By Rob Patrick
FAYETTEVILLE — Four batters in, it looked like it might be a long day for the Bryant Hornets when they took[more] on the Rogers Heritage War Eagles in the Class 7A State championship at Baum Stadium on Friday.
But four batters does not a game make. After that, it was all good.
The Hornets overcame a 2-0 deficit and brick-by-brick built a 4-2 victory for their second State crown in the last three seasons.
Senior Tyler Nelson got out of the first then pitched a pair of shutout innings before turning it over to junior Nathan Rutherford who finished with four no-hit innings of relief.
In fact, from the third inning on, the Hornet hurlers faced the minimum as the only two base-runners during the last five frames were both erased on doubleplays.
That effort coupled with his complete game shutout over Bentonville in the semifinals on Monday garnered the State tourney MVP for Rutherford who improved to 6-1 on the season and lowered his earned run average to 0.95. Over his last five appearances (22 2/3 innings), the right-hander allowed just one earned run.
Offensively, the Hornets were as opportunistic as ever, using just four hits to take advantage of six walks, three hit batsmen and one error. Senior Josh Pultro accounted for two of the hits, drove in a pair of runs and scored a crucial fourth run on the front end of a double-steal.
Pultro, who was hitting a scorching .429 through 20 games this season, had struggled through a 2-for-17 slump at the start of the second half of the 7A/6A-Central Conference season.
Bryant head coach Kirk Bock said at the time that it was vital for the team’s success for Pultro to get going again.
And, sure enough, he did.
His hits on Friday extended a hitting streak since then to six games in a row.
In the opening frame, Nelson got the first out on a comebacker but then Blake Baxendale doubled inside the left-field line and scored on a single up the middle by Hunter Wood. After a stolen base, Forrest Ward singled Wood to third. With Jayme Lovelace at the plate, Ward left first early and Nelson, after a fake to third, whirled on Ward and threw to second baseman Ozzie Hurt for an apparent pickoff as Wood held at third.
It was perfect execution of a standard Bryant pick-off play but a balk was called. And, while Ward was awarded second, Wood was allowed to come home with the second run of the inning.
Unfazed, however, Nelson proceeded to pick Ward off second as shortstop Trevor Ezell snuck in behind the base-runner to take the throw and apply the tag. Nelson fanned Lovelace to send it to the bottom of the inning.
As it turned out, the War Eagles were never able to get a runner past first the rest of the game.
When Bryant won its State title in 2010, the first under Bock, the head coach had talked before the contest with Van Buren about the eventual winner being the team that makes the plays defensively. And those Hornets played flawlessly as Ben Wells tossed a five-inning perfect game.
On Friday, the Hornets were again flawless on defense. Heritage played well too but committed one miscue. And the Hornets made it hurt. It came on the first play as Ezell, leading off the bottom of the first reached when his bouncer to short was booted. Nelson walked, Jordan Taylor sacrificed them to second and third then Dylan Cross was hit by a pitch for, incredibly, the 21st time this season, loading the bases for Pultro who tied into a 1-2 delivery from Wood for a two-run double to tie the game.
Hayden Lessenberry was plunked as well to load the bases again but Wood wriggled off the hook to keep it tied.
The Hornets not only played flawlessly, they came up with a gem or two. A key one of those came in the top of the second when Heritage’s Steven Unerhehr pulled one inside the bag at third. Bryant left-fielder Tyler Green hustled to the line, scooped up the ball and fired to second in time to nail Undernehr who was trying to stretch his single to a double.
Nelson proceeded to work around a two-out walk to send it to the bottom of the second when the Hornets took the lead for good, scratching out a run without a hit. Ezell drew a one-out walk, stole second, took third on a balk as Wood went to his mouth while on the dirt surface of the mound. Nelson then picked up the RBI with a sacrifice fly to right.
To start the third, War Eagles’ lead-off man Dalton McKaughan slapped a single to right but that proved to be his team’s last hit of the game. After Baxendale popped out to Daniel in right, Wood hit a liner to Taylor at third. McKaughan was caught wandering too far off first and doubled up.
Rutherford came on in relief in the fourth and retired the first six batters he faced, three on strikes.
Wood, meanwhile, worked in and out of trouble in the third and fourth before giving way to Lovelace in the fifth after throwing 98 pitches. Pultro greeted the new pitcher with a solid single to right. With one out, Hurt cracked a base hit past McKaughan, the shortstop. Daniel followed with a grounder to McKaughan who double-clutched before throwing to second for a force. With Daniel hustling all the way, he beat the relay to avoid an inning-ending doubleplay. That proved crucial because, after the first pitch to Green, Daniel left early from first and drew a pick-off throw from Lovelace. Pultro broke from third and scored without a play before Daniel was tagged out, making it 4-2.
“Neither team really scores a lot of runs so we didn’t think it’d be a high-scoring game,” said Hornets assistant Elliott Jacobs. “We just knew we had to keep battling and try to get one run an inning. That’s our goal. We felt like if we had a two-run lead that would help us, especially with Baxendale coming up.”
The War Eagles’ star catcher was due up in the sixth. McKaughan walked after fighting off a pair of 3-2 pitched from Rutherford. He would be the lone base-runner Rutherford would allow. But there was almost a second when, on a 2-2 pitch, Baxendale turned on a pitch and shot it down the third-base line. The ball was just foul, though Heritage coach Keith Kilgore protested. On the next delivery, Baxendale hit a shart two-hopper to Taylor at third and the Hornets turned a ‘round-the-horn doubleplay. Rutherford got Wood to pop out to end the inning.
“That’s a huge momentum swing right there,” Jacobs acknowledged. “That probably could’ve gone either way but it went in our favor.
“Then Nate made a good pitch, kept it down and he got the ground ball out of it,” he continued. “(Baxendale) was probably a little ticked off that he didn’t get that call so he muscled up on one. Lucky for us, the ball was down and he hit it on the ground. That’s one of the things we do best is turn doubleplays."
Lovelace worked around a one-out walk to Ezell in the home sixth but then Rutherford needed just 10 pitches to retire the side in order and set off the Hornets’ celebration.
“Number one, he’s got a lot of movement,” said Jacobs of Rutherford. “His ball sinks, one pitch moves one way and one pitch moves the other. It keeps hitters off balance and the most important thing is, he throws strikes. He’s not very over-powering but he throws strikes. If you can do that and we play defense behind him, you have a chance to win a lot of ballgames with him pitching.
“He’s worked his butt off to get where he is and he’s a competitor and he’s a student of the game,” he added. “He wants to get better every day that he comes out. And that’s shown as he progressed throughout the season.”
BRYANT 4, ROGERS HERITAGE 2
War Eagles ab r h bi Hornets ab r h bi
McKaughan, ss 2 0 1 0 Ezell, ss 2 2 0 0
Baxendale, c 3 1 1 0 Nelson, p-cf 1 0 0 1
Wood, p- cf 3 1 1 1 Wilson, cr 0 1 0 0
Ward, rf 3 0 1 0 Taylor, 3b 2 0 0 0
Lovelace, lf-p 3 0 0 0 Cross, dh 2 0 0 0
Undernehr, cf-lf 3 0 1 0 Pultro, 1b 2 1 2 2
Murphy, 1b 2 0 0 0 Lessenberry, c 1 0 0 0
Cahill, 3b 1 0 0 0 Caldwell, cr 0 0 0 0
Kilgore, 2b 2 0 0 0 Hurt, 2b 3 0 1 0
Daniel, rf 3 0 1 0
Green, lf 2 0 0 0
Tucker, cf 0 0 0 0
Rutherford, p 0 0 0 0
Totals 22 2 5 1 Totals 18 4 4 3
Heritage 200 000 0 — 2
BRYANT 210 010 x — 4
E—McKaughan. DP—Heritage 1, Bryant 2. LOB—Heritage 1, Bryant 8. 2B—Baxendale, Pultro. SB—Daniel, Pultro, Ezell. S—Taylor, Green. SF—Nelson.
Pitching ip r er h bb so
Wood (L, 10-4) 4 3 2 2 5 3
Lovelace 3 1 1 2 1 1
Nelson 3 2 2 5 1 2
Rutheford (W, 6-1) 4 0 0 0 1 4
Balk—Nelson, Wood. HBP—Cross, Lessenberry, Pultro (by Wood).