Tuesday, July 16, 2013

SPORTS STORY >> Gwatney wins zone title

Leader sports editor

The Gwatney Chevrolet junior American Legion team is redefining how to win and lose at baseball. Fortunately for the Chevy Boys, their recent bizarre outcomes didn’t completely hamper a run to the Zone 3 championship at Cabot. Tournament host Centennial Bank White (30-9), which has handed Jacksonville two of its three losses this year, fell 8-5 to Jacksonville in the zone tournament championship game Monday, a day after beating the Chevy Boys (25-3) 2-0 in an epic 10-inning standoff.

Gwatney Chevrolet got 21 strikeouts from pitcher Derek St. Clair on Sunday and lost, then committed seven errors in Monday’s championship game and won.

“We are making too many errors but the kids are finding a way to win,” Jacksonville coach Bob Hickingbotham said. “St. Clair pitched so well, it’s a shame we couldn’t get him some runs, but Cabot’s a fine ball team. Those two pitchers they threw against us Sunday are both very good pitchers, very good. The Tillery kid changes speed on you so well he keeps you off balance. But he doesn’t throw as hard as the other one (Adam Hicks). When he learns how to change speed like that he’s going to be a dandy.”

Cabot pitchers Adam Hicks and Gavin Tillery combined to keep Jacksonville scoreless the entire 10 innings of Sunday’s win, but it was Jacksonville’s pitcher that put on the show. Pitching for the first time this season for Gwatney after being the No. 1 starter for JHS, Derek St. Clair threw all 10 innings, striking out 21 while giving up six hits, three walks, one hit batter and one earned run. He struck out 16 in seven innings of regulation and gave up four hits.

Hicks was also impressive in his seven innings on the mound. He fanned eight while giving up four hits and no walks. Three of those hits came in the second inning with no outs. Greg Jones, Courtland McDonald and Brandon Hickingbotham got consecutive singles to start the innings, but Hicks answered with two strikeouts before getting D.J. Scott to line out to first base and get out of the jam.

Jacksonville scarcely threatened the rest of the way.

Tillery took the mound in the eighth inning and struck out just one in the eighth and ninth innings combined. But after Cabot scored two in the top of the 10th, Tillery struck out the side in the bottom half to earn the win.

The championship game was a comedy of errors for Jacksonville, but Cabot couldn’t capitalize. Meanwhile, Jacksonville’s bats came alive. Cabot pitcher Chris Odom, who turned in his own dominant performance earlier in the tournament with a seven-inning no hitter against Lonoke, gave up 10 hits and six earned runs in seven innings on Monday.

Cabot topped Jacksonville’s output with 11 hits to go with Jacksonville’s seven errors, but Gwatney starting pitcher James Tucker worked his way out of enough jams to earn the complete-game victory.

“Truth is, if I had to do it over I would’ve taken him out after about five innings,” Hickingbotham said of Tucker. “He threw a fine game but he threw way too many pitches, about 50 too many. We didn’t help him much in the field either. We’re getting too many mistakes from the guys that shouldn’t be making them, guys that have been starting for us for a long time.

“Then you got Donte Harris, who hadn’t played much, went out there and had his best game this year out in right field. I’m real proud of him.”

Centennial Bank jumped out to a 2-0 lead in the bottom of the first inning thanks to a series of Gwatney mistakes. Two of the first three batters reached on errors by St. Clair, with a sacrifice bunt in between.

Brandon Jones then hit a bloop single that didn’t escape the dirt of the infield, but was far enough into the gap that second baseman Ryan Mallison couldn’t make the throw to first in time.

Odom then scored on a wild pitch by Tucker, and Hicks scored when catcher Greg Jones let a third-out strike three get by, leaving Jonathan Latture safe at first base.

Jacksonville answered in the top of the second by taking advantage of a brief lapse in control by Odom. After two up and two down, Hickingbotham roped a single to centerfield. Odom then walked Scott and hit Harris with the first pitch to load the bases.

Tucker ripped the first pitch he saw down the third base line about two feet foul. After working to a full count, he pulled out another line drive down the line, this time just fair and to the wall for a bases-clearing, three RBI double. Jacksonville never trailed again, but didn’t have the game locked away until the final out.

Cabot got its first two batters on in the bottom of the seventh inning. Null reached on another strike-three passed ball. Dalten Hurst then walked three pitches after Jones dropped an easy pop up in foul territory. The runners moved into scoring position with one out on a sacrifice bunt, but Tucker got the next two batters to fly out to seal the win.

McDonald led the way offensively for Gwatney Chevrolet with three base hits, two runs scored and an RBI double. Odom and Hicks led Cabot wtih two base hits apiece. Cabot will also host the junior state tournament that begins Friday.