Chomping at the bit or, perhaps, gnawing on the bamboo, the Panda has been more than ready to get back on the mound in a varsity baseball game for the Bryant Hornets. And, on Monday, in a late addition to the schedule, junior Zack “Panda” Jackson made his 2015 varsity debut against the Star City Bulldogs.
He picked up right where he left off at the end of his sophomore season, pitching a shutout, allowing the Bulldogs just one scratch hit over five innings, fanning seven and hitting a batter without surrendering a walk in Bryant’s 10-0 win.
Jackson’s last varsity outing was a four-hit shutout against the Conway Wampus Cats in the semifinals of the Class 7A State Tournament On May 18, 2014. He and Blaine Knight combined to shutout all three of the Hornets’ State tourney opponents during their championship run, the third title in five seasons for Bryant.
But late in the summer, Jackson suffered an arm injury and wound up having Tommy John surgery — basically, ligament replacement surgery. Though it took him longer than he wanted it to, his return came sooner than most who undergo the more and more common procedure. After gradually building up his pitches in bullpen sessions then his innings in junior varsity games, Panda worked his way back. He needed just 57 pitches to dispatch Star City.
Now, he’s another in Bryant’s arsenal of arms on the pitching staff as the conclusion of the 2015 regular season nears and the start of the State Tournament looms.
And the Hornets gave him plenty of support with 10 runs on 10 hits against a good Star City team, whose coach Scott Johnson once played at Pine Bluff for the legendary Billy Bock, the late father of Bryant head coach Kirk Bock. Johnson called the Hornets’ coach asking for a game on Monday as the Bulldogs prepare to begin Regional Tournament play against Bauxite later this week. No doubt, Star City will face the Miners’ fire-baller Ben Madison. Johnson wanted to see his team face some good pitching on Monday and, as it turned out, it did.
The lone hit for the Bulldogs was a bunt by speedy Garry Hill that he beat out for a hit despite a good play on the ball by Jackson. But the Hornets’ right-hander threw a doubleplay-ball to Tye Brown to start a stretch in which he set down nine batters in a row. Brown was hit by a pitch with two out in the top of the fifth but was stranded.
At that point, the Hornets led 4-0 but they scored six times in the fifth to make it a walk-off run-rule win.
It was truly a “walk” off as Logan Allen drew a free pass with the bases loaded to force in the final run.
Bryant was led by Jason Hastings on offense. He went 3 for 3 with two runs batted in and a run scored. Drew Tipton, Trey Breeding and Blake Patterson each had two hits.
The Bulldogs were getting innings in for three hurlers in preparation for Regionals. Starter Blake Wynn was effective, pitching around Breeding’s two-out double in the first. In the third, however, Hastings beat out an infield hit and Tipton stroked a solid single to center with one out and Wynn gave way to Hill, who got out of the jam to keep it a scoreless game.
In the fourth, however, the Hornets used the short game or small ball to gain the upper hand. Patterson started things with a bloop single. Garrett Misenheimer walked then Evan Lee got a bunt down. Hill got too it but his errant throw allowed both Patterson and Misenheimer to score.
Lee wound up at second. He stole third then scored when Dylan Hurt got a bunt down. Big first baseman Austin Capps was playing in and got to the ball but his throw to the plate was beaten by Lee, making it 3-0.
Connor Tatum sacrificed Hurt to second then Hastings drilled an RBI single to center to make it 4-0. After Tipton drew a walk, Hill was replaced by Cole Muckelroy. Brandan Warner got his second sacrifice bunt down to move runners to second and third but Muckelroy and the Bulldogs escaped further damage.
For the time being.
Patterson led off the bottom of the fifth with a drive to left center for a triple, a shot that may have gone just about as far as his game-winning grand slam at Conway on Friday.
Misenheimer singled him in and, with one out walks were issued to Hurt and Tatum to load the bases. Hastings came through with his second RBI single to make it 6-0 then Tipton ripped a two-run single to left-center.
Warner was robbed of a hit by Star City third sacker Jacob Courson who got a force at second. But, with runners at the corners, Breeding slapped a single to right to make it 9-0.
Patterson walked to load the bags and the stage was set for Allen’s game-ending free pass.
The victory improved the Hornets to 24-2 this season. They travel to Van Buren today for a final game against a 7A conference rival. A win, coupled with a victory by Little Rock Catholic at home against Conway, would tie the Hornets with the Wampus Cats for the conference lead. It would also keep Bryant’s hopes alive of earning a first-round bye for State as the No. 1 Class 7A seed from the Central.