By Rob Patrick
JONESBORO — The Bryant Black Sox came as close to winning the Senior American Legion State championship as[more] you can without actually winning it.
A pair of grinding, gut-wrenching battles both came down to the last Bryant’s last at-bat with tying and winning runs at second and third, respectively, and no one out. In their first game against Fort Smith Kerwins, Landon Pickett blasted one off the fence in dead-center to drive in the runs giving the Sox a thrilling 8-7 victory.
That got them to the winner-take-all final against the rival Texarkana Razorbacks. In the sixth meeting between the two teams this season, the Sox rallied to tie the game in the bottom of the ninth. In the bottom of the 11th, they trailed 8-7. Again, they had the potential tying and winning runs at second and third but, in their 20th inning of baseball for the day, the Sox just couldn’t muster that clutch hit again as Texarkana survived for its second straight State championship.
The weary Black Sox made them earn it.
“We came here to win,” stated Bryant coach Wayne Taylor. “Whether anybody believed it, I don’t know. But it was a heck of a run. To play with the big boys, to beat the teams we did, to take Texarkana into 11 innings before it’s decided — everybody played their tails off.”
In referring to the “big boys”, Taylor was referencing the fact that, like Fort Smith and Fayetteville — two teams Bryant eliminated from the tournament — Texarkana’s squad was made up of a hand-picked group of regional players, many that play in college. Of the eight teams at the State Tournament only Bryant and Cabot drew all of their players from one school district. Texarkana’s came from eight, Fort Smith seven and Fayetteville seven, all including players from adjoining states.
“To me, it’s a credit to the coaching they’ve had,” Taylor said of the Sox. “(Bryant High School) coach (Kirk) Bock does wonders. What he’s done with these boys, to come out here — I was just along for the ride.”
The coach also noted that almost all of the Bryant players had been playing in the Bryant Athletic Association program since Instructional League ball.
“We rolled the dice some and we came out a lot of times looking good,” he said of the tournament run. “But, man, they played. I told them we weren’t into moral victories. We were here to win it but they’ve got nothing to hang their heads about.
“Oh, we were close,” he emphasized, “that close.”
The decisive run scored in the top of the 11th but not until after some impressive plays to get the first two outs. Josey Langston (of El Dorado) opened the inning with an infield hit that Jordan Taylor stopped with a diving play in the hole at short. But with Daniel Spears (Arkansas High School) at the plate, Bryant’s Hayden Lessenberry, who caught all 20 innings on Tuesday and every inning of the tournament for the Sox — six nine-inning games in five days — gunned down Langston when he tried to steal second.
Spears followed with a bouncer to third baseman Tyler Brown, who ranged to his left, and fired a low throw to first that Pickett dug out of the dirt.
Speedy Carlton Bailey(Texas High School, Harvard) followed with a bouncer into the hole at short that Taylor flagged down to his right. After the slightest bobble on the transfer, Bailey beat the throw.
Right-hander Tyler Nelson, who had kept it close after coming on to relieve starter Brady Butler in the seventh, issued a walk on a 3-2 pitch to Levi Saxby (Texas High), bringing up Texarkana catcher Will Powell (Pleasant Grove, Texas), whom the Sox had struggled to get out the entire post-season. At that point, he was 4 for 5 in the game. Coach Taylor conferred with Nelson and later acknowledged that there was some thought of walking Powell even though it would have put Bailey on third as the go-ahead run.
They tried to pitch carefully to him but Powell slapped a single up the middle to drive in the go-ahead run. And, wouldn’t you know? The next batter, Alan Copeland (Nashville), fouled out to end the inning.
But the Sox weren’t done yet. Hunter Mayall beat out an infield hit to start the bottom of the 11th, hustling on the bouncer wide of first, to beat pitcher Caleb Hawkins (Queen City, Texas) to the bag. Pickett followed with his fourth hit of the game then a wild pitch moved them to second and third.
But Hawkins, who was named the tournament MVP, retired the next three batters to preserve the victory.
Butler, Bryant’s ace right-hander, had shut out the Razorbacks on two hits over the first four innings of the game. Bryant took a 1-0 lead on Texarkana starter Michael Gilley (Pleasant Grove, Texas) in the third. Lucas Castleberry drew a walk, Lessenberry sacrificed him to second and, with two out, Brown hit a chopper off the glove of the diving Langston at short to drive him in.
In the fifth, Texarkana broke through starting with consecutive singles by Gilley, Sheldon O’Dell (Magnolia) and Blake Resecker (Arkansas High). With runners at first and second, Langston got a bunt down that Butler bounced off the mound to field. But his throw sailed and hit Langston, ricocheting into foul ground down the right-field line. O’Dell scored and Langston went to second after colliding with the much bigger Pickett at first.
Spears followed with a sacrifice fly to make it 3-1 and, with two down, Saxby cracked a two-run homer.
Suddenly, the Black Sox players looked very tired. The game went to the seventh and Texarkana upped the ante with another run. Spears doubled, Bailey beat out an infield hit and Saxby got another RBI by bouncing into a force at second and hustling to first to beat the relay for what would’ve been an inning-ending doubleplay.
But Bryant got up off the deck in the bottom of the seventh. Josh Pultro beat out an infield hit and Castleberry laced a liner down the right-field line for a double. Lessenberry drove in a run with a grounder to short then Chris Joiner got Castleberry home with a sacrifice fly to right.
The uprising regained its impetus when Brown beat out a roller to third for a hit and Taylor smacked a double. Brown scored on a wild pitch then Mayall singled in Taylor to make it 6-5. Pickett singled to put runners at second and third but Hawkins relieved Gilley at that point and fanned Nelson to preserve the lead for the moment.
Hawkins, who rarely plays in the field, led off the eighth by working a walk. He took second on a wild pitch but held as Nelson struck out O’Dell. Resecker fouled off a 2-2 pitch then fought off another, looping the ball down the right field line into no-man’s land just barely inside the line for an RBI double that made it 7-5.
The Razorbacks’ reliever pitched around a single by Lessenberry and an error that allowed Joiner to reach in the sixth but Nelson worked, in turn, worked through the heart of the Texarkana lineup allowing only a single to Powell, sending the game to the bottom of the ninth.
Hawkins got the first out but then Mayall bounced a single up the middle and Pickett laced a liner to left for a hit. Nelson came through with a single to center to load the bases for Pultro who took one for the team, forcing in a run. Ozzie Hurt followed with a bouncer to short. Langston got the force at second but Hurt, hustling all the way, beat the relay to avoid the game-ending doubleplay as Pickett scored the tying run.
With Nelson at third, Lessenberry tied into one but his drive went to the deepest part of the park and was hauled in by Resecker to end the inning.
Both teams went down in order in the 10th before the dramatic 11th commenced.
The Sox finished the season 21-10 with four of their losses to Texarkana (to go with two wins). The Razorbacks will advance to represent the State at the Southwest Regional Tournament at Minden, La., starting Aug. 4.
TEXARKANA 8, BRYANT 7, 11 innings
Senior American Legion
Razorbacks ab r h bi Black Sox ab r h bi
Langston, ss 5 1 1 0 Joiner, rf 5 0 1 1
Spears, lf 5 1 1 1 Brown, 3b 6 1 2 1
Bailey, 2b 6 1 2 0 Taylor, ss 6 1 2 0
Saxby, rf 5 1 1 3 Mayall, lf 6 1 3 1
Powell, c 6 0 5 1 Pickett, 1b 5 1 4 0
Copeland, 1b 6 0 0 0 Butler, p 3 0 0 0
Gilley, p 3 1 1 0 Nelson, p 3 0 1 0
Hawkins, p 1 1 0 0 Pultro, cf 4 1 1 1
O’Dell, 3b 5 1 2 0 Castleberry, 2b 2 2 1 0
Resecker, cf 5 1 2 2 Hurt, 2b 3 0 0 1
Lessenberry, c 4 0 1 1
Totals 47 8 15 7 Totals 46 7 16 6
Texarkana 000 050 110 01 — 8
BRYANT 001 000 402 00 — 7
E—Nelson, Butler, Bailey. DP—Texarkana 2. LOB—Texarkana 10, Bryant 11. 2B—Powell, O’Dell, Spears, Castleberry, Taylor, Resecker. HR—Saxby. SB—Powell. S—Lessenberry, Langston. SF—Joiner, Spears.
Pitching ip r er h bb so
Gilley 6.2 5 5 10 3 3
Hawkins (W) 3.1 2 2 6 0 5
Butler 6 5 2 7 0 7
Nelson (L) 5 3 3 8 2 2
HBP—Pultro 2 (by Gilley) (by Hawkins). WP—Gilley 2, Butler, Nelson 2.