CONWAY — In a rematch of the 2015 Senior American Legion State championship game, the Fort Smith Sportman once again saw a little too much of the Bryant Black Sox and right-hander Zach “Panda” Jackson on Sunday night. The result was a 7-4 victory for Bryant that lifted them into the winners bracket final against the rival Texarkana Razorbacks. To the winner will go one of the two seeds from Arkansas to the MidSouth Regional, which will be held at UALR beginning Aug. 4.
Jackson, who pitched just one inning of the regular season for the Sox as he recovered from the State championship high school season for the Bryant Hornets as well as a tweaked knee, bulldogged into the ninth against Fort Smith. Through eight innings, he’d only thrown 86 pitches.
The game went to the ninth with Bryant up 7-2 and when the home ninth opened with three straight singles by Fort Smith, Jackson gave way to closer Boston Heil after throwing 96 pitches. Heil induced a pair of force outs as a run scored. A two-out RBI single by Christian Brasher made it 7-4 but Heil got Austin Pierce to fly to Austin Kelly in right to end it.
Last summer, Jackson pitched a complete game in a 5-2 win over Fort Smith in the State title game as the Sox made their second consecutive deep march in the Regional before eventually losing to World Series finalist Retif Oil of New Orleans.
Asked about a pitch count limit on Sunday, Bryant manager Darren Hurt said, “We were really just playing it by ear because he’s only pitched a couple of innings this summer then we threw him long the other day in a scrimmage and, at 50 pitches, he looked really good. We shut him down then.
“But the goal, really, was to stay under 80,” he related. “That was kind of the number we had in mind but, as usual, he comes out throwing great and wanting the ball. We were going to go (to a reliever) in the ninth but we decided to give him the ball and let him finish it. They had three hits there but a couple of them were good pitches. They just did a good job; good piece of hitting on him.”
Offensively, the Sox continued to hammer the ball. They’ve now scored 46 runs on 52 hits in their three State tourney games. They hacked out 14 knocks on Sunday including three each from Logan Allen and Jake East, two by Dylan Hurt, Garrett Misenheimer and Austin Kelly.
“If we can hit the baseball like this — that’s been one thing this summer that we haven’t always done, haven’t been consistent with,” Darren Hurt said. “I think we’re kind of peaking at the right time offensively. And, the way our pitchers are throwing, if we can throw up 13, 14 hits a game, we kind of like our chances.”
Bryant and Texarkana split a doubleheader late in the season in their only meeting of the regular season. The Sox won 9-6 then the Hogs won 8-2.
On Sunday, Bryant took a 1-0 lead over Fort Smith in the opening frame. Allen singled on a hump-back liner to right. Hurt yanked a base hit to left. Misenheimer singled off the third-baseman’s glove on a hot shot to drive in Allen.
The Sox threatened to get more but Fort Smith turned the first of its three doubleplays to get out of the inning.Jackson pitched around a two-out single to Pierce in the first then got out of a jam in the second after a pair of two-out errors. He retired the side in order in the third.
The game went to the fourth still 1-0. But Jordan Gentry singled to center then East pulled a double to left. With one out, Aaron Orender came through with an RBI single to right. And when he drew a pickoff throw that got past Blaise Loman at third, East scurried home to make it a 3-0 ballgame.
Singles by Daniel DeMondesert and Garrett Carter had Fort Smith in position to break the goose egg in the bottom of the fourth but, after Loman popped out to Hurt, Jackson picked off DeMondesert at third to end the inning.
Allen started the top of the fifth with a triple to right-center. Hurt singled him in then stole second. Misenheimer was robbed of another hit by Brasher’s play up the middle but Kelly singled in Hurt and it was 5-0.
Jackson needed just seven pitches to retire the side in the bottom of the fifth. At that point, he had thrown just 49 pitches.
But Sportsman got on the board in the sixth when Brasher’s drive to right was misplayed into a triple. Pierce was hit by a pitch but Jackson fanned Ryan Daggs. Demondesert appeared to be out on strikes but the Sox didn’t get the call on a 1-2 delivery. A pitch later, DeMondesert lashed an RBI single to right. The second run scored on an error.
With runners at first and third, Loman tried to squeeze in a run but Jackson dashed in and flipped to Hurt for the out at the plate. Jackson then picked off Carter at second to ended the uprising.
But it was 5-2 and a little nerve-wracking for the Sox’ fans at that point. But the team deflated a lot of that by getting the two runs back in the top of the seventh. A single by Misenheimer and an RBI double by Kelly brought an end to the mound time for lefty D.J. Reeves.
Christian Neves, of Carl Albert Junior College, relieved and, on the first pitch, East got a bunt down. Neves fielded it but threw wildly past first. Kelly scored and East wound up at second. Seth Tucker walked then he and East worked a double steal. Cates drew a walk to load the bases but Fort Smith right-fielder chased down Allen’s drive toward the gap to end the inning, keeping it 7-2.
The Sox turned a doubleplay in the bottom of the seventh to get around a lead-off hit. In the eighth, Jackson worked around a lead-off single, finishing the frame with a strikeout.