Photos by Rick Nation and Kevin Nagle
By Rob Patrick
Two of the best pitchers in the state dueled Tuesday night at Bryant High School Field. Each[more] surrendered four hits. Bryant’s Nate Rutherford walked one and struck out three and needed just 73 pitches to go seven innings. Benton’s Coulton Lee walked four, struck out nine and went the distance throwing 110 pitches.
The difference? Three of Benton’s hits came in the same inning, the very first inning actually, producing what turned out to be the only run of the game. Lee made it hold up despite the fact that Bryant had runners in scoring position in six of the seven innings. The Hornets were unable to get two hits in the same frame. Lee forced them to strand eight.
Rutherford, after giving up those three hits in the first, didn’t allow another hit until the top of the seventh.
It was the South Conference opener for the rivals.
“Nate did a great job, Lee did a great job,” acknowledged Bryant coach Kirk Bock. “The difference in the end was that they strung three hits together. We couldn’t string ours together. If we had, we’d still be playing.”
Jack James led off the game with a single to right then came a key moment with Justin Vincent at the plate. Squaring to bunt with two strikes, Vincent didn’t get the ball on the ground right away. It sailed and Bryant third baseman Harrison Dale charged in to try to catch it in the air. He made a dive along the third-base line, the ball hit and went foul.
Bock and the Hornets contended that Dale never touched it and it should be a foul ball and a strikeout, but the home plate umpire ruled that the ball contacted Dale before it went foul, resulting in a bunt hit that moved James to second.
On the very next pitch, the Panthers’ Carson Holloway bounced a single to center to drive in what turned out to be the game-winner.
“I thought it was a foul ball,” Bock said of the bunt. “Apparently, it hit us. That would’ve been huge because it would’ve been a strikeout. The hit follows and that puts runners at first and second with one out and they don’t get that run.”
As it was, Lee bounced out to Bryant second baseman Korey Thompson as Vincent moved to third and Holloway to second. Rutherford then picked Vincent off third for the second out before inducing Grayson Chilton to bounce out to Trevor Ezell at short to end the inning.
Rutherford worked around a two-out error in the second and a two-out walk in the third thanks to a sparkling play by Thompson who charged in and short-hopped a bouncer on the infield grass. First baseman Jason Hastings made a leaping grab of his rushed throw to first and tagged Lee for the final out of the inning.
A fifth-inning error came to nothing and, in the seventh, Trey Bishop shot a single into center that Ezell nearly scooped up. Colby Johnson tried to bunt but popped it up so that Dale, charging again from third, could catch it cleanly. Taylor Schmidt followed with a shot to Dale’s left. The third sacker snagged it and started a scintillating 5-4-3 doubleplay with Thompson making the turn at second.
Charged up by that play, the Hornets came to bat in the bottom of the seventh and, with one out, Tyler Green yanked an 0-1 pitch into the left-field corner for the only extra-base hit of the game.
But Lee wound up striking out the side to end the game with Green, who had two of the Hornets’ hits, stranded at second.
In the home first, Lee issued a one-out walk to Hastings then a misconnection on a pick-off throw allowed him to take second. He got no further.
In the second, Hayden Daniel shot a single up the middle with one down. He advanced on a wild pitch but then Lee snagged Trey Breeding’s liner up the middle and Thompson fanned.
Green singled to start the third and had second base stolen on an 0-1 count as Ezell faked a bunt. But he had to go back to first and Ezell was called out for interfering with catcher Brinson Williams’ throw.
“Ezell just went out a little too far,” Bock commented. “Obviously, I can’t see it from over here (in the dugout) but, if what happened happened, then it was a great call. We’ve got to do a better job of staying in the box right there.”
Lee proceeded to retire the next two to get out of the inning but the Hornets weren’t finished threatening. In the fourth, Marcus Wilson drew a lead-off walk and was sacrificed to second by Dale only to be stranded.
In the fifth, Lee issued one-out walks to Green and Ezell and they pulled off a double steal to get to second and third. Again, however, Lee wriggled out of the jam. He did so again in the sixth when Wilson singled up the middle, took second on another sacrifice by Dale. After Daniel grounded out to short, Wilson stole third but Lee ended the inning with a strikeout, sending it to the seventh.
The loss was Bryant’s first to an Arkansas team this season. The Hornets are 4-4 overall. They are scheduled to meet Van Buren in Russellville for a non-conference game before returning to league play at Pine Bluff on Friday.