Tuesday, May 15, 2012

SPORTS STORY >> Jackrabbits beat Bruins in12

Leader sports editor

HARRISON — The Lonoke Jack-rabbits shocked everyone in Harrison on Saturday when they came from behind to force extra innings, and eventually knocked off favored Pulaski Academy 8-7 in a 12-inning semifinal game that lasted nearly four hours. The win earned Lonoke a trip to the class 4A state championship game at Baum Stadium on the campus of the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville.

Lonoke centerfielder Guy Halbert was the first batter to the plate in the top of the 12th inning. He faced Bruin pitcher Baker Helton for the second time. Helton started the game, and because of depleted pitching, was also the fourth Bruin reliever. He wishes he had his first relief pitch back. Halbert crushed Helton’s first offering in the 12th, sending down the third baseline and over the fence to give Lonoke an 8-7 lead. It was the only hit of the inning for either team, but it was enough for Lonoke reliever Blake Gooden, who got three-straight pop ups in the bottom of the inning to seal the victory and secure the Jackrabbits’ spot in Saturday’s state championship game against Shiloh Christian.

All three Lonoke wins in the state tournament were come-from-behind victories.

“They just keep battling,” Lonoke coach Darrick Lowery said. “These guys just don’t have any quit in them. I can’t even say how proud I am of these guys.”

While Halbert’s home run was the game winner, if the tournament ended with that game, Gooden would be the Most Valuable Player. In three state tournament games, he has 10 base hits in 12 official at bats. He went 3 for 4 Saturday, was hit by a pitch, intentionally walked, scored three runs, stole three bases and recorded two RBIs. He also pitched four innings of one-hit relief and got the win on the mound.

“He’s just been outstanding,” Lowery said of Gooden. “He’s done it all for us all year. He’s caught fire in this tournament and come through for us in a big way.”

The whole team caught fire in the tournament late in round one when it erased a 9-3 deficit to beat Gentry 10-9. The team carried that momentum to a 7-2 win over Dumas in the quarterfinals, but all that momentum almost came to a screeching halt in the first inning on Saturday.

The Jackrabbits committed three errors and gave up three unearned runs to blow a quick 2-0 lead it built in the top half of the inning. In all, Lonoke committed seven errors against the Bruins.
“It sure wasn’t like the last game when we didn’t commit any errors,” Lowery said. “But we battled back. Every time we gave something up we battled right back and got back in it. We never let it get too far out of hand.”

If only earned runs counted, Lonoke would have won the game 6-2, but PA got five unearned runs thanks to Lonoke mistakes.

After five innings, Pulaski Academy held a 7-4 lead. Lonoke had to battle to tie it and force extra frames. In the top of the sixth, starting pitcher and leadoff hitter Garrett Spears singled to left field with one out. He stole second base and moved to third in a groundout by Shane Pepper. With two outs, Gooden singled to drive in Spears. He stole second and third base, then scored on a passed ball to make it 7-6. The tying run in the top of the seventh was one of the most exciting plays in baseball. Lonoke catcher Madison James singled to right field to start things off. His courtesy runner Nick Graves stole second base.

Halbert then singled to centerfield. 23 rounded third intent on trying to beat the throw to home plate. The throw reached PA catcher Hunter Freeman before Graves did, but the throw was slightly high. Graves executed a beautiful headfirst belly slide just underneath the tag for the tying run.

Neither team threatened from that point until the bottom of the ninth when the Bruins got their best and fastest player on base with no outs. Pulaski Academy’s Blake Wiggins was hit by a pitch and stole second and third base with no outs. The game is over if Wiggins crosses the plate, but James makes two great plays behind the plate, one of which saved the game.

Gooden got Freeman to pop up to James for the first out, keeping Wiggins at third. Lawson Vassar then grounded out to shortstop, also holding Wiggins. On the next at bat, Gooden threw a wild pitch in the dirt, but James made a game-saving stop, blocking the throw on the bounce, taking it off his chest protector and keeping it in front of him. Max Mehaffy then grounded to short for the third out that kept Lonoke alive.

“That play was huge,” Lowery said of Jame’s stop. “He’s been great for us all year. I think he’s at least the best catcher in our conference.”

Helton started but pitched only two innings, but he re-entered in the 12th and took the loss. Spears went four and two-thirds for Lonoke and turned in a great performance, but five of Lonoke’s six errors took place behind him.

He gave up six hits, struck out four, walked two and gave up just two earned runs, though he left the game trailing 7-4.

Lonoke got 11 base hits to PA’s seven. Gooden and Halbert led the Jackrabbits with three hits each. James got two base hits while Spears, Lane Moore and Reid McKenzie got one base hit apiece. Chris Hayes led the Bruins with three base hits while Wiggins got two and reached base four times.