File photo by Rick Nation
CONWAY — It was one heck of a time for the team’s first home run of the season.
Blake Patterson drilled a grand slam over the 330-foot sign in left-center that turned a 7-4 deficit into an 8-7 lead as the Bryant Hornets turned the tables on the Conway Wampus Cats Friday night and clinched a chance to defend their 2014 Class 7A State championship with a bid to the 2015 tourney.
Bryant ace Blaine Knight came on in relief and shut out the hard-hitting Cats over the last two innings — with the help of a sparkling defensive play by third baseman Brandan Warner in the bottom of the sixth — to earn the save. Patterson, who came in to relieve starter Evan Lee in the fifth, picked up the win.
Patterson’s blast was indeed the first home run of the season for the Hornets, who improved to 23-2 overall, 9-2 in the 7A/6A-Central Conference including 3-2 against 7A league foes. Of course, Bryant’s home field is considerable larger than Conway’s (and most others). At the Conway field, dead center is 360 feet. Bryant’s dead center is almost 40 feet further. And the gaps in Conway — where Patterson’s slam went out — are a good 30 feet closer than Bryant’s.
The game was nearly the reverse image of Conway’s 8-7 win at Bryant on April 7. In that game, the Hornets jumped out to a 5-1 lead only to have the Wampus Cats chip away until the seventh when McCall Dail belted a two-run homer — one of only two hit at Bryant’s field this year — to tie the game. The two teams battled 13 innings before the Cats escaped with their own 8-7 win.
This time, Conway got out to a 4-0 lead. Bryant cut it to 4-3 only to have the Cats bump it up to 7-3 going into the fateful sixth, which climaxed with Patterson’s bomb.
Jason Hastings got the winning uprising started with his second single of the game. After a walk to Drew Tipton, Conway made a pitching change, bringing in UALR signee, Lane “Bubba” Carter.
Now, Carter had started the game in Bryant and was roughed up to the tune of five runs on eight hits in two innings. As it turned out, he was no more effective at home. The right-hander walked Warner to load the bases. Trey Breeding followed up with a clutch RBI single to right.
That brought up Patterson, who had fanned twice and reached on an error against Conway’s first two pitchers, Jordan Wicks and Matt Strickland. He got behind in the count 0-2 then took a close pitch up-and-in that the Conway fans thought was strike three. On the next delivery, he cracked his grand slam.
Carter got an out on strikes but then gave up a double to Lee. Nick Starr relieved at that point and got out of the inning.
In the bottom of the sixth, Conway made some noise against Knight, who had started the game in Bryant and surrendered the tying dinger to Dail. And it was Dail whom he faced first on Friday. Much to Knight’s satisfaction, he fanned him this time.
But Kolby Reck beat out an infield hit on a slow roller to the left of the mound. Knight came back to strike out Jacob Adams, who had been on base all three times previously and scored three runs. The inning continued when Grayson Pinkett singled into left, bringing up Cade Tucker who had singled in a run in the first. On a 2-2 delivery, Tucker made a bid for what might have been a game-tying hit but Warner made a diving stop, got to his feet and threw to first in time for the inning-ending out.
In the bottom of the seventh, Knight struck out the side on nine pitches, all strikes.
“The kids hung in there,” noted Bryant coach Kirk Bock. “When we squandered that opportunity in the second inning then we squandered one in the third inning and got down 4-0, they had a chance to quit but — let me tell you what now — I kept hearing those seniors in there (the dugout) getting with it. I honestly think that the leadership of those seniors tonight pulled us through this.
“Knight did a great job coming in and just bam, bam, bam,” he added. “He did a tremendous job right there.”
Knight had pitched a four-hit shutout in a 1-0 win over Catholic on Monday.
He told us after he threw Monday, ‘I want to go Friday,’ because he wanted another chance at (Conway),” Bock mentioned. “Of course, we weren’t going to give him another chance right off the bat but, if we got in a situation like that, we were going to give them all of him they could handle.”
Conway still leads the 7A teams in the Central with a 4-1 mark going into their game at Little Rock Catholic on Tuesday. Bryant travels to Van Buren and can grab a share of the conference title with a victory over the Pointers in conjunction with a Catholic win over Conway. Then it would go to extended tiebreakers to determine which team would get the league’s lone first-round bye at State since they were even head-to-head. Over 20 innings, they finished tied 15-15.
As Bock mentioned, the Hornets struggled to get the clutch hit early in Friday’s game. In the first, Tipton drew a walk and stole his way to third only to be stranded when Wicks fanned the next three batters.
In the second, a two-out single by Dylan Hurt started an uprising. Connor Tatum drew a walk then Hastings singled up the middle to load the bases. Tipton made a bid for a hit but pulled the ball a bit too much. Tucker made the play at third and threw for the final out.
In the third, Warner opened the inning with a double and Breeding beat out a bunt hit to put runners at first and third with no one out. But Strickland got out of the inning unscathed, maintaining the Wampus Cats’ 2-0 lead.
Those two runs had scored in the first on doubles from Reck and Adams and a clutch two-out RBI single by Tucker.
The Cats added two more in the third with some good fortune. Reck reached on a third-strike wild pitch then Adams singled. But Lee fanned Pinkett and got Tucker to tap back to the mound. Collin Condit followed with a slow roller off the end of the bat up the first-base line. Both Lee and Breeding, the Hornets catcher, moved on the ball which actually spun foul then back towards fair territory. Lee appeared to swat it away before it got there but the home plate umpire ruled that it had touched the line. Breeding dashed after the ball as Reck crossed the plate and Adams headed that way. With both Adams and Breeding diving towards home, Adams got their first.
The Hornets answered in the top of the fourth with some help from the Cats. Strickland hit Hurt and Hastings. In between, Tatum was robbed of a hit on a nice play in the hole by Adams. But Strickland unleashed a wild pitch to move runners to second and third for Tipton, who delivered Bryant’s first run with a sacrifice fly. Tatum alertly tagged at second and made it to third. He would score when Warner’s hot shot to third was misplayed.
Breeding waited out a walk to put runners at first and second for Patterson, who lofted a shallow fly down the left-field line. Condit got to it but over-ran the ball and dropped it. Since there were two outs, Warner and Logan Allen (running for Breeding) were off on contact. Warner made it without a play and Allen rounded third behind him. But Conway executed a perfect relay just in time to nab Allen at the plate.
So the game went to the bottom of the fourth with Conway up 4-3. Lee eased through the inning, though he had to work around a one-out error and a stolen base. The top of the fifth was much the same for Strickland.
In the home fifth, however, Adams walked and stole second. Lee fanned Pinkett again but Tucker was hit by a pitch and Bock called on Patterson to come to the mound.
Condit greeted him with an RBI single. Matt Lloyd was plunked the Wicks cracked a two-run double to make it 7-3. When Lloyd rounded third too far, however, Tatum threw behind him and Warner tagged him out. Patterson then fanned pinch hitter Andrew Hreha to end the inning with a runner stranded at second.
That proved to be big when the Hornets got their five in the top of the sixth.
“It always seems like that when we play Conway,” Bock said of the close contest. “They hit the ball well. We didn’t get those timely hits early but then we got the big hit late. And it just takes one.”