Photos by Rick Nation
On an 0-2, two-out delivery in the bottom of the sixth of a 1-1 game, Seth Tucker drilled a single to center field to drive in Jake East and put the Bryant Hornets ahead of the rival Conway Wampus Cats. Right-hander Zach “Panda” Jackson, with a little help from Tucker in the field, retired Conway in order in the top of the seventh as the Hornets forged a 2-1 win on Thursday to avenge their only in-state loss of the season.
Like the 4-0 loss at Conway back on April 5, the game was really a pitcher’s duel between Jackson, a University of Arkansas signee, and Conway lefty Collin Cahill, an Arkansas State signee. Jackson scattered seven hits, walked no one and struck out nine to earn the win, while Cahill allowed four hits and walked two over 5 1/3 innings, taking the loss when reliever Matt Strickland surrendered Tucker’s clutch hit. The Conway starter walked two, hit a batter and fanned just one after striking out 12 in his five-hit shutout in the previous meeting.
The Hornets now have the inside track to winning the 7A/6A-Central Conference championship yet Conway, the defending Class 7A runner-up, still has the inside track to gain the top seed (and a first-round bye) for the 7A State Tournament. If both teams win out — they each play 7A league foes Van Buren and Little Rock Catholic next week — the tiebreaker for the top seed would be run differential in their head-to-head match-ups.
They’re both currently 3-1 against 7A teams in the conference, which are the only games in league play that count toward qualifying for State and seeding at the tourney because of the mixed classification league.
On Tuesday, Bryant’s at Van Buren and Conway is at Catholic.
“You know, Conway’s one of the more talented teams in the state and one of the best coached teams in the state,” stated Bryant head coach Kirk Bock. “This was a typical Bryant-Conway game. Basically, whoever flinches first loses the game and they flinched first in the first inning.”
That’s when the Hornets took a 1-0 lead after the Cats stranded a runner at third in the top of the frame following a McCall Dail double with one out. Logan Allen led off with a double inside the third-base back in Bryant’s half. Dylan Hurt sacrificed him to third. Cahill unleashed a wild pitch and Allen scored.
“That gave us an opportunity to score,” Bock acknowledged. “At their place, it was the same thing. We were the ones that gave them opportunities.
“I thought Collin did a tremendous job for them,” he continued. “He kept us off balance, spread hits out and did a really good job.
“Obviously, Zach did a tremendous job,” the coach added. “Basically, he had one bad pitch.”
That came in the top of the fourth. With two down, Jack Stroth blooped a two-strike pitch to right for a single. On an 0-1 count to Cade Tucker, Jackson’s delivery was drilled to the fence in left center to chase in Stroth to tie the game 1-1.
“He got the ball up on (Cade) Tucker and he hit it to the wall and they scored the run,” Bock said. “When (Zach) came in the dugout, he said, ‘Hey, man, my bad. I left that ball up. It won’t happen again.’ And it didn’t.
“He was accountable for his actions,” the coach observed. “That’s something we preach every day and he practices it. Just hearing that out of Zach made me feel good about him because a lot of guys aren’t accountable for their actions.”
Conway managed just two base-runners after getting on the board. Parker Gavazzi singled with one out in the fifth but was picked off by Hurt, the Bryant catcher, on a play that Wampus Cats coach Noel Boucher argued vehemently.
In the sixth, Grayson Pinkett singled to left with one down then Jackson retired the least five batters in a row, three on strikes.
Putting the ball in play much better in this meeting with Cahill and the Wampus Cats, the Hornets had other opportunities to score. Conway made some eye-popping defensive plays to help deny Bryant however.
In the second, East reached on the lone error of the game. Cade Tucker, the Conway third baseman, made a tremendous play on a slow roller up the line but threw wildly to first. A wild pitch allowed East to take second then he advanced to third on Aaron Orender’s grounder to the right side but got no farther.
In the third, Allen singled, advanced to second on a wild pitch and Hurt drew a walk but Evan Lee lined out to right. Garrett Misenheimer appeared to have a hit on a liner to left-center but Conway’s Braydon Leach ran the ball down to rob him.
East walked and Orender was hit by a pitch with one out in the fourth. With two away, Joey Cates hit a roller that Cahill got to. But waiting for his first baseman Jordan Wicks to get to the bag, Cahill ran toward the base and when he finally got rid of the ball, the hustling Cates was safe.
That brought up Allen, who was 2 for 2 at that point, but Cahill got him to ground into a force out to escape with the game tied 1-1.
In the fifth, Misenheimer was robbed of a two-out hit by second baseman Matt Lloyd whose throw to first was in the dirt but dug out by Wicks.
The home sixth began with a fly to right by Jordan Gentry that looked like it might fall in only to have Dail charge in to flag it down. East followed with a single up the middle and, despite having a pitch count at just 83 pitches, Cahill gave way to Strickland.
East swiped second then Orender drilled a liner to left-center that looked like it had the gap and a path to the fence. Again, however, Leach ran it down making a headlong dive to catch it off the top of the grass for the second out.
Seth Tucker’s grounder up the middle followed. And it looked like there might be a play at the plate on East as Gavazzi the centerfielder charged in aggressively. But he couldn’t come up with the ball cleanly and East slid home with what proved to be the game winner.
The Hornets threatened to get more when Cates cracked a single. Tucker hustled to third, drawing a late throw and Cates alertly sprinted into second, giving the Hornets a chance to perhaps pile up enough runs to overcome the tie-breaking differential. But Strickland wriggled off the hook and the game went to the seventh.
Jackson fanned Cade Tucker on three pitches then Lloyd grounded out to Seth Tucker at second then Leach went down swinging on three pitches.