Hornets denied State 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).
By ROB PATRICK
FAYETTEVILLE — The best team doesn’t always win.
The old chestnut, “on any given day, any team can beat another,” originated in baseball where:
• at its highest level of prowess, it is noted that all of the teams win 54 and lose 54 and it’s the remaining 54 (in the 162 game season) that determines who finishes on top and who finishes on the bottom;
• a “wild card” team like the Florida Marlins (91-71), who didn’t even win their division during the 2003 regular season, can win a World Series championship over the legendary New York Yankees who finished the season with the best record in baseball (101-61);
• a team like the Seattle Mariners can set a modern standard with 116 wins in a season in 2001 and not even reach the World Series;
• a team like the Atlanta Braves can win a dozen consecutive Division championships and just one World Series;
and on and on and on.
So, when the Bryant Hornets who, on the field, won 30 of 31 games despite wearing the bull’s eye of being ranked No. 1 in the state all season long, were denied the school’s first baseball State championship by the North Little Rock Charging Wildcats with a 4-3 loss at Baum Stadium on Saturday, May 8, they joined a long and prestigious list of great teams that just didn’t win the last game.
“It’s a great accomplishment for those kids to get to the final game because, in high school baseball, anything can happen at any time,” acknowledged head coach Terry Harper. “We persevered all year long in a lot of tight situations and they made it to that championship game. Lots of times, the best team doesn’t make it there. Springdale lost out in the first round this year and North Little Rock, which was No. 1 in the state last year, lost out in the first round. So, getting there is a real accomplishment.
“It still hurts and may hurt the rest of our lives but it’s still something you can’t take away from these kids,” he added. “I don’t care how good you are, to be able to win 32 games and only lose two is something else. It takes more than just being good. These kids played hard together, played well together and I think they’ve had fun. I know I’ve had fun with them.”
The Hornets had had game in which they didn’t get all the breaks during the season and usually they overcame. This time, however, it seemed like nothing went their way from a run that was taken off the board in the third inning when they trailed 1-0 (see related story) to ill-timed errors, missed calls and clutch plays by North Little Rock.
In fact, Bryan Griffith still hasn’t been tagged out. The game film shows it.
It was one of those crucial moments in the game which was full of them. The Hornets had just surrendered a 3-2 lead, trailing 4-3 in the bottom of the sixth. Griffith had pumped up his team’s hopes with a lead-off double off North Little Rock reliever Evan Cox. Zack Young hit a flyball to right and Griffith tagged at second. North Little Rock right fielder Kevin Coleman came on to make the catch and fired a strike to third baseman Jeremy Cloud. Though the ball got there ahead of Griffith’s head-first slide, Griffith evaded the tag by pulling his left arm away from Cloud’s matador swipe tag. But the umpire punched Griffith out anyway and, wouldn’t you know? Richie Wood followed with a single over the second baseman’s head.
“It was shallow right-center,” Harper noted. “I thought the guy had to move a little bit to go get it. It was just a situation where we had the bottom of our order coming up and we hadn’t had a whole lot going (offensively). I figured if we could just get him to third and take a chance. I knew a good throw would probably get him but, I thought, a two-bouncer throw or a throw off line and he’d make it. I hoped we could get him to third and maybe bunt him in. That’s how we scored our other runs. The kid made a good throw but Bryan made a heck of a slide. It was close play that went against us.”
It was Bryant’s last good chance to score. Cox gave up a one-out hit to the red-hot Dustin Easterly (6 of 10 for the tournament) in the seventh but retired the next two to end the game.
North Little Rock took the lead on the Hornets in the first. The 1-0 deficit was the first time Bryant had trailed in the tournament. Brad Owen was hit by an 0-2 pitch from Hornets’ starter Travis Wood. He swiped second and remained there when Cloud came up with two out. Wood worked the count to 2-2 when Cloud hit a one-hopper back through the box. Wood got a glove on it but couldn’t field it cleanly. Shortstop Justin Wells flashed behind the mound to grab it and throw to first. On a bang-bang play, Cloud, diving head first, beat the throw. Meanwhile, Owens, without hesitation, rounded third and headed home, just beating the throw from first.
Wood then retired the next 10 batters he faced. The Hornets had a chance to score in the third but were denied a run.
In the fifth, North Little Rock’s Brad Swiderski led off with a single. After Wood fanned Cox, Bryan Blythe singled to right. With Coleman at the plate, Blythe took off for second. The Hornets faked as if to cut off the throw to hold Swiderski at third but the throw got through into center and that allowed Swiderski, who was holding, to score, making it 2-0.
Wood retired the next two batters with ease.
“The play is just our cut play,” Harper explained. “We’ve got the second baseman coming across, who’s looking at third and if the runner there breaks (for home), we cut it. If he doesn’t break, we let it go. The problem with that play was that it should’ve been an automatic cut since Travis was throwing, a left-hander, the guy at first can get a big jump and we’re probably not going to throw him out anyway. We usually just automatically cut that. And the problem is that sometimes the second baseman, if he ventures too far toward second base, he can get in the line of the throw and screen the shortstop so when you let it go through he can’t see it to catch it.”
Bryant got a big lift to start the bottom of the inning, however, when Dustin Tinkler, who hit .500 in the tournament, drilled a triple into the gap in right-center. Andrew Moseley followed with a bunt, reaching base when Swiderski, the first baseman, chose to hold Tinkler at third instead of make a play at first.
“Both Dustins came through a lot in the tournament,” Harper said. “They had a heck of a tournament. I’m real proud of them.”
Easterly, the team leader in sacrifice bunts, followed with a perfect safety squeeze bunt. Tinkler scored without a play and when Cloud, the North Little Rock pitcher, bounced off the mound to field the ball, he rushed his throw to first. It sailed down the first-base line allowing Moseley to circle the bases and Easterly to third.
With one out, Cox relieved Cloud and hit Travis Wood with a pitch. Wells followed with a check swing bouncer that Cox fielded. Cox tried to hold Travis Queck, running for Easterly, at third then threw to first. But as soon as Cox turned to throw, Queck took off for home. And he scored ahead of Swiderski’s relay to the plate, tying the game.
In the excitement, Wood tried to sneak into third which appeared to be unoccupied as Cloud had come in on the bunt. But Cloud got back in time and Wood was tagged out to end the inning.
“Travis did the right thing,” Harper stated. “Everybody was so excited and the third baseman wasn’t there. But at the last second, he back-pedaled and got there. Travis was being aggressive and I can live with that. You don’t want to make the last out at third but when we make mistakes I hope we make them being aggressive and not passive.
“You know, all we needed was a run here and a run there,” he added. “That was a big inning for us. I thought we could have another one.”
As it was, the Hornets had a 3-2 lead and their ace on the mound. Wood, bidding to go 12-0 on the season, started getting the ball up in the top of the sixth, however. He walked the first two and when his first pitch to the third batter was another ball, Harper brought in Wells.
“I think (Travis) started dropping down a little bit and maybe he started pressing, just wanting to throw strikes, just started feeling his way through it, guiding the ball instead of throwing it,” Harper said, “but Justin came in there and did a good job. He got the first two outs and had a chance to get out of the inning.”
Wells retired the first two on pop ups. Swiderski followed with a grounder into the hole at short. Bryan made a tremendous back-hand stab to save a run and he had a chance to get the third out with a throw to third. Though his off-balance throw was on target and on time, it went in the dirt. Young, the third baseman, tried to short hop it but the ball skipped off the heel of his glove and hit him in the chin.
Thus the bases were loaded when Cox pulled Wells’ next delivery for a two-run single to left that gave North Little Rock its 4-3 lead.
“I’m definitely proud of them,” Harper said of his players. “You know, everybody wants to see that guy on top fall and they stayed there for a long time, nationally ranked and No. 1 in the state all year long. Maybe we can build on this and continue this kind of success. They’re a great group of kids.”
The run that wasn’t
By ROB PATRICK
FAYETTEVILLE — The Bryant Hornets appeared to have tied the score.
They’d entered the bottom of the third inning of Saturday’s Class AAAAA State championship game at Baum Stadium trailing 1-0. With two out, Dustin Easterly had smacked a single down the left-field line, the Hornets’ first baserunner of the game against North Little Rock right-hander Jeremy Cloud.
Todd Bryan had followed with a walk to put runners at first and second.
That brought up Travis Wood. The count went to 3-2. On the next pitch, it appeared that North Little Rock’s players were so sure it was strike three and the inning was over that catcher Drew Rogers tossed the ball to the ground in front of the mound and, along with his teammates, headed for the dugout where they were greeted with high-five’s and cheers.
But simultaneously, Wood tossed his bat aside and headed to first with a walk. And when Rogers tossed the ball to the mound and the Wildcats left the field, Travis Queck, running for Easterly, raced home from second with the tying run as Bryan sprinted to third. The Hornets poured out of the dugout to greet Queck and celebrate.
When the North Little Rock players and coaches realized that ball four had been the call the players rushed back to the field and the coaches and Rogers accosted the umpire in protest.
After a brief discussion, the homeplate umpire called to Bryant head coach Terry Harper who approached from the third-base coach’s box. The ensuing discussion soon had the Bryant coach agitated.
The umpire called for Queck to return to third, Bryan to second, Wood to first and the run taken off the board. As it turned out, the umpire apparently felt responsible for North Little Rock’s premature exit from the field and was arbitrarily going to make up for it.
“It wasn’t explained to me very well,” Harper said later. “I still don’t understand. The umpire just kept telling me that he messed up and he was going to try to make it right. He felt like he had raised up and started to make the strike three call but, he said, he knew it was a ball.”
North Little Rock players later claimed he’d even started to make a verbal “strike three” call.
“He gave (Travis) the base and everybody’s reaction, I guess, tipped off the catcher so he thought it was strike three too,” Harper continued. “So (the catcher) just rolls the ball out there.
“There was no dead ball, no timeout, nothing,” the coach noted. “He just said he messed up. I told him that I’ve messed up before but you don’t always get ‘do-overs.’ I told him it wasn’t right, that I wanted to protest the game and he said it’s not going to matter.”
So, instead of a run in and a tie game, runners at second and third, two out and three-hole hitter Justin Wells at the plate, North Little Rock retained the lead with the bases loaded and Wells at the plate with two down.
Wells, subsequently, crushed a Cloud delivery, but his line drive carried out to center fielder Barrett Davis for the third out of the inning.
The Hornets eventually took the lead and had other chances to score but they wound up losing — wouldn’t you know? — by one run, 4-3.
And there’s no telling how a run in that inning might’ve changed the mindset and emotions of both teams, no telling how the game might’ve been different.
No telling . . .