By Rob Patrick
JONESBORO —When the Bryant Black Sox responded to the Texarkana Razorbacks’ four-run second with a[more] six-spot in the top of the third inning, it looked like, perhaps, they’d turned the pendulum back their way.
After all, earlier in the Senior American Legion season, the Sox had traveled to Texarkana and swept a league doubleheader. Since then, Texarkana had gotten the upper hand with a pair of wins at the Zone 4 Tournament, earning the top seed from the league at the State Tournament. Bryant came in as the second seed and, lo and behold, both teams won their way to the winners bracket final on Sunday, the lone remaining unbeaten teams in the tourney.
Bryant’s six runs, however, were answered by six from Texarkana in the bottom of the third, aided, uncharacteristically by a pair of Sox errors.
While both Texarkana’s Ethan Hammond, the ace for El Dorado High School this spring, and Bryant’s Tyler Nelson restored some order as they took the mound in relief, the Sox just couldn’t make up the difference. Texarkana tacked on four in the fourth and held off a ninth-inning rally for a 14-9 victory.
“The one bad inning did it,” acknowledged Bryant coach Wayne Taylor. “When we went up 6-4 and had the momentum, if we could’ve come back at that point and thrown a zero up there, I think it could’ve changed the whole complexion of the game. That was really the big inning right there.”
The Hogs, trying to repeat as State champs, will play in the title game after taking on Fort Smith Kerwins tonight at 7 (as part of the antiquated old College World Series bracket), Bryant will try to survive against the Fayetteville Lindsey & Associates Dodgers at 4:05. Fayetteville stuck around after giving up 14 runs in one inning to North Little Rock on Sunday, rallying from a 19-7 deficit to win 20-19.
Pitching is thin for just about everybody but Texarkana, which cobbled its team together from eight different school districts. (In fact, Fayetteville and Fort Smith, the other two remaining teams each has players from seven different school districts in Arkansas and Oklahoma. All of Bryant’s players come from one, a testament to the Sox’ success.)
“We’re low on pitching to try to finish this thing out,” Taylor allowed. “That’s no excuse. I mean that’s just the facts. But when you look at the final numbers — to me, the game had more of a run-rule feel, that any minute we were on the verge of getting run-ruled. But you look up and the final tally is 14-9. The hits are 13 to 11.”
Hammond was the key for Texarkana on Sunday. He came in during the Sox’ six-run uprising and got the final out, forcing Bryant to leave the bases loaded. Over the next 4 1/3 innings he held the Sox hitless, though they managed a run without a hit in the seventh. Ozzie Hurt led off the eighth with a single and made it to third but Hammond, who fanned 11 in 6 1/3 inning, struck out two to keep him there.
The Sox got to him for two runs in the ninth and had two more in scoring position when the game concluded.
“Texarkana’s a good team,” Taylor said. “Offensively, we swung well. Even after we got a look at (Hammond) one time, I thought we had some good swings on him.
“The guys didn’t quit,” he emphasized. “I challenged them there at the end, ‘Don’t go quietly. Let’s make some noise. Let’s build some momentum. Let’s play this game out. Let’s get something going for tomorrow. Let’s keep scoring, play Fayetteville and see what happens.’”
Both teams started pitchers that had had some success against the other in their last meeting in the Zone 4 championship game, but neither Texarkana’s Alan Copeland nor Bryant’s Landon Pickett could get through three innings.
In the second, the Razorbacks took a 4-0 lead on a two-run homer by Sheldon O’Dell and four singles. Josey Langston’s bases-loaded hit up the middle drove in a pair.
Bryant’s third-inning counter-attack began with a walk to Hayden Lessenberry with one out. With two down, Tyler Brown beat out an infield hit. Jordan Taylor’s liner over the second baseman’s head broke the ice and, after Hunter Mayall’s infield hit brought Brown home, Pickett helped himself with a shot off the fence in deep center that just missed going out. Two more scored tying the game.
Chris Joiner put the Sox ahead with a single to right-center then Copeland hit Josh Pultro, walked Lucas Castleberry and hit Lessenberry to force in another run.
That’s when Hammond came on, striking out Brady Butler to end the inning. He would retire 10 of the next 11 batters.
In turn, Texarkana trimmed a run off the lead with singles from Will Powell and O’Dell and a ground-rule double by Michael Gilley, who was on his way to a 4-for-4 game that would include a home run.
With the infield in, Pickett got Daniel Spears to chop one to Brown at third. O’Dell broke to the plate and the Sox got him in a rundown. Pickett eventually made the tag but, on contact, the ball flew out of his glove and O’Dell scored.
A walk to Preston Ellis loaded the bases for the top of the batting order. Daniel Thompson hit a slow roller to third that Brown charged to his left. He had no play at the plate as Gilley scored to give the Hogs the lead but when his rushed throw to first pulled Mayall off the bag, Spears scored as well.
A sacrifice fly from Carlton Bailey made it 9-6 then Thompson scored on a passed ball to make it a six-run frame. Only two of the runs were earned.
With two on, Nelson came in and struck out O’Dell to end the inning.
Nelson pitched effectively the rest of the way with just one hiccup. In the fifth, Texarkana scored four times on just one hit. Langston walked and Bailey was hit by a pitch to start the inning. Levi Saxby bounced into a force at second then, with runners at the corners, a double steal netted a run. A wild pitch allowed Saxby to take third and the Sox brought the infield in. Powell bounced one to Jordan Taylor at short and he came home with it. Saxby, off on contact, got a great break towards the plate and only a perfect throw could’ve gotten him. Taylor’s peg had just enough tail on it that Lessenberry couldn’t reach for it and make the tag in time.
Nelson came back to fan O’Dell but Gilley launched a 1-0 delivery to left-center for a home run to make it 14-6.
It was one of only three hits the Bryant reliever surrendered in his 5 1/3 innings of work.
Taylor drew a walk to lead off the seventh for the Sox. He advanced on a grounder to second by Mayall, took third on a wild pitch and scored on Pickett’s grounder to short to trim a run off the lead. Nelson walked with two down but was stranded.
In the eighth, Hurt singled, took second on a wild pitch and third on Lessenberry’s grounder to the right side before Hammond worked out of the inning.
Taylor started Bryant’s ninth with a double down the left-field line. Mayall’s grounder to short was booted then Pickett singled over the bag at third for his fourth RBI. With one out, Josh Pultro poked a long double to right to bring Mayall around but Hammond then shut the door, fanning Hurt and getting Lessenberry to bounce out to second.