Photos courtesy of Paul Dotson
NORTH LITTLE ROCK — The Panda said there was never any doubt. And when you’re pitching in your fourth State Tournament game in four years and you still haven’t given up a run, you can be that way.
Bryant Hornets senior Zach “Panda” Jackson fired a three-hit shutout (officially — it was actually a two-hitter) and though his teammates only mustered three hits, they bunched them in the same inning as the Hornets advanced to the Class 7A State Tournament semifinals with a 4-0 win over the Cabot Panthers at Vince DeSalvo Stadium at Burns Park on Friday.
Bryant will play for a spot in the championship game when they take on Springdale Har-Ber Saturday at noon. Har-Ber advanced by edging Little Rock Central 4-3 on Friday afternoon.
Jackson threw an inning and a third of relief without giving up a run as a freshman. As a sophomore pitched a four-hit shutout as a sophomore in a State semifinal against arch-rival Conway to boost the Hornets to the title game, which they won 10-0 in 2014. Last year, recovering from surgery, he worked a scoreless from in relief in Bryant’s 6-3 loss in the first round to Rogers Heritage. The seven innings on Friday made it 16 1/3 scoreless in State play.
He was matched by Cabot’s Logan Gilbertson, a 6-5 right-hander, who had helped the Panthers edge Bryant in overtime in the State basketball semifinals in March. Gilbertson had the Hornets’ baseball squad blanked without a hit going into the bottom of the fifth inning Friday.
“I knew,” Jackson stated. “Going into the fifth nobody had scored yet. I was like, ‘We’re hitting him. We’re squaring him up. So we’re fixing to find a gap.’ It fell right in place.”
Indeed, on a 2-0 pitch from Gilbertson with one away, Aaron Orender ignited the Hornets’ offense with a hump-back liner that fell in for a single to right. A pitch later, Seth Tucker hit a pop down the right-field line that fell in front of Cabot right-fielder Brett Brockinton.
Orender made the turn at second and sprinted toward third as Brockinton got to the ball. On a bang-bang play in which Orender slid around the tag to catch the backside of third, he was safe. Tucker hustled into second on the throw and the Hornets appeared to be in business.
With nine-hole hitter Joey Cates at the plate, Gilbertson fell behind 2-0 then the Panthers chose to send him to first with an intentional walk. (Cates later quipped that they knew he was going to hit one over the outfielders’ heads and that’s why they issued the pass.)
The Panthers may have also been trying to set up a force at any base in hopes of getting an out at the plate or an inning-ending doubleplay. Still, they walked Cates to get to Bryant lead-off hitter Logan Allen, who came into the game as the team’s leading hitter at .453.
But Allen didn’t get a chance to hit because Gilbertson’s first pitch hit him, forcing in the game’s first run.
Dylan Hurt followed with a sacrifice fly to center to get Tucker home, making it 2-0.
And when the throw from center missed the cutoff man, both Cates and Allen tagged and advanced to second and third.
Oddly enough, with first base open again and, this time, second leading hitter Evan Lee coming up (.451 average to start the day), Cabot did not issue an intentional walk. And Lee proceeded to burn them. On a 2-2 pitch, he drilled one to deep center that hit the fence. Cates and Allen scored easily and Lee slid into third with an emotional fist-pump as the Hornets’ lead doubled to 4-0.
Bock was particularly pleased that the lower end of the Bryant batting order had come through to start the uprising.
“I guarantee you,” he emphasized. “Tucker’s little bloop was big. Orender made a little miscue on the read but made up for it with his speed. That could be the difference in the ballgame right there; that could’ve been four runs, a four-run swing.
Meanwhile, Jackson set down the Panthers in order in the top of the sixth, running his streak to nine in a row retired.
The game went to the seventh with, unofficially, Jackson working on a no-hitter. The lone hit had been officially awarded in the top of the fourth to Bobby Duncan who hit a hot grounder to Orender’s right at first base. He made a diving stop, got up and threw towards Jackson, who was on the run toward the first-base bag. The throw was behind him, however, and Duncan slid in safely as Hurt, the Bryant catcher, backed up the play.
Jackson went into the seventh having thrown just 66 pitches, 56 of them strikes. His first three-ball count of the game started the seventh. Denver Mullins worked the count full and fouled off a pair of Jackson deliveries to stay alive before grounding a single up the middle.
The next batter, Eric Larsen also bounced a single up the middle to give the Cabot fans hope. The count went full to Braden Jarnigan. He tried to follow suit with a chopper up the middle but, this time, shortstop Jake East got to it, stepped on second and first to first for a doubleplay that took the starch out of the Panthers’ comeback notions.
Jackson then carved up Dillon Thomas to end the game on four strikes, the third of which was called a ball but had Thomas so convinced he dropped the bat at the plate and headed towards the dugout in dejection only to be called back. Sheepishly, Thomas circled behind Hurt and the umpire, picked up his bat and stood back in before being officially retired on a swing and a miss.
Jackson said he relied mostly on his fastball and breaking pitch, a slurve (slider-curve). “I threw one cut (cut-fastball), maybe two change-ups,” he related.
“Zach just did a tremendous job,” Bock stated. “He bulldogged his way through. Obviously, the doubleplay ball was big. And the two base hits they got, they were just hit in the right places.
“Jake did a good job,” he added of the clutch defensive play. “A lot of times those are hard. It was one of those that hop right up there to you. You tend to rush yourself a little bit. He did a good job.
“(Tuckers’ hit), the triple by E (Lee) and then that doubleplay were huge for us,” the coach concluded. “We didn’t hit the ball bad. We just hit it at some folks. They did too. It was a good game.”
The Hornets put the ball in play, only striking out twice. There were only two walks in the game, both by Gilbertson and one of those was intentional. Only three of Cabot’s outs were hit to the outfield.