Photos by Rick Nation
NORTH LITTLE ROCK — At the end of the regular season, Bryant Hornets junior right-hander Nate Rutherford was[more] pitching as well as anybody on the team. So, head coach Kirk Bock had no reservations about using his three primary senior pitchers — Tyler Nelson, Jordan Taylor and Dylan Cross — in the wild 8-7 win over the Fayetteville Bulldogs in the Class 7A State Tournament quarterfinals on Friday.
Rutherford would get the ball on Saturday.
But a soggy surface at DeJanis Memorial Field in Burns Park prevented Saturday’s game, pushing it back to Monday.
In years in which the team didn’t have as much pitching depth, Bock might’ve brought one of his seniors back on two day’s rest. However, he stayed with Rutherford.
And did he come through.
Behind the junior’s five-hit shutout, the Bryant Hornets wiped out the 7A-West Conference champion Bentonville Tigers, 9-0, on Monday to advance to the Class 7A State championship game.
Bryant will take on the Rogers Heritage War Eagles this Friday at 2 p.m. Heritage came up with a two-run rally in the seventh inning to knock off defending State champion Conway in the other semifinal on Monday. Both finalists were No. 2 seeds.
It’s the third year in a row for the Hornets to play for the championship against the third different team. They beat Van Buren at the University of Arkansas’ Baum Stadium in Fayetteville in 2010 for the school’s first baseball State crown. Last year, they lost to Conway in the final, which was played at UCA due to a scheduling conflict at Baum.
This year, it’ll be back at in Fayetteville.
Bryant took a little bit different route to the final this time. In both ’10 and ’11, they only played Central teams in the State tourney (North Little Rock and Catholic before Van Buren in 2010; Cabot and Catholic before Conway in 2011). This time, they’ve played all West teams.
Hayden Lessenberry led an opportunistic Hornets offense with two of the team’s seven hits. Bryant took advantage of some Bentonville generosity, which included four early errors, nine walks and a hit batsman. Along with the seven hits, the Hornets stole eight bases.
“Our guys played hard,” said Hornets assistant Elliott Jacobs, who ran the team during the game with Bock sitting out after being ejected from Friday night’s game. “I challenged them in three areas, mental toughness, hard work and execution. I thought, for the most part, we did all three of them well. I told them, if we could do all three things well, we should win.
“We’ve got one more game to go, the one that matters and we’ll see how hard we work this next week and how bad we want to play,” he added. “We talked about that third one but we don’t want the feeling we had last year. We want the feeling we had two years ago.”
Rutherford needed just 90 pitches. He walked no one and hit a batter. Through four innings, he had allowed just one hit and had faced just one over the minimum while his teammates staked out a 7-0 lead.
“Nate looked real good his last start,” Jacobs noted. “He keeps the ball down and we knew we’d get a lot of groundballs out of him. He fills (the strike zone) up, doesn’t walk a lot of people. We knew we had J.T. (Taylor) and Tryce Schalchlin to go if we needed them. But Nate did a heck of a job.”
In fact, the Hornets turned three doubleplays in the game, one to end both the fourth and the sixth, then another to end the game.
“I was excited,” Rutherford said about finding out he would start. “I was ready for it. I was a little bit nervous but I just wanted to get out there on the mound and throw.
“I was comfortable after we got that first out,” he added. “After that, I was ready to go.”
The first couple of outs were loud ones. The first was a deep fly, the second a liner but both were flagged down by Hayden Daniel in right.
“That scared me a little bit,” Rutherford acknowledged.
He admitted too, it was a little easier to relax after the Hornets picked up four runs in the top of the second inning.
Cross got that started with a single off Bentonville starter Zach McKnight. He advanced on a wild pitch then Josh Pultro was hit by a pitch. Lessenberry’s first hit loaded the bases for Ozzie Hurt, who delivered a sacrifice fly to get Cross home.
Daniel followed with a base hit to fill the sacks again. Pultro scored on a wild pitch and the Hornets had runners at second and third with two out when Trevor Ezell pulled a grounder to third that stayed down and split the wickets, going between the legs of third baseman Hunter Boydstun. Marcus Wilson, running for Lessenberry raced home and when Tigers’ left fielder Ryan Harralston didn’t handle the ball cleanly, Daniel scored as well to make it 4-0.
“We’re going to see a lot of pitches, we’re going to get hit, we’re going to get walks,” Jacobs said. “We get a lot of runs from that. But I was real proud of our hits with runners in scoring position. We did a good job of driving them in where we haven’t been doing that in the last couple of months. We really focused on that today and got the job done when we had to.”
After Rutherford eased through a 1-2-3 home second, the Hornets took advantage of another pair of Tigers’ miscues to score two more in the third. With one out, Cross reached on another error by Boydstun. Shortstop Dallas Hardison then booted a bouncer by Pultro. Lessenberry’s second hit loaded the bags again then Hurt walked on four pitches to force in a run and end the day for McKnight.
Harralston relieved but, with two down, issued a four-pitch pass to Tyler Green made it 6-0.
Bentonville managed its first hit in the bottom of the third on a grounder through the right side by Boydstun. But Rutherford responded with his first two strikeouts. Harralston followed with a shot to right-center that looked like trouble but, again, Daniel ran it down to retire the side.
Bryant’s seventh run was scored by Nelson, who walked to start the fourth. He stole his way to third as Taylor drew a free pass. With one out, Pultro ripped an RBI single to left center to chase Nelson in.
“There were a few things they did that we thought we could take advantage of,” Jacobs said of the steals. “That was one of them.”
Rutherford hit Chris Scroggins to lead off the bottom of the fourth but, after he struck out Trent Hill, he got clean-up hitter Will Jibas to bounce into the first doubleplay.
Bentonville’s best chances to score came in the fifth and the sixth. In the former, Bryant suffered its only defensive hiccups of the game. Hardison reached on an error and Boydstun beat out an infield hit that Taylor knocked down at third. And when his late throw to first was dropped, Hardison beat the return throw to Taylor at third.
Rutherford met the challenge, however, with a strikeout and a bouncer to third to preserve the shutout.
In the fifth, a one-out hit into the hole at short by Scoggins and a single to right by Hill had runners at the corners. But, again, Rutherford induced a two-ball to Hurt at second. Ezell turned it and the shutout remained intact.
The Hornets added some pastry to the win in the top of the seventh. Again, walks and stolen bases spurred the uprising. With one out, Hurt drew the first pass and Wilson, in as a pinch-runner, stole second. Daniel walked and the duo worked a double steal after Hardison had been called in to relieve Harralston. Wes Akers drew a walk to load the bases and that set the table for Ezell’s two-run single.
Hardison got out of the inning after that and, in the home half, cracked a one-out single to right. This time, the Hornets went around the horn from Taylor to Hurt to Pultro for the game-ending twin-killing.
BRYANT 9, BENTONVILLE 0
Hornets ab r h bi Tigers ab r h bi
Ezell, ss 5 0 1 2 Harralston, lf-p 3 0 0 0
Nelson, cf 3 1 0 0 Scroggins, cf 2 0 1 0
Taylor, 3b 4 0 1 0 Hill, 1b 3 0 1 0
Caldwell, pr 0 0 0 0 Jibas, c 3 0 0 0
Cross, dh 4 2 1 0 Martinez, 2b 3 0 0 0
Pultro, 1b 3 2 1 1 Hardison, ss-p 3 0 1 0
Lessenberry, c 4 0 2 0 Boydstun, 3b 3 0 2 0
Wilson, cr 0 0 0 0 Vera, pr 0 0 0 0
Hurt, 2b 1 0 0 2 Keithley, dh 2 0 0 0
Wilson, pr 0 1 0 0 Haggard, rf 2 0 0 0
Daniel, rf 2 2 1 0 McKnight, p 0 0 0 0
Green, lf-pr 2 0 0 0 Speed, lf-ss 0 0 0 0
Akers, ph 0 0 0 0
Rutherford, p 0 0 0 0
Totals 28 9 7 5 Totals 24 0 5 0
BRYANT 042 100 2 — 9
Bentonville 000 000 0 — 0
E—Harralston, Boydstun 2, Hardison, Taylor, Pultro. DP—Bryant 3, Bentonville 2. LOB—Bryant 9, Bentonville 4. SB—Ezell, Nelson 2, Daniel 3, Wilson 2. SF—Hurt.
Pitching ip r er h bb so
Rutherford (W) 7 0 0 5 0 5
McKnight (L) 2.1 6 2 4 2 3
Harralston 4 3 3 2 6 2
Hardison 0.2 0 0 1 1 0
HBP—Pultro (by McKnight), Scroggins (by Rutherford). WP—McKnight 2, Harralston.