By Rob Patrick
The Conway Wampus Cats were a strike away from their first 7A-Central Conference win of the season which would be the first league loss for the Bryant Hornets.
To their credit, the Hornets had not gone quietly in the bottom of the eighth after Conway, behind back-to-back homers from James Murphy and Jordan Cates, had shattered a 4-4 tie with five runs in the top of the inning. Bryant had answered with three runs and still had the bases loaded but Landon McClain, the third Cats pitcher, seemed to have reasserted himself as he got the first two pitches past Bryant junior Brady Butler. He just couldn't seem to get the third one passed.
Butler took a pair of deliveries out of the zone then fouled off a pitch. Another delivery, a tough one on the outside corner, he just barely got a piece of to stay alive.
It's funny how, in baseball in particular, you notice little things that get bigger in retrospect. But, at that point, Bryant head coach Kirk Bock approached the homeplate umpire who had just returned the ball to McClain that Butler had tipped off the end of his bat. Bock wanted the umpire to look at the ball, see if it had a scuff or a dent. As it turned out, the umpire threw the ball out, giving McClain a different one. As most pitchers can tell you, one baseball can feel just a little bit different from another whether the laces are higher or the cowhide seems a bit more slick.
Nevertheless, McClain had a different baseball than he'd had just moments before. He'd also had to wait while the discussion took place.
On the very next pitch, as it turned out, Butler decided to try something his coach had recommended often. He went the other way. A line drive jumped off the barrell and down the line in right allowing Garrett Bock and Jacob Clark (running for Tyler Sawyer) to race home to tie the game. Jonathan Wade, running for Kaleb Jobe, sprinted to third as Butler pulled into second amid cheers from his teammates and the Bryant faithful.
The Hornets had come all the way back from a 9-4 deficit to tie the game.
Again, Conway got within a strike of ending the inning when McClain and Brennan Bullock battled to a 1-2 count. The next delivery, however, Bullock stroked a liner over the head of second baseman Matt Lefler to cap off the incredible six-run rally, which Bullock himself had instigated with a bloop single.[more]
The 10-9 win improves the Hornets to 6-1 on the season. At 5-0 in conference, they stand alone in first place as Little Rock Catholic handed North Little Rock its first conference setback Tuesday, 3-1. The Rockets and Charging Wildcats are now tied for second in the 7A-Central with 3-1 records followed by Little Rock Central and Van Buren, each at 2-2, Cabot at 1-2, Conway 0-3 and Russellville 0-5. Central beat Cabot 6-5 on Tuesday while Van Buren edged Russellville 3-1.
"That was one of the best at-bats I've seen," Coach Bock said of Butler's key plate appearance. "I've been preaching to Butler — I mean, all year — 'You've never been able to hit oppo, but you're going to hit oppo and it's going to be a game-winner.' Well, it tied the game. The first time he was up, he came back to me and he said, 'Man, I was wanting a game-winner oppo right there, I could feel it.' They're starting to believe. And, gosh dang, hat's off."
It seemed like the last thing that could happen after Conway's outburst in the top of the inning. Bryant closer Kaleb Jobe had worked out of a jam to keep the game tied in the seventh only to have Conway's Jordan Bell work a 1-2-3 home seventh with the help of a hit-robbing play in lefty by Dillon Richard on a shot off Sawyer's bat.
So Jobe, who for the most part has been a one-inning pitcher for the Hornets this season while collecting three saves in the team's six wins, retired the first batter of the eight before Lefler, the nine-hole hitter for Conway, looped his third hit down the right-field line. Lead-off man Aaron Boucher then added his third hit, a sharp single up the middle. Jobe got behind in the count to Darren Teague who lined one to left-center for a single that chased home Lefler with the tie-breaking tally.
Two pitches later, Murphy unloaded on a three-run shot to left to make it 8-4. Two pitches after that, Cates blasted his second solo dinger and the Hornets were looking up at a 9-4 deficit all of a sudden.
Patrick Mann followed with a single and Jobe returned to catcher as freshman Jordan Taylor came to the mound. Taylor issued a pair of walks as the bases filled again but a strikeout and a groundout got him out of the jam with it still 9-4. For his efforts, and thanks to the rally, Taylor earned his first varsity mound victory.
Reflecting on the team huddle after the top of the eighth, Coach Bock recalled, "When they came off the field, I said, 'You know, there's defining moments throughout your life. This is a defining moment. Either you lay down and die or you just battle. And you've got to think that you can, and good things will happen."
Bullock's lead-off single came on a 2-2 pitch. He was retired moments later, though, when Hunter Alford bounced to third. Teague got the force at second but the relay to first was late and in the dirt, skipping past Cates. Alford hustled to second. That proved crucial when Bell got Tyler Brown to bounce to second. Instead of a possible game-ending double play, the game continued as Alford advanced to third.
But that got the Hornets to hot-hitting No. 9 batter Justin Blankenship, a senior. On Bell's second dilivery, Blankenship pulled a liner down the right-field line for an RBI single that made it 9-5. Hunter Mayall followed with a drive into left-center that was bobbled in the outfield allowing Blankenship to round the bases, making it 9-6.
Garrett Bock kept the inning alive by working a four-pitch walk and Conway head coach Noel Boucher brought on McClain.
"Every hitter after that, they led off with a fastball," noted the Bryant coach. "Once we got through to J.B., I said, 'All right. Let's get green on the first pitch and if it's a fastball on the inner half, let's get on it.'"
Sawyer got on the second pitch, slicing a single to left to load the bases. A walk to Jobe forced in a run, making it 9-7 and setting the stage for Butler and Bullock.
Bryant's Ben Wells and Conway's B.J. Lowe dueled early. Conway got to Wells for a pair of runs in the second, aided by a hit batsman and a walk. The latter came on a 3-2 count to Grant Blodgett with two down. Wells got a strike away from ending the inning again on Lefler before the second sacker laced one into right to drive in the game's first run. A pitch later, Boucher singled to make it 2-0.
In the thrid, back-to-back one-out doubles by Cates and Mann made it 3-0.
But Bryant finally got to Lowe, who allowed only one hit — a single by Mayall in the third — through the first three frames. An error opened the door as Jobe reached on a wild throw from third. Caleb Garrett came on to run for the catcher and advanced to third on a single up the middle by Butler. Bullock was hit by a pitch for the second time in as many at bats, loading the bases. Alford picked up an RBI by bouncing into a force at second and not only beating the relay to first but taking second when it was wild. With runners at second and third, Brown, making his first varsity start, scorched a single just under the glove of the lunging Boucher at short. Two scored on the play, tying the game.
Sophomore right-hander Caleb Milam had relieved Wells with two on and one out in the top of the fourth, stranding runners at second and third by striking out Murphy. In the fifth, however, Cates turned on a 2-1 fastball and drilled it to over the fence in left to put the Cats back on top 4-3.
Milam reacted by striking out the next two and inducing a grounder into the hole at short that Sawyer made a splendid play and throw on to end the inning.
Bryant answered with a tying tally in the home fifth. The second of Mayall's three hits, a single to right, opened the inning. Bock sacrificed on an 0-2 pitch then Sawyer ripped a triple to left center. The Hornets had a chance to take the lead after a two-out walk to Butler but a miscommunication resulted in a pickoff that retired Garrett, who was pinch-running for Butler, stranding Sawyer at third.
Conway got a runner to third in the top of the sixth via a base on balls, a sacrifice and a stolen base. But Milam worked out of the inning with the game still deadlocked.
In turn, the Hornets loaded the bases with two down on a single by Brown, a double by Blankenship and an intentional walk to Mayall. A force out followed and the Hornets had missed another opportunity that, for awhile, appeared to be decisive.
Jobe relieved in the top of the seventh and worked around a single, a stolen base and a walk. But a splendid play by Alford charging in from third on a bouncer off Jobe's hand, helped keep it tied. After a walk to Richard, Jobe ended the threat by striking out Wesley Hoover.
Whether it was the luck of the Irish on St. Patrick's Day or a special birthday wish for Kaleb Jobe's dad, Mike (who insists he's a quarter Irish himself) or a just good old fashioned never-say-die approach, the Hornets nailed down what could be a defining victory in the 2009 season which was set to resume at Cabot on Thursday, March 19. The game will not only serve as a conference contest for the two teams, but also a first-round game in the Billy Bock Classic in Pine Bluff, a tournament named after the incomparable, late high school baseball coach, Kirk Bock's father, Garrett Bock's grandfather.
Billy, no doubt, was a-smiling on Tuesday night.
BRYANT 10, CONWAY 9
Wampus Cats Hornets
ab r h bi ab r h bi
Boucher, ss 5 1 3 1 Mayall, dh 4 2 3 0
Anderson, 3b 2 0 0 0 Bock, cf 3 1 0 0
Teague, 3b 2 1 1 1 Sawyer, ss 4 0 2 1
Murphy, cf 4 1 2 3 Clark, pr 0 1 0 0
Cates, 1b 5 3 3 2 Jobe, c-p 4 0 0 1
Mann, dh 5 0 2 1 Garrett, cr 0 1 0 0
Magie, pr 0 0 0 0 Wade, cr 0 1 0 0
Richard, lf 3 1 0 0 Butler, 1b 4 0 2 2
Hoover, rf 4 0 0 0 Garrett, cr 0 0 0 0
Blodgett, c 2 0 0 0 Bullock, lf 3 1 2 1
Magee, cr 0 1 0 0 Alford, 3b 3 2 0 1
Whitehurst, cr 0 0 0 0 Brown, 2b 4 0 2 2
Lefler, 2b 4 1 3 1 Blankenship, rf 4 1 2 1
Lowe, p 0 0 0 0 Wells, p 0 0 0 0
Bell, p 0 0 0 0 Milam, p 0 0 0 0
McClain, p 0 0 0 0 Ellis, c 0 0 0 0
Taylor, p 0 0 0 0
Totals 36 9 14 9 Totals 33 10 13 9
Conway 021 010 05 — 9
BRYANT 000 310 06 — 10
Two out when winning run scored.
E—Anderson 2, Murphy, Lefler. LOB—Conway 12, Bryant 9. 2B—Cates, Mann, Mayall, Butler. HR—Cates 2, Murphy. SB—Magee, Murphy. S—Anderson, Alford, Bock, Lefler.
ip r er h bb so
Lowe 4.2 4 1 5 1 3
Bell 3 4 4 5 2 2
McClain (L) 0 2 2 3 1 0
Wells 3.1 3 3 6 1 5
Milam 2.2 1 1 1 1 3
Jobe 1.1 5 5 5 1 1
Taylor (W,1-0) 0.2 0 0 0 1 1
HBP—Murphy, Richard (By Wells), Sawyer, Bullock 2 (by Lowe).