Tuesday, May 12, 2015

SPORTS STORY >> Panthers seal top spot, bye at state

Leader sportswriter

The Cabot High School baseball team clinched the No. 1 East seed for this week’s Class 7A state playoffs with a win against arguably the best pitcher in the state Friday at West Memphis, as the Panthers got just enough offense to beat the host Blue Devils, 2-0.

Cabot routed West Memphis 13-0 at Brian Wade Conrade Memorial Field on May 5, but had to face Blue Devil ace and Mississippi State signee Gray Fenter on Friday, and Fenter proved to be a much tougher challenge.

Fenter pitched all seven innings and recorded 10 strikeouts against the Panthers, but Cabot took advantage of the Blue Devils’ mistakes in the field, shortstop Dylan Bowers scored a run in each of the third and fifth innings, and winning pitcher Chase Kyzer threw another shutout gem to give the Panthers (16-8) the top seed from the East.

“It was really a gutsy effort by Kyzer,” said Cabot coach Ronnie Goodwin, “going against arguably the best pitcher in the state. In fact, he’s one of the best high school arms I’ve ever seen, to be honest with you. He was 93 to 95 miles an hour Friday night, according to all the scouts in the stands.

“So, for us to go in there with a No. 1 seed on the line, having to win it to get the No. 1 seed, that was really a gutsy performance by Kyzer, because one little hiccup here or there and we’re not a No. 1 seed going into this tournament.”

Fenter, who’s currently projected to be picked anywhere between 41st and 60th overall in the upcoming Major League Baseball draft with one publication ranking him as the 17th best high school prospect in the country, held Cabot scoreless through the first two innings Friday, but the Panthers got on the board in the top of the third with an unearned run.

Bowers reached on an error by the Blue Devil second baseman to lead off the top of the third. Bowers stole second base before being sacrificed to third on a well-executed bunt by catcher Denver Mullins, and the next at-bat, Bowers scored on a sac fly off the bat of Tristan Bulice.

Bowers’ run gave Cabot all it would need, but the speedy shortstop scored one more insurance run in the top of the fifth. He reached base on a one-out single in that inning, and stole second base with Mullins at the plate.

Mullins hit a ground ball to shortstop, but an error on the play left all runners safe and put Bowers at third. Bulice struck out swinging the next at-bat, and before clean-up hitter Landon James could draw a walk with first base open, Bowers stole home to set the final score.

It was a risky, but calculated call by the head Panther to send Bowers home, and one that paid off.

“The pitcher was in the wind-up and we actually got to a 3-1 count, and he kind of just gave Bulice a steady diet of breaking balls,” Goodwin said. “I didn’t think he would give our four-hole hitter (James) a fastball to hit, 3-1 with a base open. So I actually gambled a little bit, and we stole home to get the insurance run.

“Bowers, being the aggressive base runner he is, got a really aggressive lead. There were two outs, so their third baseman was playing back with our four-hole hitter up, so there was no opportunity for them to pick (Bowers off), and with him (Fenter) being in the wind-up, I just felt like this might be our best shot.

“Just having a feeling he would throw a breaking ball in that 3-1 count, we just gambled and the gamble paid off. We had the right runner at third to do it. I had the watch on the guy, as far as how much time it was taking him to get through the wind-up.

“It was a calculated gamble. It wasn’t like we were thinking, ‘Eh, let’s try and steal home.’ We thought the numbers were in our favor.”

Kyzer and the Panther defense kept West Memphis from threatening the rest of the way and in the bottom of the seventh, Kyzer retired the side, striking out two in that inning, to get the win and the Panthers the No. 1 seed in this week’s 7A playoffs.

West Memphis outhit Cabot, 6-4, but the Blue Devils committed two errors in the game while the Panthers had zero errors. Jonathan Latture led Cabot at the plate, going 2 for 3 with two singles. James and Bowers had Cabot’s other two hits – both singles.

Kyzer threw all seven innings Friday, and recorded a total of eight strikeouts.

As far as the playoffs, the Panthers receive a first-round bye for being a one seed, and will therefore play the Little Rock Catholic/Springdale Har-Ber winner in the second round of the 7A state tournament Friday at 2:30 p.m. at the Bentonville High School field.

Goodwin, a state champion in his own right as a player at North Little Rock High School, knows the challenges and difficulties of succeeding in the state tournament, but he likes his team’s chances, as long as it takes the right approach and plays the way it’s capable of playing, and perhaps gets a couple of breaks as well.

“I like our chances,” Goodwin said. “I feel like our kids are confident, and I feel like having to win to get that No. 1 seed kind of created a playoff atmosphere for them, and they handled that adversity well.

“So, if we play the way we’re capable of playing, I’m very confident that we can go in there and make some noise. But, to me, the secret of this whole thing is you’ve got to treat this like it’s any other game. If you make it more than what it is, you’re going to put pressure on yourself that’s not going to help you succeed.

“But every time we’ve had adversity this year, we’ve responded. We’ve played well most of the year. Outside of one game, we’ve been in every game. Of our eight losses, I think five are one-run losses.

“I like the way we’re playing. If we can just keep our poise and stay relaxed, anything can happen in a single-elimination tournament. It’s really just going to boil down to who plays the best and who gets a break here and there.”