Photos courtesy of Paul Dotson
LITTLE ROCK — Friday night’s 7A/6A-Central Conference showdown between the Bryant Hornets and the Little Rock Catholic Rockets at Lamar Porter Field was about as good as it gets; so well played, there was only one wild pitch and one error. As it turned out, those both came in the top of the ninth inning after the two teams had battled to a 3-3 tie to that point.
And they proved to be pivotal in the outcome as the Hornets took advantage, snapping the tie and, with lefty Evan Lee on in relief of Zach “Panda” Jackson, and working a 1-2-3 bottom of the inning for the save, Bryant earned a dramatic 4-3 victory.
“That was a good one,” said Bryant coach Kirk Bock. “It’s almost a carbon copy of last year when they beat us 4-3 here. (Catholic) swung it well. Jackson, once he got rolling, he was good. Then E. Lee just did what he needed to get done.
“I’m proud of the kids,” he added. “They played hard and competed.”
In the mixed conference, the battle between the two 7A teams — actually all 7A teams in the league — was momentous. The Hornets, now 21-2, and Rockets, now 16-5-1, were tied for second among the 7A teams having both beaten Van Buren but losing to Conway. The four teams are vying for three spots in the Class 7A State Tournament with the one that comes out on top among them earning a huge advantage with a first-round bye.
“The 7A games are the huge ones,” Bock acknowledged. “We’ve got to make sure we take care of business on Monday (at Siloam Springs, a 6A member of the league) and they’ve got an arm that’s as good as anybody’s got. He’s a Division I guy.”
Jackson and Catholic lefty Dylan Thompson dueled for over 100 pitches apiece. Thompson got an out into the seventh inning on his 108 deliveries while Jackson got through the eighth on his 104 throws. Jackson allowed three runs on nine hits with one walk, a hit batsman and a whopping 14 strikeouts. Thompson allowed three runs on six hits with three walks and six strikeouts. Lee threw 15 pitches and struck out two in the home seventh.
That trio will not only all be Arkansas Razorbacks next fall but they’ll be roommates in a dormitory suite.
(Imagine, maybe a year or two from now, the Razorbacks’ weekend starters for conference could be Jackson, Lee and Thompson.)
Impressive sophomore southpaw Evan Hiatt relieved Thompson in the seventh for the Rockets and induced an inning-ending doubleplay then worked a 1-2-3 eighth.
Jackson, finishing with a flourish, struck out the side around a two-out single by Hiatt in the bottom of the eighth. That hit ended a stretch in which Panda retired 10 in a row, eight on strikes.
The ninth inning began with Aaron Orender blooping a single to center. Seth Tucker tried to move him to second with a sacrifice bunt but Hiatt’s big breaking curve evaded Tucker’s barrel.
With one out, Bryant head coach Kirk Bock put on the hit and run with Joey Cates at the plate. Cates got enough of the pitch to hit a soft bouncer to short. Rockets’ shortstop Cameron Tissue made a nice play but he had no play at second as Orender arrived. Then his fling to first was dropped for the lone error.
Logan Allen, who already had two hits for the Hornets, came up and slapped a roller to first. First sacker Ben Bryles fielded the ball and fired to Tissue for a force but Allen was too quick up the line for the Rockets to turn a doubleplay to get out of the inning.
So, with runners at the corners and two out, Catholic coach Dustin Strube came to the mound to discuss the situation.
“That put the pressure on those guys because they didn’t know what we were going to do, first and third,” Bock noted. “(Strube) prepped them up but they had to be thinking about that too.”
With a strike on the next batter, Dylan Hurt, Hiatt unleashed a hard curve into the dirt that got away from catcher Seth Van Dover. Orender raced home with what proved to be the winning run.”
“Those are four Division I arms,” Bock said. “These four guys tonight, you throw them in a stinking barrel and just pick one out and you’re not going to go wrong.
“The kid from Siloam’s the same way,” he noted. “We’re going to try to match E. Lee up against him then take care of our business.”
The doubleheader at Siloam Springs is a make-up date from a rainout the night before the Hornets headed to Florida for a spring break tournament. Bryant has a non-conference game on Saturday at 1 p.m., against Little Rock Christian.
In Friday’s game, Thompson gave up a lead-off single to Allen who stole second but was stranded. In the home half of the first, Tissue singled with one out. Bryles lashed an opposite-field single but Jackson battled back to strikeout Lance Harville-Thomas. But his first pitch to Jonathan Nichols was yanked into left for an RBI single top put the Rockets ahead 1-0.
After surrendering his lone walk, Jackson struck out Zach Walker to force Catholic to leave the bases loaded.
In the second, Thompson pitched around a lead-off single by Jordan Gentry then Jackson retired the side on just eight pitches.
The Hornets took the lead in the top of the third. A one-out single by Allen got things started. Again, he swiped a base before Hurt drew a walk. With Austin Kelly in as a courtesy runner for the catcher, Lee yanked a single into right just past the glove of Hiatt, who was playing first.
Allen scored the tying run as Lee extended his hitting streak to 15 games in a row.
Kelly raced to third and when Garrett Misenheimer squared and showed bunt, Lee stole second as Van Dover chased Kelly back to third with a throw there.
Moments later, Misenheimer cracked a single up the middle to drive him in, giving the Hornets a 2-1 lead.
Jackson retired the first two in the home third but Harville-Thomas drilled a single then so did Nichols. Hiatt was hit by a pitch to load the bases but Jackson got Walker down 1-2. The Bryant right-hander came a strike away from escaping the inning but Walker pulled a single to left driving in two as the Rockets reclaimed the lead.
With Thompson retiring eight in a row and Jackets settling in, the game went to the sixth still 3-2. Running out of outs, the Hornets rallied, sparked by Misenheimer’s drive down the right-field line for a double. Gentry bunted pinch-runner Alex Shurtleff to third then Jake East drew a walk. That brought up Orender with the Rockets’ infield pulled in.
But Orender executed the squeeze anyway. Thompson charged in to field the bunt and tried to flip to Van Dover. But the toss was high and Shurtleff slid in under the tag, getting to the plate around the catcher’s shin guards, tying the game.
Tucker made a bid to put the Hornets ahead with a sinking liner to left but Harville-Thomas charged in an made a diving catch to rob him and keep it 3-3.
Jackson struck out the side in the home sixth then fanned lead-off man Joe Myers to start the seventh, making it six strikeouts in a row. Tissue lined to short then Lee made a nice running catch of a liner to left by Bryles to send it to extra innings.