Gutsy Black Sox’ best shot for State bid just short
EDITOR’S NOTE: Because the look back at each day in Bryant athletic history has been so favorably received during the time when there was no sports during the COVID-19 shutdown, BryantDaily.com will continueposting past stories of Bryant athletics either posted on BryantDaily.com (from 2009 to the present) or published in the Bryant Times (from 1998 to 2008).
By ROB PATRICK
BENTON — “I am more proud of this team than I was the team that won state,” declared Craig Harrison after his team battled for 18 innings only to fall a run short in their bid to qualify for the AAA State American Legion Tournament Monday night.
The Bryant Bowen-Hefley Black Sox came into the Area 5 District Tournament riding a five-game losing streak, but they saved their best baseball for last as they battled through the loser’s bracket to finish third. On Monday, they ousted Little Rock Continental Express 8-3 to get a shot at top-seeded Pine Bluff Simmons First National Bank for a berth in the State Tournament as well as the District finals against Benton. Pine Bluff survived a gutsy performance from the Sox by eking out an 8-7 win that ended Bryant’s season.
“That team’s got guts,” Harrison stated when the night was over and he and his players had said their emotional good-byes. “Lots of guts and heart and that’s why it hurts so bad. We played and played and played. We played our rears off tonight. We kept getting out there and making the plays. We just needed one more and it wasn’t there. We just couldn’t get a break. But we battled. We tried.
“The guys don’t want to go,” he added in reference to the team’s turnaround at the tournament. “They did not want to quit. They would not quit.
“I just can’t say enough … I beat on my 18-year-olds all year,” Harrison continued. “I’ve yelled at ‘em. I’ve done all I can and they exhibited the kind of effort that I was looking for. They will be successful whatever they do.”
Harrison allowed that past Bryant teams with more talent never made it as far in the District Tournament. “If they’d have had the heart that these guys had … it’s just, when you want it like they do you don’t ever give up. Hey, that team over there in the red (Pine Bluff) is not bad. They’re a good ballclub but I think my ball team’s better. We just weren’t tonight.”
The results left Bryant 22-22 on the season.
Continental Express 3
To open the evening, Bryant got a stellar, workhorse pitching performance from J.J. Yant who shackled Continental over eight innings, scattering six hits and using just over 80 pitches.
The teams got in a nine-inning game in less than two hours.
Bryant jumped to an early lead. With one out in the bottom of the first Billy Landers laced a double to left then scored on a single by Yant. Logan Critz followed with his second home run of the tournament, a shot to left-center, to make it 3-0.
Yant didn’t allow a hit until James Watkins looped a single to right-center with one down in the third. Continental was unable to score, however.
In the bottom of the third, Critz rifled a single to left and Kris Kuykendall shot a liner up the middle. Anthony Rose sacrificed the runners to second and third and Josh Caldwell brought in a run with a sacrifice fly. Michael McClellan followed with an RBI double to right-center.
Continental got on the board in the top of the fourth when Jeb Steen singled and Bryan Scanlan cracked a ground-rule double. But Kuykendall made a splendid play on Prentice McCullum’s grounder to help defuse the inning. Steen scored then so did Scanlan on a grounder to short by Eric Boen, but Continental was unable to get a big inning going. Yant got Jesse Klein to bounce to second to end the inning with Bryant still up 5-2.
Yant retired the Express in order in the fifth. In the sixth, Bill Pendergist beat out an infield single then Steen lifted a short fly to center. Fitts, the Bryant center fielder, charged in and made an eye-popping catch in a full-out dive, just off the turf. Pendergist, caught betwixt and between, roamed too far off first and was doubled up.
In the bottom of the inning, Bryant tacked on another run. Landers reached on a third-strike wild pitch, Yant singled him to second and he came home when Kuykendall’s grounder to short drew a wild throw.
A bad-hop single by Boen, an infield hit by Klein, a sacrifice bunt by Luke Davis and a sacrifice fly by Watkins added a run for Continental in the seventh but that’s all there would be.
Bryant got the run back in the bottom of the inning when McClellan singled and Morris sacrificed him to second. A passed ball enabled McClellan to reach third and a wild pitch brought him home.
After Yant worked around an error in the top of the eighth, the Sox finished out their scoring in the home half on back-to-back doubles by Kuykendall and Rose.
Daniel Bennett relieved Yant in the ninth and worked around another error to close out the win.
Pine Bluff 8,
This was a hard-fought, highly contentious war. Pine Bluff just could not shake the Black Sox this time. In every other meeting between the two teams, the Bankers had put together a big inning (or two) and won going away. But this time, the Sox wouldn’t allow the big inning to get started and it stayed close throughout.
The key inning proved to be the sixth. Bryant had rallied for a 4-3 lead in the top of the inning and had the momentum. But an error opened the bottom of the inning allowing Chris McNulty to reach second. Chad Lee followed with a sacrifice bunt attempt. He got the bunt down and Yant, the Bryant catcher, jumped out to field it. He stepped inside the baseline to throw to first but the throw hit Lee in the back. Bryant contested the play, saying Lee was inside the baseline and should be out for interfering with the throw.
Unfortunately, neither umpire saw the play. They were both racing down towards third, anticipating a play on McNulty. Neither was in a position to make the call and despite a calm protest from Harrison, Lee was awarded first.
Pine Bluff went on to score three times in the inning to take the lead for good, 6-4, though Bryant kept fighting back to keep it close.
“I haven’t been critical of umpires all year,” Harrison said after the game. “I’ve really tried hard to set an example for my team. You don’t need to but you still expect a little better when it’s the championship game. The man was out of position and he made the wrong call. That didn’t beat us, but it didn’t help. It was just one of those things we couldn’t overcome.”
The game was tied at 1 after two innings. Pine Bluff had scored a run in the bottom of the first off Bryant starter Anthony Rose, who took the mound after working 7 2/3 innings in a win over Continental on Friday.
Paul Witt opened the bottom of the first with a triple. One out walks to John Anderson and Jason Miner loaded the bases then Mark McGahhay lifted a sacrifice fly to left.
In the second, Bryant tied it when Rose singled, Dustin Morris beat out an infield hit with two down then Fitts and Landers drew walks to force in a run.
In the third, the Bankers snapped the tie. George Howard beat out an infield hit then Rose retired the next two. He worked the count to 3-2 on McGahhay and missed on a borderline pitch to issue the walk. Brian Duke followed with an RBI single. Josh Burrough walked to load the bases then Rose hit McNulty with a pitch to force in a run.
Rose fanned Lee to leave the bases juiced.
The Sox whittled into the lead in the fifth when Yant walked and Kuykendall and Rose stroked one-out singles.
Pine Bluff was unable to score in the bottom of the fifth and Bryant took the lead in the sixth. McClellan walked to open the inning. An out later, Fitts blooped a single to center. A wild pitch moved the runners to second and third then, with two down, an intentional walk was issued to Yant, loading the bags for Critz.
On the first pitch to the Bryant clean-up hitter, he laced drive to left-center. McClellan and Fitts scored easily but when Yant tried to follow all the way from first, he was out at the plate to end the inning. But the Sox had a 4-3 lead.
The debacle that followed in the bottom of the inning turned the tide, however.
After Lee reached, he swiped second. Witt then hit a slow roller that he beat out for a hit despite the fact that neither McNulty or Lee advanced. With the bases loaded, Howard walked to force in the tying run.
Though he wanted to stay, Rose had eclipsed the 100-pitch mark and Harrison called on Bennett to relieve. With the infield in, Bennett got John Anderson to ground to short. Kuykendall fielded and threw home but the throw was in the dirt and Yant couldn’t hold onto it as Lee scored to make it 5-4.
Bennett got Miner to ground to second for a force at the plate but McGahhay lifted another sacrifice fly to make it 6-4 before Bennett got out of the inning by getting Duke to ground out to short.
Bryant kept the pressure on in the top of the seventh. With two down, Caldwell bounced a single up the middle against Adam Reed, on in relief of starter Josh Nagle. A wild pitch allowed Caldwell to take second and McClellan came through with a clutch RBI single to make it 6-5.
McClellan’s hit came moments after Pine Bluff contested a 2-2 pitch that the homeplate umpire appeared to be ready to call strike three only to decide it was ball three. After the hit, with Morris at the plate, another close pitch didn’t go Pine Bluff’s way as the count again went to 3-2. Pine Bluff manager Pat Anderson was warned by the field umpire, took exception and raced out onto the field to argue further. As a result, he was ejected.
Morris popped out to end the inning but, in the bottom of the frame, Pine Bluff countered with a pair of runs. Burrough singled, McNulty was hit by a pitch and Lee beat out a bunt for a hit to load the bases.
Bryant then turned to 16-year-old Chris Sory and, despite a walk to Witt to start things (forcing in a run), Sory turned in a stellar relief job. He fanned Howard and got Anderson to pop out. Miner then hit a grounder between third and short. On a tough play, the ball was bobbled and Miner beat the play at first as McNulty scored to make it 8-5.
Sory came back to strike out McGahhay to end the inning there.
In turn, Bryant mounted one more rally. Fitts singled and Landers reached on an error. Both advanced on Yant’s long fly to right then Fitts scored on a sacrifice fly by Critz. A passed ball allowed Landers to score before Kuykendall cracked a single up the middle to make it 8-7.
Reed got out of the inning by fanning Sory, but the Bryant hurler returned the favor, retiring Pine Bluff in order in the bottom of the inning.
Witt, however, took the mound for the Bankers in the ninth. He fanned Caldwell but McClellan followed with a drive to left-center that, when it left the bat, appeared to have a chance to tie the game. But Burrough tracked it down for the second out. Morris flew out to right as the Sox’ season came to an end tantalizingly close to glory.