an error. However, Hastings induced another two-ball off Clay’s bat.
With Hammock at third, Lansdell drew a walk and, when he stole second, there was a miscommunication on who was covering and Breeding’s otherwise solid throw got through into center, allowing Hammock to score.
But Hastings struck out Paul and Lansdell was stranded at second with the Wildcats trailing 3-1.
Childs beat out an infield hit off a swinging bunt up the third-base line to open the bottom of the fifth. With one out, Childs was off and running on Henry’s fly to Marcus Wilson in left. The Hornets relayed the ball to first in time to double off the base-runner and the game went to the sixth.
Hastings worked a 1-2-3 sixth to earn a chance to finish.
Before that, however, Green did his thing to pad the lead. He led off the top of the seventh with a walk, stole second and when Nesbit, the El Dorado catcher, couldn’t find a wild pitch that had ricocheted to the backstop up towards the third-base dugout, Green rounded third and kept coming. Nesbit found the ball but not in time to make a play so the Hornets were up 4-1.
“Basically, I think that’s a game-winner because now their approach may be a little bit different,” Bock said, referencing El Dorado’s final at-bat. “And Jason’s got more breathing room.”
Paul issued a two-out walk to Wilson then hit Hastings but got out of the inning with no further damage.
Hastings walked Clay to open the bottom of the inning. He got Lansdell to ground to Thompson at second for a force but a wild pitch allowed Lansdell to move into scoring position at second. The count went to 3-2 on Paul but Hastings struck him out.
That brought up Childs, who had two of his team’s four hits in the game and Rutherford, the Hornets senior ace, was called upon to get the final out. On his fourth pitch, Childs bounced out to short.
“I thought Jason did a tremendous job,” Bock stated. “He got deep in some counts but he just walked three.”
Asked about calling for Rutherford for the final out, the coach related, “I knew that he was going to have movement and he was going to get a groundball. But that wasn’t my decision. That was (pitching) Coach (Steven) Tharp’s. He makes those decisions and he does a great job of making those decisions, has all year. I think that was the right decision.
“In that situation what we didn’t need was to get a ball up with the wind blowing out like it is,” he added. “Nate’s typically going to throw groundballs. And Hastings did a great job of throwing groundballs today.”
BRYANT 4, EL DORADO 1
Hornets ab r h bi Wildcats ab r h bi
Green, cf 2 2 1 0 Owens, cf 3 0 1 0
Ezell, ss 4 1 2 2 Henry, lf 3 0 0 0
Wilson, lf 2 0 1 0 Nesbit, c 2 0 0 0
Hastings, p 3 0 1 0 Trussell, cr 0 0 0 0
Caldwell, cr 0 0 0 0 Hammock, 1b 3 1 1 0
Rutherford, p 0 0 0 0 Lester, 2b 3 0 0 0
Harris, 1b 3 0 0 0 Clay, ss 2 0 0 0
Tucker, ph 1 0 0 0 Lansdell, 3b 2 0 0 0
Daniel, rf 2 0 0 0 Paul, p 3 0 0 0
Lessenberry, dh 3 1 2 0 Childs, rf 3 0 2 0
Warner, 3b 2 0 0 1
Thompson, 2b 3 0 0 0
Breeding, c 0 0 0 0
Totals 25 4 7 3 Totals 24 1 4 0
BRYANT 003 000 1 — 4
El Dorado 000 100 0 — 1
E—Ezell 2, Warner, Breeding. DP—Bryant 2, El Dorado 1. LOB—Bryant 7, El Dorado 5. 2B—Lessenberry 2, Wilson. HR—Ezell (2). SB—Green. SF—Warner.
Pitching ip r er h bb so
Hastings (W) 6.2 1 0 4 3 4
Rutherford (S) 0.1 0 0 0 0 0
Paul (L) 7 3 3 7 5 3
HBP—Hastings (by Paul). WP— Hastings 1, Pual 4.