Pine Bluff ends Senior Black Sox’ star-crossed campaign

By Rob Patrick

Every baseball season is different, in big ways and small. But the 2010 season for the Bryant Black Sox Senior American Legion team was unusual in a way that no previous Legion season in Bryant has been.

It was, frankly, a little anti-climactic.[more]

Every summer in Bryant American Legion baseball history, the players came in after experiencing a disappointing end to the Bryant High School season. In fact, the better the season for the Hornets — the closer they had come to going all the way in high school — the more determined they were to make up for it during Legion, to prove something to others and themselves.

In 2010, however, the Hornets captured their first State title. And, even as hard as they played, the Black Sox’ intensity just could not match years past.

Add to that the fact that they never fielded the team that was projected to open the season, that injuries plagued them before they even hit the field for their first game right up to the last weekend of the season and you can get a feel for the bittersweet quality that remained after their season-ending 11-5 loss to Pine Bluff Simmons on Sunday.

The campaign ended with a 17-14 ledger. Pine Bluff, the regular-season Zone 4 champion, advanced in the Area Tournament at Bryant High School Field to play Benton McClendon’s in the losers bracket final on Sunday evening with not only a berth in the tourney championship game on Monday against Texarkana but a trip to the Senior Legion State Tournament in North Little Rock on the line.

Incidentally, in a scenario that is apparently all too familiar to many Legion coaches these days, one of Pine Bluff’s top hitters informed his head coach after the Bryant game that he had to go out of town for a wedding and would miss the follow-up showdown against Benton. Not to say that was the reason, of course, but a fresh Benton team wound up knocking off the Bankers in the nightcap 8-6 to claim the trip to State.

Bryant, meanwhile, came into the day short on pitching. Ben Wells, the ace during most of the regular season, was no longer available because he was picked by the Chicago Cubs in the June Major League Draft and, as negotiations have heated up recently, was advised to shut it down in the interim. Blake Davidson, who led the team with seven wins this season, came up with a sore bicep prior to the tournament and was unavailable. And somewhere along the line in the Sox’ Zone tourney opener against Texarkana on Friday, Dylan Cross, the team’s No. 1 catcher and a regular contributor of late on the mound, suffered an injury that left him unavailable for duty on either front.

That’s not to mention players that the Sox had hoped to have all season but never got off the disabled list including Kaleb Jobe, a redshirt freshman at UALR this spring who was rehabbing a shoulder injury and not given clearance to play; catcher B.J. Ellis, the starter for the Hornets and one of the high school team’s top hitters during the stretch run, out with a hand and wrist injury; and outfielder Garrett Bock, an all-Stater in high school and returning starter for the Sox, who continued to be plagued by hip problems.

Already a young team, the Black Sox were even younger at the end, taking on teams in Texarkana and Pine Bluff, which, along with Benton, had rosters liberally sprinkled with players that are college-aged, college-playing, or bound-to-play-in-college.

The situation was such that, in Sunday afternoon’s summer sun, the Sox coaches, Darren Hurt and Wayne Taylor, called on Brady Butler, Saturday’s starting pitcher in a 7-6 win over Little Rock Continental Express, to start at catcher for the first time since midway through the high school season. He became the fifth player — not counting the aforementioned Ellis — to play the position for the Black Sox this summer. (Chris Joiner, who hadn’t played catcher since Babe Ruth baseball, stepped in to catch on Saturday after being tapped to don the shinguards and mask a number of times this summer.)

Jordan Taylor started on the mound after having pitched briefly in Bryant’s previous two tourney games. Trying to minimize his pitch count by hammering the strike zone and hoping to pitch to contact, the right-hander was successful in that in the first inning only to the extent that the Bankers put the ball in play. Unfortunately, they scored four runs on five hits including a bases-loaded double by Josh Guy that made it 3-0. Taylor struck out his counterpart Zach Barr but Hunter Colson blooped a single to right to get Guy home with the fourth run.

It was the first salvo in what would be a 23-hit barrage for Pine Bluff including a whopping 12 combined by the top three hitters in the lineup.

But, facing Barr the Bankers’ ace lefty, Bryant put together a tying surge in the bottom of the inning. In the process, the lefty threw a whopping 41 pitches in the inning.

Hunter Mayall led off with a single then Caleb Garrett reached on an error. But, with Taylor at the plate, Mayall was narrowly picked off by Pine Bluff catcher Ryan Dardenne who's throw just missed his pitcher's head.

But Taylor drew a walk and Joiner stroked a single to right-center to drive in the first run. Butler drew a walk to load the bases and, with two down, Lucas Castleberry waited out an RBI walk. Tyler Brown followed with a shot up the middle for a two-run single, tying the game.

After Barr got off the hook with a strikeout, Pine Bluff took advantage of a Bryant error to regain the upper hand. Antoine Jackson reached on the boot and, an out later, Justin Dardenne beat out an infield hit. Collin Massanelli ripped a double to get Jackson home but, hustling all the way, Dardenne raced home all the way from first to make it 6-4.

Taylor bowed up and retired the next two to keep the Sox within 6-4.

But Barr’s strikeout to end the bottom of the first started a stretch in which he retired 10 of 11 Bryant batters.

The Bankers tacked on a run in the fourth. Jackson singled and, after Howard placed a bunt so well he beat it for a hit, Taylor picked off the lead runner. Justin Dardenne, however, followed with a long double to center to make it 7-4.

The Sox turned a doubleplay in the top of the fifth to preserve that margin. In the home fifth, Garrett guided a single to right and advanced to second on a passed ball. He aggressively raced to third on Joiner's bouncer to Ryan Bowlin, the Pine Bluff third baseman. Garrett waited for Bowlin to make the throw to first then sprinted toward third, beating the return throw from Guy.

Butler then worked the count full and shot a liner up the middle for and RBI single.

And the Sox were within 7-5 through five innings.

But Howard singled and stole second with one out in the top of the sixth. After Tyler Brown robbed Justin Dardenne of a hit by snatching his liner at third, Massanelli pulled his second double into the corner in right. Howard sprinted home all the way from first, just beating Butler’s tag at the plate.

On the next pitch, Ryan Dardenne blasted a two-run homer to left-center. The game went from 7-5 to 10-5.

Howard relieved in the bottom of the sixth and proceeded to retire seven in a row before Butler drilled a one-out double to center in the eighth.

In the meantime, Pine Bluff produced another run in the top of the seventh. Taylor retired the first two he faced but then issued his first walk of the game on a tough 3-2 pitch. In turn, Jackson beat out an infield hit and Hurt came to the mound to replace Taylor, who drew a pat on the back for making it into the seventh. He had been efficient with 97 pitches.

Matt Neal came on to relieve and, after an extended battle with Howard, a single loaded the bases. Justin Dardenne lined a single to center and got Bowlin home before Garrett, from center, gunned down Jackson trying to score. That ended the inning with flair. But the Sox were unable to take advantage of the emotional surge as Howard worked his second 1-2-3 inning.

Neal pitched around a pair of singles in the top of the eighth but Howard got through the eighth unscathed despite the Butler double.

Pine Bluff loaded the bases in the top of the ninth but Neal worked out of the jam. And, in Bryant’s last gasp, Brown reached on an error then pinch-hitter Caleb Milam pulled the proverbial bee-bee, but right at Bowlin. Mayall bounced into a force at second then Howard fanned Garrett to end it.

Note: Final stats for the Senior Sox will be posted in the coming days. 

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