Leader Blues

Friday, April 18, 2008

SPORTS >>Short-handed Panthers fall to Wildcats

Leader sports editor

Shorthanded is the last way you want to take on one of the league’s top teams.

But that’s what Cabot faced on Tuesday afternoon when it hosted North Little Rock. The Panthers, without shortstop and pitcher Matt Evans and top pitcher Sam Bates, hung tough with the Charging Wildcats, but costly errors led to five unearned runs, and North Little Rock prevailed, 6-3.

“You know, it makes you think maybe we’re up 3-2 going into the seventh inning,” said Cabot head coach Jay Fitch, noting the five errors his Panthers (2-4 in the7A Central) committed. “Tonight is a night you’d like to be full strength, but it just didn’t happen that way.”

Evans broke his nose on Monday when a bad-hop grounder hit him in the face, while Bates was away at a funeral on Tuesday.

That sent little-used hurler Chad Bryant to the mound, and he mostly acquitted himself well. He didn’t strike out anyone, but he walked only one and all five of the runs he surrendered were unearned. He allowed nine hits.

“Chad threw strikes and gave us a chance to win,” Fitch said.

But, other than an impressive two-strike, two-out single by Ben Wainright in the third and Trey Rosel’s two-out single in the fourth, the Panthers struggled against NLR ace Kyle Thompson. Cabot managed only five hits, and struck out 12 times against the hard-throwing right-hander.

“He’s really good and my hat’s off to him,” Fitch said of Thompson. “He’s a tough kid, and he’s always around the zone. He’s not going to beat himself, and he has plus-stuff. I don’t know if he’s signed with anyone yet, but he’ll be playing somewhere next year.”

North Little Rock touched Bryant for two runs in the second inning, which is when Wildcat coach Randy Sandefur’s day came to an end. Sandefur was upset over three rulings in the first two innings — one when the home plate umpire ruled umpire interference after he became entangled with catcher Wainright on a wild pitch. The Wildcat runner who appeared to score from third on the play was sent back to third base.

On two different occasions when Wildcat batters were hit with pitches, the same umpire ruled that the hitters had not made an earnest attempt to get out of the way and were not awarded first base. The second of those two instances proved too much for Sandefur and he was tossed from the game.

“Coach Sandefur is a good coach, but he’s been known to get a little heated at times,” Fitch said. “I knew when he came out there the last time that was probably going to be it for him. That call is a little subjective at times and those were borderline. We may have got a break, but that’s the way he interpreted it.”

Bryant looked as though he might escape a leadoff single in the second, but a two-out error kept the inning alive, and a walk and two infield singles staked NLR to a 2-0 lead.

Cabot knotted things with a fine piece of hitting by Wainright in the second. It all began with two outs when Powell Bryant singled and Jeremy Wilson reached on an error. After Drew Burks drew a walk to load the bases, Wainright faced an 0-2 count.

But he was able to send a hard grounder through the hole at short to tie the game.

“That was a clutch hit for us,” Fitch said. “[Wainright has] really been coming on for us defensively and at the plate. I’ve been really proud of him.”

A two-out error in the fourth inning, though, allowed the Wildcats to take the lead for good as three more unearned runs came across. The Panthers got one of those back when Rosel’s two-out single to center brought home Jackson Chism. Another error set up North Little Rock’s sixth run, which came across on a sacrifice fly in the sixth.

Thompson got better as the game progressed. The only Cabot base runner after the fourth inning came on a wild pitch strikeout in the seventh.

Josh Brown relieved Bryant in the fifth and was masterful. He pitched 2 1/3 innings of hitless ball, striking out one and walking one.

North Little Rock finished with nine hits and one error, while Cabot had five hits and five errors.

Powell Bryant led Cabot with two hits.

“He got off to a great start, and he’s really coming on again,” Fitch said. “He’s just a great athlete. He runs well, he has a good arm and he’s hitting it well. We really needed to get him going.”

Fitch figures the race for the final slots in the state tournament will come down to the end. His teams have missed the playoffs just one time in his nine years at Cabot.

“We knew this year would be a little up and down,” he said. “But we still want to get in — if for nothing else, to build experience for next year. But, hopefully, we’ll get hot in the thing. It’s baseball. Anything can happen.”