Tuesday, April 30, 2013

SPORTS STORY >> ’Rabbits avenge loss, win district

Leader sports editor

A pair of wins on Monday means a No. 1 seed in the regional tournament for the Lonoke baseball team. The Jackrabbits beat Clinton 4-2 in the semifinals then got revenge on rival Stuttgart in the 4A-2 district championship with an 8-5 victory in Heber Springs.

The Ricebirds and Lonoke were conference co-champs in the 4A-2 and Stuttgart gave Lonoke its only conference loss of the season. The head-to-head win meant Stuttgart got the top seed in the district tournament, but that will belong to the Jackrabbits when the two teams return to Heber Springs on Friday to begin regional play.

The Jackrabbits celebrated between the pitcher’s mound and second base after the district championship win. Lonoke coach Darrick Lowery understood the postgame emotions.

“This is a big deal for them,” Lowery said. “Anytime we get to match up with Stuttgart we know we have to play a pretty good game to win. That was our only conference loss this year so they wanted this one pretty bad.”

Lonoke was hitting the ball hard from the very first inning, but weren’t getting many breaks with placement. The Jackrabbits took a 2-0 lead in the top of the first, but a little bad luck cut the rally shorter than it could’ve been.

Leading 2-0 and the bases loaded with one out, Nick Watson hit a hard line drive down the third baseline that, instead of being a bases-clearing double, was caught for an unassisted double play. It was a good example of the kind of day Watson would have, until he finally found a gap later in the game, and it was at the perfect time for Lonoke.

Stuttgart (16-7) tied it up in the bottom of the same inning and added one run in each of the third and fourth innings for a 4-2 lead. Lonoke continued hitting the ball hard, but couldn’t get on the board again until a big fifth inning.

The first two Jackrabbits to bat went down in order, but hard shots finally started finding empty spaces in the Stuttgart defense. Once the pressure mounted, Stuttgart also began making mistakes uncharacteristic of a conference champ.

“We’d been hitting the ball hard all day,” Lowery said. “We knew eventually if we keep at it things would eventually break for us. Nick had been smoking it and he finally got a huge one for us.”

Zack Risner started the rally with a single to centerfield. Christian James then drew a walk. That brought Watson up for his third at bat of the game. This time he sent a high drive down the power alley in left-centerfield. It hit the wall on one bounce and both base runners scored to tie the game at 4. That was it for starting pitcher Jacob Clawson, who yielded to Regan Counce, but Counce only lasted three batters. Garrett Spears, Nick Graves and Shane Pepper got consecutive singles for two more runs and a 6-4 Lonoke lead.

The Ricebirds came right back with a single run in the bottom of the fifth, an unearned run off relief pitcher Christian James in an inning that could have been much worse for Lonoke than it turned out to be. Clawson hit a routine grounder to shortstop to start the inning, but the throw was off the mark.

More luck went Stuttgart’s way when Carter Ward took a full swing, but the ball acted like a perfect bunt, rolling slowly down the third baseline for an infield single. Jay McGee then put down the perfect bunt for another single that loaded the bases with no outs. Counce then hit a deep fly ball to left field that scored Clawson. James then struck out Gere Elam and got Dontrell Brown to fly out to left field, though Shane Pepper had to put his heels to the fence to make the catch.

Lonoke added a couple of insurance runs in the top of the sixth. Gooden led off with a single on a 0-2 pitch to right-centerfield, and stole second base. Guy Halbert then hit one to the clouds in left field, where it bounced off the arm of John Curtis and rolled rapidly away from him. By the time he retrieved the ball, Gooden scored easily and Halbert was safe at third. Madison James then hit a sacrifice fly to deep centerfield to score Halbert and set the final margin.

Christian James then struck out two of three in the bottom of the sixth. Gooden took the mound for the seventh, striking out Clawson and Ward, and getting McGee to ground out to second base to end the game.

Spears started the game and pitched four innings for the no decision. Christian James got the win, giving up two hits and no earned runs while striking out three and walking none.

Lonoke’s semifinal win over Clinton wasn’t without drama. The Yellowjackets had the bases loaded with two outs and trailing 4-2 in the last inning when controversy struck. A short hopper to the right of the pitcher’s mound was fielded by Gooden. He threw to first in time for the out, but the runner ran into Risner just after he made the catch and caused him to drop the ball. The umpire signaled out when the catch was made, but then changed the call and signaled safe, meanwhile two Clinton runners crossed the plate, seemingly tying the game. Lowery protested that the out was made before the ball was caught. After a meeting between the three umpires at the pitcher’s mound, the runner was ruled out and the game was over.

The Jackrabbits will play Cave City at 4 p.m. Friday at Heber Springs. The Cavemen are the No. 4 seed from the 4A-3 Conference.