By Rob Patrick
NORTH LITTLE ROCK — Ah, the dreaded Game 13.
For some reason, American Legion baseball still uses an old eight-team College World Series bracket for its post-season tournaments, from District through State, every Regional, as well as the World Series.
It's so archaic that they don't even use it at the College World Series anymore. And, when it was put in use, it was basically contrived by the NCAA to suit television, which, at the time, had pretty much a love-hate relationship with college baseball anyway. The idea was to set up the brackets so that television could count on there being one final championship game, trying to avoid the "if" game doubleheader.[more]
It basically invites the winner of the winners bracket final, the lone unbeaten team at that point, to lose a game. In most brackets, the team that wins the winners bracket final draws a bye to the championship round and waits for the rest of the teams to battle it out through the losers bracket with the survivor advancing to the championship round where it would need to beat the unbeaten team twice to capture the title. In the old College World Series bracket — in American Legion baseball — when there are four teams left, two losers bracket teams square off and, in Game 13, the winners bracket victor, already assured of a spot in the championship game(s) plays the third losers bracket team.
In this season's example, the Bryant Black Sox won the winners bracket final at the Senior American Legion State tourney over Texarkana on Sunday. But, instead of advancing to Tuesday's championship round while the rest of the teams — Texarkana, Jonesboro and Fayetteville — duked it out to see which would be the other team in the title round, Texarkana played Fayetteville and Bryant played Jonesboro. The Sox really had very little to gain with a win. Theoretically, having to be defeated twice on Tuesday is an advantage but it means playing twice and deciding which game will be pitched by your ace. Do you start him in the first game? What happens if you happen to lose? Or do you pitch someone else so, just in case, you have the ace in the hole?
Now, if you lose in Game 13, you still play for the championship in a single winner-take-all final but it comes after the other two survivors battle each other earlier in the evening. Whichever one survives will be playing its second game of the night while, in this case, Bryant plays its first.
Needless to say, it's difficult to conjure much intensity for Game 13 if you know, win or lose, you'll be playing the next night. You don't want to use any of your frontline pitchers because you want them all available when the championship's on the line. Meanwhile, you're playing a team that's fighting for survival, a team that's down to win-or-go-home status.
In 2007, the year that the Black Sox went to the World Series (and the last time there was an eight-team bracket for State), the eventual champion of the State (Bryant), Mid-South Regional (Bryant), and the World Series (Columbia, Tenn.), lost in Game 13. In fact, at State, the Sox lost to Fayetteville 20-3 in Game 13 but beat the Dodgers in the final behind Aaron Davidson. And, in the Regionals, Bryant lost to Padukah, Ky., 15-2, then, after Padukah lost to League City, Texas, Bryant won the title over the Texas team, 6-2.
Sox fans are now hoping for a little deja vu. Bryant lost game 13, 13-3, to Jonesboro on Monday night. On Tuesday, the Ricemen, who won State last year and advanced through Regionals to the World Series, will play Fayetteville's Dodgers at 5 p.m., in a rematch of the 2008 final, with the winner tackling Bryant at 8, weather permitting. Rain is forecast.
A late start due to the length of Fayetteville's 17-11 win over Texarkana in Game 12, plus a constant drizzle made Game 13 on Monday even more miserable for the Sox and their fans. Bryant coaches Craig and Tic Harrison approached the game as one for fun and as an opportunity for a couple of young pitchers to get some valuable experience against one of the best teams in the State.
It was fun for about three innings. In the fourth, Jonesboro struck for six runs to turn a 5-3 lead into 11-3. Two more scored in the fifth while the Sox threatened but couldn't add to the three first-inning tallies.
"I'm not sure why the bracket is still that way," commented Craig Harrison. "I know why it used to be that way, because it was similar to the College World Series. But it is difficult to play. I'll say this, I thought Caleb Milam got some good experience on the mound tonight. He was really tight in the first inning. He was nervous as he could be but he settled down a little bit and threw well. I thought (Dylan) Pritchett — he couldn't get his curve ball over and was sitting on one pitch but was still getting them out.
"But, no excuses," he added. "Jonesboro's a fine ballclub. That first game tomorrow will be a nice game to watch. Jonesboro will throw (ace lefty) Cade Lynch and Fayetteville will throw (ace right-hander) Logan Ariola and we hope they play about 30 innings."
Milam, a 16-year-old right-hander, had pitched well in spot duty early in the season for the Senior Sox then helped anchor the staff of the Junior Sox on their run to the Junior State semifinals. Kaleb Brown greeted him with a lead-off single but Milam got Jacob Walls to bounce out to second. A bloop single by Cameron Walker was a tough break then he walked Kody Pinson to load the bases. A passed ball allowed Brown to score then Conar Kreis was hit by a pitch to load the bases again for Josh Gibson. And when his single was misplayed in the outfield, all three runners scored, making it 4-0.
But Milam retired the next two, ending the inning with a called third strike. That started a stretch in which he retired seven of the next eight he faced.
Meanwhile, the Sox got three in the bottom of the inning. Justin Blankenship reached on an error, Caleb Garrett walked and Tyler Sawyer singled to load the bases. Hunter Mayall bounced into a doubleplay but a run scored then Kaleb Jobe just missed an opposite-field homer, settling for an RBI triple. Brennan Bullock singled up the middle and Bryant had trimmed the lead to 4-3.
A walk interrupted Milam's string of outs to start the third. He retired the next two though a wild pitch allowed Walker, the base-runner, to advance to second. The Sox appeared to be out of the inning when Mayall made a nice play at third on a two-hop shot off Gibson's bat, but his off-balance throw skipped past first baseman Brady Butler and Walker scored to make it 5-3.
Jonesboro starter Brendan Camp also settled in. He worked around a walk to Austin Benning in the second, a one-out single by Mayall in the third and another walk to Benning in the fourth.
The game-breaking fourth began with a walk to Kyle Day. He stole second then went to third on Dustin Jones' long fly to right. Milam struck out Brown on a pitch in the dirt but the batter reached first when Bryant catcher B.J. Ellis couldn't find the handle on the ball to make a throw. Day, who held at third on the play, scored moments later on a sharp single to left by Walls. Walker was hit by a pitch to load the bases and Harrison brought in Austin Queck to relieve.
But Pinson greeted the Sox' right-hander with an RBI single and Kreis drove in two with a base hit. A force at third was the second out but Jacob Hout singled in a run then stole second, drawing a wild throw that allowed Gibson to score the sixth run of the inning.
Pinson's two-run double in the top of the fifth set the final score. Pritchett got out of the fifth with a strikeout then fanned two more in the sixth and three in the seventh. He worked out of a two-out two-on jam in the sixth and forced Jonesboro to leave the bases full in the seventh.
But the Sox couldn't muster much of a rally. Camp pitched around an error and a pair of walks in the fifth. He worked a 1-2-3 sixth. In the seventh, Sawyer singled, Jobe walked and Bullock beat out an infield hit to load the bags but all three were stranded as the game concluded.
With the loss, Bryant fell to 29-5 on the season. It was just the second game this year that the Sox have lost to an Arkansas team. The other, incidentally, was Fayetteville.
JONESBORO 13, BRYANT 3
Senior American Legion
Ricemen ab r h bi Black Sox ab r h bi
Brown, rf 5 2 1 0 Blankenship, rf 4 1 0 0
Walls, 2b 4 2 2 1 Garrett, cf 4 1 0 0
Walker, cf 2 4 2 0 Sawyer, dh 4 0 2 0
Pinson, 3b 4 1 2 3 Pritchett, pr-p 0 0 0 0
Kreis, c 4 2 2 2 Mayall, 3b 3 0 1 0
Gibson, dh 5 1 1 2 Jobe, ss 2 1 1 1
Hout, lf 5 0 2 1 Bullock, lf 3 0 2 1
Day, 1b 3 1 0 0 Butler, 1b 4 0 0 0
Jones, ss 3 0 0 0 Benning, 2b 0 0 0 0
Camp, p 0 0 0 0 Alford, ph-2b 1 0 0 0
Ellis, c 2 0 0 0
Milam, p 0 0 0 0
Queck, p 0 0 0 0
Totals 35 13 12 9 Totals 27 3 6 2
Jonesboro 401 620 0 — 13
Bryant 300 000 0 — 3
E—Bullock, Day 2, Mayall, Ellis 2. DP—Jonesboro 1. LOB—Jonesboro 9, Bryant 10. 2B—Pinson. 3B—Jobe. SB—Hout, Day, Mayall. S—Ellis.
Pitching ip r er h bb so
Camp (W) 7 3 0 6 6 6
Milam (L) 3.1 9 6 4 2 3
Queck 1.1 4 3 5 0 1
Pritchett 2.1 0 0 2 3 6
HBP—Kreis, Walker (by Milam). WP—Camp 2, Milam 2. PB—Ellis.