SPORTS>>Panthers grab a critical win over Cyclones
Leader sports editor
You could do a whole lot worse than drawing a comparison to Willie Mays.
But that was the inevitable response to a spectacular over-the-shoulder, back-to-the-infield, falling-down catch by Cabot’s Drew Burks on Tuesday in the Panthers’ dramatic, nine-inning 7-6 win over Russellville.
“Phenomenal,” said Cabot head coach Jay Fitch of the acrobatic catch that saved at least two runs in the first inning. “It was almost better than (Mays’ famous over-the-shoulder catch). Willie made it standing up. Drew just full laid out and caught it over his shoulder. One of the best plays in my high school career.”
Cabot finally won the game when Jackson Chism laced a walk-off single down the right-field line with two outs in the bottom of the ninth. It was a critical win in the race for the final state tournament berth from the 7A Central. It completed a season-sweep of Russellville.
Unfortunately for the Panthers, they followed the rousing win over the Cyclones with a heartbreaking 4-3 loss to second-place Conway on Thursday when the Wampus Cats rallied from a 3-2 deficit in the sixth and seventh innings. The 1-1 week for the Panthers pushed their record to 3-8 in league play, and still very much in the race for the sixth and final state tournament berth.
They currently lead 2-10 Little Rock Central by 1 ½ games, and Russellville by two games. The Panthers (11-11 overall) travel to first-place Little Rock Catholic on Monday and finish the regular season with what could prove to be a do-or-die finale with Central. Central beat Cabot earlier this season.
“We’ve got to win one more game to get in there and get a shot [in the state tournament],” Fitch said.
Against Russellville, the Panthers got a sterling relief performance from winning sophomore pitcher Tyler Erickson, who allowed only one hit over five shutout innings. Burks and catcher Ben Wainright bailed Erickson out of his only jam after Kyle Johnson led off Russellville’s seventh with a triple to center.
Nathan Cathcart sent what appeared to be a tie-breaking sacrifice fly to Burks in right field. But Burks delivered a one-hop throw a couple of feet up the third-base line, which Wainright caught and held on to as Johnson bulled into him and knocked him over. The big-hitting Johnson was not only out on the play, but was tossed from the game for running into the catcher.
“Ben’s a tough kid and just works his tail off,” Fitch said. “And that’s why Drew Burks is a Division I prospect, because he makes those kinds of plays. That was a big, big turning point in that game.”
Cathcart had battled Erickson goose egg for goose egg in relief after coming on in the fourth inning. Russellville jumped to a 1-0 lead, but an error, two wild pitches and Sam Bates’ ground out tied it in the bottom of the inning.
The Cyclones led again 2-1 in the third, but Cabot collected three of its seven hits in the bottom half to claim the lead. Powell Bryant singled, stole second and scored on Burks’ single to left. Bates brought him home with a base hit.
But Russellville cashed in a pair of Cabot errors for four runs in the fourth to reclaim the lead, 6-3.
Chism and Shayne Burgan drew one-out walks in the bottom of the fourth and, after a wild pitch, Matt Turner lined a single to right to bring them home and make it 6-5. Bryant’s double tied it.
But after all the fireworks through the first four innings, neither team could dent the plate over the next five innings. Cabot’s best chance to end it came in the seventh after Wainright was hit and Chad Bryant was intentionally walked. A wild pitch got the winning run to third with one out, but Cathcart got a strikeout and a pop out.
In the winning rally, Bates drew a one-out walk. Wainright sacrificed courtesy runner Chase Thompson to second. Cathcart intentionally walked Chad Bryant. Chism, who had struggled in his three previous plate appearances, lined a solid single over the first baseman’s head to easily score Thompson.
“Chad’s a senior and I wanted to try to let him drive in [the winning run],” Fitch said of his decision to have Wainright sacrifice.
“But they walk Chad and Jackson steps up and gets the big hit. He’s a lot better than what he showed in those first three at-bats. He looked lost.
“But he’s a good hitter and he stepped right up there. I’m extremely proud of him. We needed that in the worst way.”
As for Erickson’s performance, Fitch didn’t seem all that surprised.
“We’ve been needing him all year, but his elbow’s been tender,” Fitch said. “I’d been telling him to stay ready, we may need you. And sure enough, he came in and didn’t give them anything at all.
“He threw great in the Jacksonville tourney [early in the year]. But he’s been tender ever since. Tonight’s the first night he looked full speed.”
Erickson picked up all three RBI against Conway. Sean Clarkson started and allowed just one earned run over 3 1/3 innings, striking out three and walking two.
Cabot played severely shorthanded against the Cats. Wainright injured his thumb on the collision at the plate on Tuesday and sat out, while Drew Burks and Powell Bryant were away at the conference track meet.