Friday, May 02, 2008

SPORTS>>Bears take two from Devils

Leader sports editor

As doubleheader losses go, this one was among the easiest to take.

The Jacksonville Red Devils dropped a pair of games to top-ranked Sylvan Hills on Wednesday at Dupree Park, but showed they may be ready for prime time.

Sylvan Hills’ Hunter Miller out-dueled Michael Harmon to complete the sweep with a 3-0 win in the nightcap after the Bears shook off the pesky Red Devils, 9-4, in the opener.

“There’s no doubt about it,” said Jacksonville head coach Larry Burrows. “We’ve come a long way [since the first of the year]. We played that well against Forrest City [two weeks ago] and we’ve talkedabout it all year: Get a little better each week.”

Not that the Red Devils were happy to lose two, but the performance they got on the mound from Harmon in the nightcap gives Burrows plenty of reason for optimism as they prepare for state tournament play next week.

Harmon tossed a five-hitter and carried a two-hit shutout into the sixth inning before D.J. Baxendale lined a sharp single to left to score Hunter Miller and break the scoreless tie.

As good as Harmon was, Miller was just a little better, allowing three hits through six innings before Nathan Ellers closed it out with a 1-2-3 seventh.

“Harmon threw a great game,” said Sylvan Hills coach Denny Tipton. “We didn’t hit it very well, but I give him a lot of credit.

“Hunter pitched really well, too. That was six good, quality innings. We needed that before state.”

The losses evened the Red Devils overall record at 13-13 and their 6A-East Conference mark at 6-6. They close out the conference season with the completion of a doubleheader with West Memphis on Monday at Dupree. The Blue Devils led the Red Devils 6-2 when the game was suspended on April 8 because of rain.

A pair of wins over West Memphis would secure a No. 4 seed for Jacksonville, but they could drop to as far as a six seed with two losses.

Sylvan Hills, which improved to 24-6, and finished the 6A-East 13-1, clinched the conference title last week and will take a No. 1 seed into state tournament play. The Bears added a pair of insurance runs in the nightcap on Wednesday when Jordan Spears lined a single to right and moved to second on Tyler Van Schuyck’s bunt single. Spears eventually scored on Clint Thornton’s sacrifice fly, while Van Schuyck plated the final run on a wild pitch.

Harmon struck out five, walked one and hit two batters. He threw his best game by far this season, Burrows said.

“Our coaches, at the beginning of the season, thought he had shut-down potential,” Burrows said. “He’s shown glimpses of that the last two relief appearances. He shut the door against Forrest City, and threw well against Mountain Home.”

The Red Devils managed only five base runners in the nightcap, and had their best scoring opportunity in the fourth after a one-out single by Cameron Hood and a walk to Patrick Castleberry. The only other baserunner to reach second came on Jason Regnas’ one-out double in the sixth.

After Regnas moved to third on Hood’s sacrifice fly, Castleberry, who homered in the first inning of Game 1, brought the fans to their feet with a deep fly to left, but it was caught on the warning track for the final out.

The Red Devils got off to a good start in the opener against Sylvan Hills ace D.J. Baxendale when, with two outs, Hood singled and Castleberry homered to left. Baxendale settled down after that, retiring the next 13 Jacksonville batters.

That gave the Bears’ offense plenty of time to mount a comeback. They tied it in the second on Chambers’ RBI single and a double steal. Miller gave them a 4-2 lead by following Mark Turpin’s leadoff single in the third with his 11th home run of the season.

The Bears put it away by scoring five runs on just one hit in the fifth and sixth innings. But that hit was a big one — a three-run shot by Thornton over the fence in left-center that made it 7-2.

The Red Devils loaded the bases with no outs in the sixth on a walk to Noah Sanders, Terrell Brown’s single and an error. Hood grounded into a force at third that allowed Sanders to score, and Regnas came around on the play when Ellers throw to first was wild. But Ellers made up for it by starting a sterling 5-4-3 double play to end the game in the seventh.

Tyler Wisdom took the loss for Jacksonville, allowing five hits, three walks and four earned runs over 2 1/3 innings. Baxendale went the distance for the Bears, allowing four hits and a walk, while fanning eight.

Sylvan Hills finished with seven hits in the opener, two by Miller.

The Red Devils trail West Memphis, 6-2, in the fourth inning when they resume play on Monday. Forrest City (5-7) finishes with a pair at Jonesboro, while Searcy finished 7-7.

“We obviously wanted to win today,” Burrows said. “But we haven’t really talked about wins and losses this year. We’ve talked about what we can do better. We try to play a little better each week. We wanted to be close to clicking come tournament time, and I think we’re there.”