Junior Sox’ State opener dissolves into controversy, forfeit

By Rob Patrick

SHERIDAN — To open the American Legion Junior (17-and-under) State Tournament at Sheridan’s Oliver Williams Field on Friday, the Zone 4 champion Bryant[more] Black Sox had nine players and one bat.

When their game against Jonesboro Fat City ended prematurely, they had two bats but only eight available players. Because one of the bats was ruled illegal the player and the head coach were ejected. And since a team is not allowed to play with eight, the Sox were forced to forfeit.

The irony is it was a bat that had been approved and used at the Zone 4 tournament and it wasn’t among those on the list that is used as a guide by the umpires to determine which bats were off limits.

You can’t make this stuff up.

Awarded the hotly contested forfeit, Jonesboro advances in the winners bracket to play Saturday at 5 p.m., against the winner of the North Little Rock-Wynne game. Bryant, now in a do-or-die position every game, is set to play at 2:30 on Saturday afternoon against the loser of Friday’s Texarkana-Cabot contest.

First, a little background:

American Legion Baseball, following the lead of the collegiate game, ruled before the season that no more “composite” bats are allowed.

According to Wikipedia: “Composite baseball bats incorporate a recent advancement in the technology of aluminum baseball bats for high school and collegiate players. In general, composite bats are constructed with the same aluminum exterior as standard aluminum baseball bats, but have a “woven” graphite wall on the inside. Composite bats provide an advantageous swing weight, an improved trampoline effect, a lower bending stiffness, and a higher damping rate.” 

The college teams went to what’s called BBCOR (Bat-ball Coefficient Of Restitution) bats. It’s intended as a safety issue, cutting down on the velocity at which the balls come off the composite bats with ever stronger, quicker players wielding them. High schools in Arkansas will be moving to the BBCOR bats next spring.

(The “sweet spot” on a BBCOR bat is smaller than on the composites and, some argue, even smaller than on wood bats.)

As a result, before most Legion games — and all of post-season contests — umpires must take the list of banned bats and inspect the bats that each team has brought to use in the game.

During the Zone tournament, there was a question about the bat the Sox had and when it didn’t show up on the list, it was allowed. It was, at the time, one of only two bats the team had in its arsenal. At the start of Friday’s game, the team didn’t realize that the bat was in the bag for the catcher’s equipment and, when the umpires checked before the game, they only had one to inspect and it was approved.

Along the way, however, the other bat was discovered when a parent got a call from Jason Thompson, the assistant coach for the Sox who is the head coach for the Bryant 15-year-old Babe Ruth All-Stars. Thompson and the 15’s are in Crossett for their State tournament and, because some of the 15’s were part of the Junior Legion team and one of the 16’s was unavailable, the Sox had just nine — and that was including 16-year-old Hayden Lessenberry and 17-year-old Ozzie Hurt, who have been playing mostly with the Senior Legion team.

When Thompson heard that there was only one bat for the Sox, he reported where the other bat was and the Sox pulled it out.

Off to a rough start, Bryant trailed 4-2 with three of Jonesboro’s runs being unearned. The Sox were at bat in the bottom of the third, there was just one out and runners at the corners with Lessenberry coming to the plate.

He had the second bat.

Coach Darren Hurt, in the first-base coach’s box, overheard talk in the Jonesboro dugout about the different bat. They were intending not to say anything until after the at-bat, figuring then they’d lodge an appeal. Lessenberry took a strike and Hurt came down the line to talk to the home plate umpire about the bat realizing it hadn’t been inspected before the game. He figured he’d make sure even though the bat had been okay for the Zone tourney.

The homeplate umpire checked the list and didn’t find the bat’s number but showed the bat to umpire in chief, Aaron Brater, who ruled that it was an illegal bat.

Afterwards, Brater explained, “New bat rules have been put into effect, no composite bats. They’re trying to get all the composites out of the game. Anything that says composite must be stamped BBCOR.

“The bat that was in question — in our pregame, we covered it, we were checking every bat, every helmet, every game all the way to the finals,” he continued. “That way we’re protecting the kids. What we approve is what you’re going to be playing with. We told them if a bat came into play after we had approved all the bats, the ruling is the player using the illegal bat is ejected as well as the head coach. We had a player take a live pitch with a bat that came into question. The bat was looked at. It was not approved pre-game. It was not stamped BBCOR and it had ‘composite’ on it. Therefore, we had an illegal bat and the ruling is, we had an ejection of that player which left them with eight so it was an automatic forfeit, along with the head coach being ejected.

“That does not carry over to the next game,” he asserted. “It’s not a suspendible ejection or anything like that. They’re still going to play in the losers bracket (Saturday).”

During the protest of the ruling by Hurt and head coach Jimmy Parker, an appeal was made to the umpire in the field. He had been among those at the Zone tournament who had initially approved the bat but it was to no avail. Brater and the Zone commissioner stuck with the ruling.

Complicating the matter for the Sox was the fact that ace right-hander Tryce Schalchlin had thrown 48 pitches in the game. When he’ll be available to return to the mound will be a factor for the Sox, even though they have other strong pitchers. But it is now a single-elimination tournament.

Jonesboro had taken a 2-0 lead in the top of the first. With one out, Kaden Hydrick beat out an infield hit and advanced to second on an errant throw. He moved to third on a groundout but Schalchlin and the Sox appeared to be out of the inning when Tyler Eudy popped into shallow right. But the ball was dropped. Hydrick scored and, moments later, Eudy, who made it to second, did as well on a single by Justin Fuqua.

Bryant got a run back in the bottom of the inning when Ozzie Hurt doubled and Marcus Wilson tripled. But Wilson was stranded at third after getting there with just one out.

In Jonesboro’s second, Lucas Johnston singled up the middle to start things off but, after he made the turn at first and was sauntering back to the bag with his back to the ball, Hurt took the throw in from Wilson in center and fired to Blain Jackson, the first baseman, who applied the tag to the unwitting base-runner.

But a throwing error on a grounder to short allowed Alec Camp to reach second. Kyle Norris followed with a grounder into the hole at short that Trevor Ezell ranged to field. Though it looked like Ezell might have a play on Camp at third, he fired a throw to first. It got there too late and Norris had an infield hit.

Schalchlin then appeared to have Camp picked off third but didn’t get the call. (In fact, there was no call at all until Parker came out of the dugout and asked for one.)

Norris took second on the play and, much to the Sox’ frustration, Cullen Weaver followed with a single up the middle to plate two runs, making it 4-1.

In Bryant’s second, Daniel Richards and Jackson cracked one-out singles and, with two down, Ezell bounced one up the middle for an RBI single to make it 4-2. Hurt followed with a lined shot that Eudy, the Jonesboro third baseman, could only knock down. Unfortunately for Bryant, the ball didn’t ricochet far enough away for Jackson to beat Eudy to third.

Schalchlin pitched a 1-2-3 top of the third and the Sox were rallying again in the home half when Wilson walked and Schalchlin shot a single to right to send him to third with one out.

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