SPORTS >> Panthers back from brink
Leader sports editor
A few timely hits, some great defense, a little luck and two outstanding pitching performances have the Cabot Panthers back from the edge of extinction.
Cole Nicholson and Andrew Reynolds pitched lights out on Tuesday and Thursday nights as Cabot bounced back from a three-game losing streak to post critical wins over North Little Rock on Tuesday and Little Rock Central on Thursday. Cabot beat the Wildcats 2-0 and the Tigers 3-2.
“We were a little confused because our pitching had been burning us for a couple of weeks,” said Cabot head coach Jay Fitch.
“We thought hard and heavy about who to pitch. I figured if Cole throws like he did against White Hall earlier this year, we had a good chance of winning.
“He threw a great game and Andrew (Reynolds) closed it out. Then Andrew threw a gutsty win (Thursday).”
Drew Burks’ two-out single brought home Joe Bryant with the game winner against Central on Thursday as Cabot improved to 5-5 in 7A Central play, a full gameahead of Central at 5-7. The Panthers are now right in the middle of a muddled race that has Bryant in first place, but with only eight wins, Cabot, Central, Van Buren, Catholic, North Little Rock, Conway and Bryant are all bunched up together. Only Russellville has been eliminated from one of the six postseason slots.
Cabot has another critical week starting on Monday when it hosts North Little Rock, followed by a trip to Bryant on Tuesday and a home engagement with Van Buren on Thursday.
“If we play great next week, we could be anywhere from first or second,” Fitch said. “Or we could not make it at all.”
That latter scenario was beginning to look like the more likely one after Cabot followed up a big comeback win against Bryant and a romp past Russellville with dismal showings in losses to Conway, Catholic and Van Buren, leaving the Panthers at 3-5.
Even though Cabot’s bats have remained relatively quiet, its pitching and defense has made all the difference. On Thursday against Central, Reynolds went the distance for the win, allowing just six hits and fanning seven. Reynolds was following up from a marvelous save against North Little Rock two days earlier.
Reynolds was able to pitch out of jams in four innings, stranding 10 Tigers on the basepaths. He hit three batters, including the leadoff man in the first. That batter came around to score to put Central up 1-0.
Ben Wainwright’s home run to left, right into the teeth of a brisk wind, tied the game in the second, though Cabot failed to cash in on Matthew Turner’s no-out triple later in the inning. Cabot also failed to get another runner in from third with less than two outs in the fifth after Central had taken the lead on a two-out RBI double by Jim Manney.
Nicholson singled and Ty Steele got him to third with a one-out single. But Chase Thompson was unable to get a safety squeeze down and Joe Bryant popped out trying to bunt as Cabot remained in a 2-1 hole after five.
The Panthers finally knotted it in the sixth on Tyler Erickson’s two-out RBI single that brought in courtesy runner Justin Tyler.
Reynolds pitched out of two-on, one-out jams in both the sixth and seventh innings. In the seventh, the Panthers survived the second of two mental mistakes in the game. An earlier miscommunication on a first-and-third situation nearly cost Cabot. The Tigers had one on with one out when Manney was issued an unintended-intentional walk. Wainwright misunderstood Fitch’s request for him to go talk to Reynolds to give Erickson more time to warm up to come in and face Manney.
“I told him go talk to him,” Fitch said. “But he thought I said to put (Manney) on. I should have been clearer.”
That pushed the tying run into scoring position. But Reynolds buckled down to get a strikeout and a bouncer back to the mound.
Cabot then produced the game winner with two outs when Joe Bryant drew a walk and Powell Bryant barely reached when the Central third baseman bobbled his grounder. Burks then lined a 1-0 pitch into left center for the victory.
“Drew is as clutch a player as I’ve ever had,” Fitch said. “His hands are so good, he could probably not even use his lower half and still get a hit.”
The other mental error Cabot survived came in the fourth inning when Wainwright and Reynolds got their signals crossed on a first-and-third situation. Central had the double steal on and Wainwright fired back to the mound rather than throw through to second base. Reynolds apparently thought Wainwright had signaled he would throw to second and wasn’t expecting the throw.
The ball hit Reynolds in the chest and the runner from third could not come in to score, so no damage was done on the miscommunication.
“He would have scored (if the ball had gotten away from Reynolds),” Fitch said. “The baseball gods usually punish you for doing stupid things. We were very fortunate there.”
Cabot had seven hits, led by Burks’ two singles.
NORTH LITTLE ROCK 0
Nicholson allowed five hits over five innings while striking out six. Reynolds came on in relief to nail down the win that ended Cabot’s three-game losing streak.
“We know Cole has it in him,” Fitch said. “I’ve only had one sophomore as good as him. When he has his ‘A’ game, for a sophomore, he’s pretty impressive.”
Cabot got RBI singles from their five- and seven-hole hitters and that was just enough. After going 1-2-3 in the first, the Panthers got a leadoff single from Ben Wainwright to open the second. Pinch runner Zach Uhiren stole second and came around with two outs when Tyler Erickson lined an 0-2 pitch into right for an RBI single.
The Panthers added another in the third on consecutive one-out singles by Drew Burks, Wainwright and Andrew Reynolds. Reynolds grounded his first offering through the hole at second to score Burks and make it 2-0.
Nicholson struck out six of the first 10 Wildcats he faced, including retiring five in a row via strikeout, while allowing only two hits over the first three innings. He ran into trouble in both the fourth and fifth innings but got a little good fortune and a couple of defensive gems to escape both with the two-run lead intact.
A single, a hit batter and an error loaded the bases with one out in the fourth. But Cabot third baseman Ty Steele snagged a line drive, then stepped on third for an inning-ending double play.
Nicholson escaped a jam in the fifth after a misplayed fly ball into left landed for a double with one out. But second baseman
Chase Thompson made a miraculous catch of a looping fly ball into right, gloving it with his back turned to the infield. Steele then dove to his right to backhand a hard hit groundball headed into the left field corner, got up and tagged the runner heading to third base for the final out.
Cabot had a couple of more chances for insurance in the fifth and sixth, but left both runners in scoring position.
After Nicholson surrendered a leadoff single in the sixth, Fitch called on Reynolds, who got a strikeout before giving up a single to put the tying runs on. David Hohn then hit a rocket, but right at Chase Thompson at second. A pop out ended the inning and the threat.
Reynolds then pitched a 1-2-3 seventh to preserve a much-needed win. He allowed one hit and struck out two over two innings to pick up the save.
Cabot got seven hits — two each by Wainwright and Erickson.