Sox surprise with Classic title
EDITOR’S NOTE: In this time of COVID-19, with no sports action, BryantDaily.com will be posting 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).
MOUNTAIN HOME — On May 22, after the Bryant Black Sox AAA American Legion team seemed to sleepwalk their way through a 7-1 loss at home to Lake Hamilton, coaches Craig and Tic Harrison met with their team as usual down the left-field line. But instead of breaking up after the meeting, the players lined up and, at the behest of their coaches and a little instruction along they way, ran wind sprints.
It’s a moment that seems to come along every season for the Black Sox teams. Usually, it comes during the dog days of the season when the players have lost a little focus and the coaches feel they need to get their attention.
But this was early. And, afterwards, Craig Harrison expressed his concern. Work had to be done, he said. “We have a lot to learn, not about hitting and pitching but about our approach to the game, level of effort, understanding situations,” he said. “Our goal now is to have them game ready by July . . . but it will take hard work.”
As it turned out, July came early.
To the surprise of many including, perhaps, the Sox themselves, Bryant traveled to the prestigious Brooks Robinson Twin Lakes Classic tournament in Mountain Home and successfully defended their championship against teams from several states, some that were stacked with college players.
Bryant opened with a 10-3 win over Dunklin County, Mo., on Thursday, June 14. The next day, they eased past Springfield, Mo., Hillcrest, 13-0. On Saturday, they bumped off Memphis Christian Bros., 5-0, to sweep their pool and advance to the championship tournament on Sunday. There, they opened with a 12-0 romp over Benton McClendon’s in the quarterfinals, won a grinder 4-3 over Athens, Ala., Decatur and out-slugged Pontatoc, Miss., 12-8, to win it.
“I’m really proud of the team because I told them, after the huddle when we had that big giant trophy, that three weeks ago nobody would’ve given us a prayer to even be playing on Sunday much less playing in the championship,” Harrison commented. ”In three weeks, we became a good team and now in three more weeks we can become a great team. These guys believe and when you believe, it overcomes a lot of things.”
Indeed, the Black Sox came home a different team than they were when they left.
“There’s not much to do in Mountain Home but play ball, watch the College World Series and go eat and just get to know each other,” Harrison said of the togetherness the trip engendered. “We’ve got a good group of guys. We’ve got good leadership on this team and I didn’t know if we had that a couple of weeks ago but I can tell you now, we really do.
“It helps you have confidence because we’ve proved it now,” he added. “And any time we get down or later in the season when maybe things aren’t going so well, we can point back to where we banded together against — I tell you, the last two teams we played were as good a teams as we’ve played since I coached here, especially the Alabama team.
“They brought in a guy who was (throwing) 93, 94 (miles per hour) and we didn’t sniff him in the sixth and seventh inning but we already had three runs,” he continued. “We scratched out those three and the guys just found a way to win.”
That gave featured a gritty pitching performance by Aaron Davidson, one of just three college-age players on the team and the only one that plays college ball. A closer at Harding University and for the Sox so far this season, Davidson went seven innings, allowed two runs, one earned on five hits with four walks and 12 strikeouts.
“Aaron said I’m not going to let them beat us,” Harrison related. “He went out there on the mound and had a terrific game. He’d thrown two innings for us and probably didn’t throw more that 15 for Harding and we asked him to do something that’s maybe not his norm. He wanted to.”
The Sox built a 3-0 lead with single runs in the second, fourth and fifth. In the second, Devin Hurt walked and Tyler Pickett beat out a bunt for a single.
The bunt, by the way was good to the Sox in the tourney, particularly for Pickett who wound up winning the Most Valuable Player award, hitting safely in all six games at a .632 clip (12 of 19), scoring seven times and driving in five.
The inning continued with a walk to Ryan Wilson. A doubleplay took some of the starch out of the inning but the Sox remained patient and walks to Trent Daniel and Kaleb Jobe forced in the first run.
In the fourth, Tyler Sawyer singled, Daniel walked and, with two down, Joey Winiecki reached on an error and Sawyer scored.
Davidson helped himself in the fifth with a lead-off single. Courtesy runner Justin Blankenship swiped second and, with two down, Wilson came through with a clutch double to make it 3-0.
In the bottom of the fifth, Athens rallied with two down. A walk was followed by an RBI double, making it 3-1. An outfield error on a drive by the next batter allowed a second run to score and sent the tying run to second but Davidson got out of the inning.
He then pitched around an infield hit in the sixth and a one-out hit batsman in the seventh to close out the win.
“Then in the championship, we had a big lead and it looked like it was going to rain,” Harrison recounted. “It held off and (Pontatoc) came back and we were struggling and they brought in their guy from Ole Miss and we found a way to beat him and actually looked good against him.”
The Sox took a 7-1 lead with a six-run second only to have Pontatoc rally for seven in the bottom of the second to take an 8-7 lead. But thanks to stellar relief pitching by Ryan Wilson, it was still 8-7 when the Sox came to bat in the sixth.
The Sox had threatened in the fifth when Hurt singled and Pickett beat out another bunt hit. Jordan Knight followed with a long drive that seemed destined for the fence only to have the Pontatoc center fielder Brent Brownlee (who’s headed to Mississippi State this fall) make a diving over-the-shoulder catch. With the runners on the move, Pontatoc turned it into a triple play.
But, after Wilson worked around a two-out single in the home half of the inning, the Sox went to work again. A walk to Jake Jackson to open the inning led to a pitching change and Pontatoc went to their Ole Miss recruit, Josh Thomason. Davidson greeted the new hurler with a single to center, sending Jackson to third. He scored from there on a passed ball, tying the game. Blankenship, in to run for Davidson, swiped second and, after Hurt was hit by a pitch, Pickett bunted for another base hit to load the bases. A wild pitch allowed Blankenship to score the go-ahead run.
But a one-out triple in the bottom of the inning by Dustin Linn had that lead in jeopardy. After a walk, Wilson responded with a strikeout with a pitch in the dirt that got away from Pickett, the Sox catcher. But Pickett hustled after the ball and got it to Wilson who tagged out Linn at the plate to end the inning.
In the top of the seventh, the Sox got some insurance on a three-run double by Jake Jackson. A walk to Sawyer, an infield hit by Daniel and a bunt single by Winiecki had loaded the bags in front of Jackson who nailed a 2-0 pitch to the fence in left-center.
Wilson finished it by retiring the side in order in the bottom of the inning.
Along with Pickett, Jackson and Sawyer were named to the all-tournament team. Winiecki won the stolen base award by swiping four bags during the tourney and Davidson tied for the Home Run Derby title.
Bryant 12, Benton 0
Tanner Zuber pitched a one-hit shutout over the Sox’ rivals in a four-inning run-rule win. The lone hit was a lead-off single to right in the third.
Bryant ripped the game open with a 10-run third. Pickett had singled in a run in the first. In the third, Jackson doubled and scored on a base hit by Davidson. Hurt singled and, with one out, Wilson came through with a sacrifice fly. Sawyer doubled in a run and after Daniel singled, Kaleb Jobe and Winiecki singled in runs and Jackson plated two with a base hit. Pickett later picked up another RBI with a bases-loaded walk and Wilson capped things off with a two-run single.
Winiecki’s RBI single in the bottom of the fourth ended the game.
Bryant 5, Memphis Christian Bros. 0
Sawyer, in his first year of Legion ball, came up big with a four-hit shutout over 5 2/3 innings. Davidson closed out the win for his second save of the season. Sawyer walked five but struck out nine.
Offensively, he led the team with three hits and two runs batted in. Jackson and Pickett had two hits each.
Bryant took the lead on the speed of Winiecki in the first. After beating out a bunt single and taking second on a single by Jackson, Winiecki raced home from second when Memphis turned a doubleplay on a grounder to second by Davidson.
In the third, Winiecki reached on an error, stole second and third before scoring on a double by Jackson to make it 2-0.
It stayed 2-0 until the sixth when the Sox created some breathing room with Sawyer helping his own cause with a two-run single that was misplayed in the outfield allowing a third run to score. A pair of errors and a single by Pickett had allowed Bryant to load the bases.
Sawyer retired the first two in the bottom of the inning but, after an error and a walk, gave way to Davidson who issued another walk to load the bases but then retired the last four to close it out.
Bryant 13, Springfield Hillcrest 0
It took just three innings to get a run-rule win over Springfield. Wilson handled the pitching duties and allowed three hits and two walks but preserved the shutout by working his way out of jams in the second and third.
The Sox scored six times in the first after the first two batters were retired. Davidson doubled and, after Hurt walked, Pickett singled. When the ball was misplayed in the outfield, Hurt followed Davidson home. Wilson doubled in Pickett then scored on a single by Sawyer. Daniel walked and, after both runners moved up on a wild pitch, Jobe cracked a two-run double.
In the second, Pickett singled in a run, Daniel and Winiecki singled in two each and the lead ballooned to 11-0.
In the third, Wilson doubled in a run and Sawyer singled him in to set the final score.