By Rob Patrick
Photos by Kevin Nagle
NORTH LITTLE ROCK — In a game for the ages that would take nine innings and over four hours to[more] complete, momentum was pinging like a superball in a pinball machine. Time and again, both the Bryant Hornets and the Fayetteville Bulldogs were a pitch, a play, a hit or walk away from victory as their war raged amid rain showers of varying intensity.
Then, after making a spectacular play to save runs in the top of the ninth, Bryant sophomore Trevor Ezell smacked a one-hopper at Fayetteville second baseman Austin Allen. And when Allen couldn’t handle it, Daniel Richards, in as a courtesy runner for catcher Hayden Lessenberry, scrambled home with the game-winning run in the bottom of the ninth.
Bryant survived with an 8-7 win that, at times, seemed as unlikely as snow in August and at others seemed destined to occur.
The Hornets, now 23-7, are set to take in Bentonville, the top-seeded team from the 7A-West Conference, today at noon, weather permitting. Fayetteville’s season came to a gut-wrenching end at 23-10.
Between the two teams, 40 players were used. The Bulldogs trotted out seven different pitchers. Bryant used three including senior right-hander Dylan Cross, who hadn’t pitching in a game since beating Conway, 8-6, on April 6, because of shoulder soreness. He wound up with the win in relief of starter Tyler Nelson and reliever Jordan Taylor.
“Dylan has been begging to get back on that bump and I wouldn’t let him,” revealed Hornets head coach Kirk Bock. “Tonight, he said, ‘Hey, I can get it done.’ And, after his first inning, the first batter, he did a good job.”
Fayetteville led much of the way after taking a 2-0 lead in the third. Going into the bottom of the sixth, the Bulldogs were up 3-1 behind freshman ace, Andy Pagnozzi, the son of former Arkansas Razorback and St. Louis Cardinal star Tom Pagnozzi.
The young right-hander started the Bryant sixth with a strikeout but then walked Josh Pultro. He and Lessenberry engaged in a nine-pitch duel before the Bryant catcher blasted a gapper to the fence in left-center that enabled Pultro to score all the way from first.
Fired up, Lessenberry came out for courtesy runner Marcus Wilson as pinch-hitter Wes Akers came to the plate and cracked 1-0 pitch for a single. Wilson held at third and Pagnozzi gave way to teammate Will Ginger. The new hurler’s first pitch nailed Hayden Daniel and the bases were loaded for Tyler Green. The count went to 3-2 then Green bounced a single into left to drive in Wilson tying the game.
Ginger came out in favor of lefty Cade Waller. As the rain started to turn the mound in to play-doh, Waller walked Ezell on four pitched to force in the go-ahead tally. And when his first pitch to Nelson was off the mark, he came out in favor of another lefty Kyle Pate. He proceeded to walk Nelson, which brought Daniel home, making it 5-3, with the sacks still jammed and Taylor coming to the plate.
The count went to 3-1 then Taylor smacked a bouncer up the middle that appeared to be headed to center. But the ball ricocheted off the mound and stayed up for Shaddy to spear. He flipped to Allen to start an inning-ending doubleplay.
That proved to be a huge play at the time. Instead of Bryant leading 6-3 or 7-3 and still working on it, the game went to the seventh 5-3.
Taylor started to struggle with the conditions too. His first pitch in the seventh bloodied the nose of pinch-hitter Alan Dunn. He then walked Mark Hollenbeck on a 3-2 pitch and, on another 3-2 delivery, Logan Hiatt plugged the gap in left-center for a two-run double that tied the game.
The Bryant right-hander made a bid to get out of the inning with the game tied. With one out, He got Waller to line to Ezell at third and the sophomore nearly doubled up Hiatt at third. But, with two down, Allen pulled a 2-2 pitch into left for an RBI single to give Fayetteville the lead.
A splendid catch by Daniel in foul territory down the right-field line retired Shaddy and kept it 6-5.But the Hornets were down to their last three outs — well, what might’ve been their last three outs.
Fayetteville’s fifth pitcher, Cody Davenport threw five pitches, walking Cross to lead off the seventh. Allen took the mound and walked Pultro. Bock sent Korey Thompson to the plate for Lessenberry to try to get Wilson, pinch-running for Cross, to third but his bunt came off a little too hard and Allen threw for a force at third for the first out of the frame.
Hurt followed with a shot to center for a single to load the bases for Daniel, who walked on four pitches to force in pinch-runner Drew Tipton with the tying run.
Consider that, since the outset, both sides of the DeJanis Field grandstands were barking and howling about the strike zone. It go raucous. It only intensified as the game proceeded.
Now Bryant was a hit, a walk, an error, a sacrifice or a wild pitch away from winning. With all the momentum on the Hornets’ side, it was at that point that one of the field umpires decided it was time to apply “diamond dry” to try to dry up the mound. To top it off, Bock had asked that the mound be doctored before the top of the inning commenced and was denied. So, he was not happy when his team’s rally was interrupted and he made that clear to each of the umpires. With the bases loaded and one out, the teams waited at least 10 minutes as the mound and the homeplate area were tended to.
Finally, Green came up an inning after coming through in the clutch, to face Fayetteville’s seventh pitcher, Brett Price. He took a strike but then tapped back to the mound for an inning-ending 1-2-3 doubleplay.
With the momentum back on their side, the Bulldogs proceeded to regain the advantage in the top of the eighth against Cross. Connor Roberts greeted the Hornets’ right-hander with a shot down the line in left for a double. He advanced on a wild pitch but held as Cross got Alex Brignoni to ground to Taylor at third. But Price, in his first at-bat of the game, hit a long fly to right. Roberts tagged and scored to put Fayetteville back in the lead, 7-6.
Cross struck out Hollenbeck and, again, the Hornets were down to three outs.
But, again, they rallied. Ezell drew a lead-off walk. Nelson followed with a bunt that was popped up into no-man’s land. It appeared that both runners would be safe but Ezell had to hold up while the ball was in the air, trying not to get doubled up if it was caught. When it fell, Price made a nice play to get a force on him at second.
But Taylor smacked a shot into right-center that just evaded the diving attempt by center fielder Landon Summers. Nelson raced to third and with runners on the corners, Cross dueled Price. He fouled off two 3-2 deliveries then drilled a fly to sacrifice fly to center to knot it back up, 7-7.
Braden Jones, in runner for Taylor, advanced on a wild pitch as Pultro worked Price to a 3-2 count. He fouled off a pair of pitches but then took a called third strike, sending it to the ninth.
More drama ensued. On the first pitch of the inning, Cross came up high and tight on Hiatt. The ball ricocheted and, at first, the homeplate umpire said he hit Hiatt’s bat. Hiatt protested saying something that made the umpire’s head whip around. The batter pulled off his glove to show the umpire where he’d been hit. The Fayetteville coaches argued then asked for an appeal. The three umpires met for a while as the rain began to lighten some and, finally, they reversed the call, awarding Hiatt first, saying he’d been hit and not the bat.
Now it was Bock’s turn to argue and, undoubtedly fueled by his frustration over the rally-killing interruption in the seventh, he was eventually ejected.
Once play resumed, Summers came up for Fayetteville and attempted unsuccessfully twice to get a sacrifice bunt down. He fouled off an 0-2 pitch then looked at strike three. He protested and was also ejected from the game.
Waller came to the plate and hit a grounder up the middle that looked like Ezell would get to. But the ball stayed down and, though the Bryant shortstop got a glove on it, he couldn’t handle it, putting runners at first and second with one out and Allen stepping to the plate. On an 0-1 pitch, Allen stroked a liner that seemed certain to drive in a run. But Ezell made a diving stab behind the second-base bag. A flip to Hurt at second doubled off Hiatt and ended the threat.
Because Fayetteville was nearly out of players, head coach Vance Arnold had to dig deep into his bench when Summers was ejected. Pitcher Matt DeLano came in to play first as Waller took over for Summers in center.
That proved key when Lessenberry started the bottom of the ninth with a shot up the middle that Shaddy knocked down. He scrambled for the ball and fired to first but the throw was in the dirt and DeLano was unable to scoop it. Lessenberry was awarded an infield hit and Richards came on as a courtesy runner. Hurt sacrificed him to second then Daniel appeared to smack a game-winner with a drive over Waller’s head in center for a double. But, on his way around third, Richards slipped on a muddy spot and fell down. Third base coach Elliott Jacobs held him at third as Daniel wheeled into second.
Blain Jackson then came up as a pinch-hitter and, with first base open, the Bulldogs walked him intentionally to set up a force at any base. With still just one out, Ezell got down in the count 0-2. He took a ball and, on the next pitch, smacked a hard bouncer that Allen, drawn-in, couldn’t handle and the Hornets celebrated a hard-earned victory.
“I tell you what, Ezell has come a long way,” said Bock. “It’s like he’s getting better every dad-gum week, sometimes every day. His presence at the plate right now is unbelievable and defensively he’s something.”
Asked if justice was served with the outcome, Bock said, “I think so but I don't know; of course, I would think so.
“They did as good a job as they could do as far as umpiring,” he continued. “We did as good a job as we could do as far as playing. Fayetteville did too. I don’t think umpiring decided the game. I think the players did. It was a tight game. Every kid battled. It was a good game.”
The contest was originally supposed to be played at 2:30 on Friday afternoon on the Babe Ruth field adjacent to DeJanis but a sprinkler head busted and flooded that field, forcing all four of Friday’s quarterfinal games to be played on the main field. Originally scheduled for 7:30 p.m., the Bryant-Fayetteville finale didn’t get started until 8:19 and they wound up having to play on a wet field anyway with all the rain.
In the first inning, which took over 30 minutes to play, both teams loaded the bases but failed to score. Nelson walked three and allowed an infield hit but, along the way, he picked off Waller from second. With bags full, he fanned DH Nick Gibson to end the threat.
For Bryant, Taylor was hit by a pitch with two down, Cross walked and Pultro was plunked with a 3-2 delivery. Lessenberry made a bid for a hit but Shaddy robbed him and Waller dug out a low throw to send it to the second.
Nelson worked around a lead-off single by Hollenback and a two-out walk to Waller. In turn, Pagnozzi worked a 1-2-3 home half of the second.
Fayetteville put its lead-off man on base in each of the first five innings and in eight of the nine frames. In the third, they took advantage when Shaddy opened with a single to right. Roberts drew a walk but Brignoni fanned. After a passed ball moved to the runners to second and third, Gibson’s shot to first was booted and the game’s first run scored. And when Hollenbeck beat the relay at first after grounding into a force, a second run came in.
Bryant broke through in the fourth. Pultro mashed a shot off the fence in left-center, took third on a groundout and scored on Hurt’s sacrifice fly. Daniel singled but was stranded.
Taylor took over in the fifth and was greeted by an infield hit from Roberts and a double by Brignoni. But neither scored as Taylor struck out Gibson and Hollenbeck then got Hiatt to groundout to Nelson at short.
The Hornets failed to score in the bottom of the inning and, in the top of the sixth, Fayetteville plated a run on a single by Waller, a double by Allen and, after an intentional walk to Shaddy, a grounder by Roberts that resulted in a force at second. Brignoni’s one-hopper was snagged by Taylor who threw him out to end the inning, setting up Bryant’s go-ahead rally in the home sixth.
BRYANT 8, FAYETTEVILLE 7
Bulldogs ab r h bi Hornets ab r h bi
Waller, 1b-p-cf 3 1 1 0 Ezell, ss-3b 4 0 1 2
Allen, 2b-p 5 0 2 1 Nelson, p-ss-cf 4 1 1 1
Huddleston, pr 0 0 0 0 Taylor, 3b-p 4 0 1 0
Shaddy, ss 3 1 1 0 B.Jones, pr 0 0 0 0
Roberts, c 3 1 2 1 Cross, dh-p 2 0 0 1
Lawson, cr 0 1 0 0 Wilson, pr 0 0 0 0
Brignoni, lf 5 0 2 0 Pultro, 1b 2 2 1 0
Gibson, dh 3 0 0 1 Tipton, pr 0 1 0 0
Dunn, ph 0 0 0 0 Lessenberry, c 4 0 2 1
Lawson, pr 0 1 0 0 Wilson, cr 0 1 0 0
Price 0 0 0 1 Thompson, ph 1 0 0 0
Holldenbeck, rf 4 0 1 1 Caldwell, pr 0 0 0 0
Johnson, pr 0 1 0 0 Richards, cr 0 1 0 0
Hiatt, 3b-1b 3 1 1 2 Hurt, 2b-pr 2 1 1 1
Summers, cf 5 0 1 0 Akers, ph 1 0 1 0
DeLano, 1b 0 0 0 0 Daniel, rf 3 1 2 1
Pagnozzi, p-3b 0 0 0 0 Green, lf-pr 4 0 1 1
Ginger, p 0 0 0 0 Jackson, ph 0 0 0 0
Pate, p 0 0 0 0 Tucker, cf 0 0 0 0
Davenport, p 0 0 0 0
Noto, 2b 0 0 0 0
Totals 34 7 11 7 Totals 31 8 11 8
Fayetteville 002 001 310 — 7
BRYANT 000 104 111 — 8
E—Nelson, Ezell, Allen. DP—Fayetteville 2, Bryant 1. LOB—Fayetteville 13, Bryant 13. 2B—Pultro, Brignoni, Allen, Lessenberry, Hiatt, Roberts, Daniel. S—Allen, Hiatt, Waller, Hurt. SF—Hurt, Price, Cross.
Pitching ip r er h bb so
Pagnozzi 5.1 4 4 6 2 3
Ginger 0 1 1 1 0 0
Waller 0 0 0 0 1 0
Pate 0.2 0 0 0 1 0
Davenport 0 0 0 0 1 0
Allen 0.1 1 1 1 2 0
Price (L) 2 2 2 3 2 1
Nelson 4 2 0 4 5 3
Taylor 3 4 4 5 2 3
Cross (W) 2 1 1 1 0 2
HBP—Taylor, Pultro (by Pagnozzi), Dunn (by Taylor), Daniel (by Ginger), Hiatt (by Cross). WP—Pagnozzi, Taylor, Cross, Price. PB—Lessenberry.