Leader Blues

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

SPORTS >> Nicholson, Wainwright lift Panthers

By KELLY FENTON
Leader sports editor

If you had forecast a Cabot sweep of North Little Rock two weeks ago, you probably would have been laughed off as a loon.

After all, the Panthers had just lost their third straight game, which included a 17-1 shellacking by Conway. They were reeling at 3-5 in the conference and, suddenly, looked like they’d be fortunate just to earn a state tournament bid.

So yeah, you’d have had your sanity questioned if you’d made such a bold prediction.

Turns out you’d have been right. The Panthers won their fourth straight game and their second over formerly first-place North Little Rock in seven days with a 7-2 victory on Monday afternoon at Conrade-Wade Field. They did it with another sterling performance by sophomore pitcher Cole Nicholson and a pair of home runs from Ben Wainwright.

The victory propelled Cabot further up the 7A Central standings at 6-5, leaving the Panthers tied for third with Catholic (Catholic owns the tiebreak), a game behind Conway and North Little Rockand a half-game ahead of Van Buren. Cabot played Bryant last night and will host Van Buren on Thursday.

Cabot knocked NLR out of first, a half-game behind league leader Bryant. Little Rock Central is still in the hunt for a playoff berth at 5-7.

Since falling to Catholic on April 8, Cabot has beaten the Wildcats twice, Little Rock Central and Jacksonville in a non-conference game.

“What’s a little bit ironic is the same kid that got knocked around by Conway, that’s the same pitcher that beat North Little Rock twice,” said Cabot coach Jay Fitch. “We knew he had good stuff. But he’s just a baby growing up. You’re seeing him mature right before your eyes in the second half of this season.”

Nicholson pitched five shutout innings against North Little Rock on April 14, and threw a five-hitter on Monday, going the distance while striking out five and walking only two.

But it was Wainwright’s blasts in the fourth and fifth innings that tied the game and then put Cabot in front. The senior catcher sent a 1-2 offering over the 375-sign in left center leading off the fourth to tie the game against North Little Rock ace Andrew Hohn.

Nicholson had settled down after a single, double, error and sacrifice fly put the Wildcats up 2-1 in the second inning. He faced the minimum number of batters in the third, fourth and fifth innings. The only base runner, via a walk, was gunned down by Wainwright trying to steal.

Hohn recovered from Wainwright’s game-tying homer in the fourth to strike out the next three batters. Ty Steele, though, belted a one-out double in the fifth and courtesy runner Daniel Fox scored on Drew Burks’ two-out, go-ahead single. On the play, Joe Bryant, who had earlier walked, aggressively came all the way around from first to score.

Wainwright then hit a two-run homer to the exact same spot to make it 6-2.

“Ben has as good natural power as any kid I’ve had,” Fitch said. “It takes a man-shot to get it out of here. At a normal high school park, he’d probably have 11 or 12 home runs. And three of the four he’s hit have been at this park.

“He’s having an All-State type year. And he does a great job for us defensively, too.”

North Little Rock got a leadoff double and a one-out walk in the sixth and had big cleanup hitter David Stracener at the plate.

But Nicholson got the slugger on a slow curve ball and got Cody Grace on a harmless bouncer back to the mound.

“I’m really proud of Cole,” Fitch said. “I never dreamed he’d throw a complete game against such a good lineup. But he pounded the zone all night and his changeup was getting all those weak ground balls.”

The Panthers (got an insurance run in the sixth on a Tyler Erickson double and Andrew Reynolds’ RBI single to center.

The Wildcats put a little drama into it in the seventh with a pair of one-out singles. But Nicholson recorded his fourth and fifth strikeouts to end it.

Singles by Joe Bryant and Drew Burks and Wainwright’s sacrifice fly staked the Panthers to a 1-0 lead after one inning.

Cabot finished with nine hits and Wainwright drove in four runs.

Cabot was solid defensively, committing only one error, though it led to North Little Rock’s two runs in the second.