Monday, March 23, 2009

SPORTS >> Panthers notch big win

Leader sports editor

Jay Fitch kept waiting for a big hit. And waiting.

By the time the Cabot Panthers had finished leaving the bases loaded in the fourth inning on Thursday night, the number of runners they had left stranded over the previous 11 innings had reached a staggering 18.

But, suddenly, in the fifth inning, Fitch had to wait no longer. Ty Steele came through with a two-out single to tie the game with Bryant, and Drew Burks and Ben Wainwright delivered in the sixth.

The result: Instead of a Cabot team heading into spring break mired in a three-game losing streak and limping along at 1-3 in conference, it has come to life with a 6-3 win over 7A-Central favorite Bryant after twice rallying from deficits in the late going.

“It was real big,” said Fitch, Cabot’s head coach. “We kind of had our backs to the wall. Going into the season, we told the kids that every day was going to be a battle. There is no dominant team in the conference and three or four losses may even win it.

“I asked them, ‘Are we going to fight for one of those top two spots or are we going to settle for a fifth or sixth seed?’”

The victory came just two days after the Panthers (6-2, 2-2) had stranded 11 base runners and lost a 5-1 lead in a 6-5 setback at Little Rock Central.

On Thursday at Conrade Sports Complex, there were plenty of heroes, but perhaps none bigger than Andrew Reynolds, who came on in relief and pitched six masterful innings. With starter C.J. Jacoby struggling early with five walks over one-plus innings against the potent Bryant lineup, Fitch didn’t hesitate to pull him.

“I still believe in C.J.,” Fitch said. “But he’s lacking in a little confidence right now.”

Reynolds allowed only five hits and two earned runs, and kept the Panthers in it against one of the state’s top hurlers in Bryant’s Tyler Sawyer.

“(The No. 2 pitching spot) is wide open,” Fitch said. “With Andrew, I think we found our No. 2. He probably has the best stuff on our team. He can run it up there 86-87 miles per hour. But last night, his curve ball had good bite to it and he really threw his changeup well, too.”

After Jacoby walked the first two Hornets to open the second, Fitch called on Reynolds. He might have escaped the jam entirely, but an infield single put Bryant up 1-0. Hunter Mayall grounded into a shortstop-to-second-to-first double play, setting another theme for the night: Cabot’s rock-solid defense. Cole Nicholson at short was especially good, errorlessly fielding all six of his chances, including some tough ones along the way.

“Cole played really well at shortstop, but overall, I thought we had a solid defensive game,” Fitch said.

In the first inning, Steele got the Panthers out of jam when he backhanded a sharp grounder at third, stepped on the bag and threw across to first to complete an inning-ending double play.

Bryant (6-2, 5-1) made it 2-0 in the fourth on a single and Justin Blankenship’s RBI double over the bag at first.

Two infield singles and a walk yielded only more frustration in the bottom of the inning when Sawyer froze leadoff hitter Joe Bryant with a slow two-strike curve.

The Panthers finally broke through in the fifth. Burks looped a single into right and went to second when Matthew Turner grounded a 1-2 pitch into right. Nicholson hit a slow roller to third baseman Hunter Alford, who fielded it cleanly but threw wildly past first as Burks came in. Steele then sent Sawyer’s first delivery sharply into left to tie the game.

Reynolds, with the aid of another fine defensive play from Nicholson, got out of a bases-loaded pickle in the fifth. Nicholson briefly juggled Tyler Brown’s hard-hit grounder, but recovered and threw him out.

But Bryant went back on top in the sixth on a walk and an RBI single.

Cabot’s winning rally began with one-out walks to Bryant and Reynolds. Burks then tied it when he rocketed a 1-2 pitch into left-center for an RBI double. Ben Wainwright grounded a two-run single over second. Wainwright eventually came home with an insurance run on a wild pitch to make it 6-3.

Burks had two of Cabot’s 11 hits and scored twice. Nicholson and Matt Williams each had two hits as well. Cabot stranded 12, while the Hornets left 11 runners on.


Against Central, Cabot seemed to have things well in hand before the Tigers rallied for two in the sixth and three in the seventh to overcome a 5-1 deficit. Reliever C.J. Jacoby walked in the winning run with one out in the final frame.

Oddly enough, Cabot’s quick starts to innings yielded little while the Panthers did much of their damage with two-out rallies. The Panthers put the first two on in the game on singles by Joe Bryant and Andrew Reynolds, but couldn’t get them in.

But Cabot scored three runs in the second after starting a two-out rally. Ty Steele had an 0-2 count on him when he lined a single to center, the first of five consecutive Panther hits. Chase Thompson singled and Bryant brought two runs in with a long double into the gap in left-center. Andrew Reynolds scored Bryant with a base hit. But, even though the Panthers led 3-0, they stranded two more in the inning.

They left another pair on in the third, and Central scored a run in the bottom of the inning on a rare mistake by Burks in right. His appeared to lose Christian Cooley’s lazy fly in the sun, allowing Russell Goss to score.

Cabot got that run back in the fourth — again the result of a two-out rally. Burks singled and Ben Wainwright delivered him with a lined double to left.

The Panthers stranded two more in the fifth. It didn’t appear that all those missed opportunities would haunt them when they used singles by Burks, Wainwright and Matthew Turner to go up 5-1 in the top of the sixth.

Central got its first two on in the sixth, but Cabot starter Tyler Erickson nearly escaped when he got the next two batters. Luke Montgomery, though, sent a soft flair into right center to bring in two runs and narrow the lead to 5-3.

After the Panthers went quietly in the seventh, Clayton Booth greeted Erickson with an infield single, and Fitch brought in reliever Chase Beasley, who gave up a seeing-eye single through the hole at short before recording a fly out. But Will Parham looped a single to right to load the bases and Mark Murphy walked to bring in a run and make it 5-4.

Jacoby entered and Adam Meeks singled in the tying run. Montgomery then drew the game-winning walk.

Burks had three of Cabot’s 13 hits and scored twice. Bryant had two hits and two RBI, while Reynolds and Wainwright each had two hits.

Beasley took the loss.