Leader Blues

Friday, April 24, 2009

SPORTS >> Panthers rally for win

By KELLY FENTON
Leader sports editor

Cabot coach Jay Fitch admitted he was still smarting from an extremely difficult loss to Bryant 48 hours earlier. So the last thing he needed was a 3-0 deficit right out of the chutes on Thursday.

But a couple of errors in the first inning put Cabot in an early hole against Van Buren at Brian Wade Conrade Field.

“I was a little worried,” Fitch said. “It was like one of those games that almost wasn’t meant to be. They’re hitting little bloopers and we’re smoking balls in the outfield that are caught.”

But no one could catch Cole Nicholson’s controversial game-tying home run over the left field foul pole and the Panthers caught another break when Drew Burks’ sharp grounder bad-hopped over the second baseman to drive in what proved to be the game winner in Cabot’s 4-3 victory on Thursday.

Nicholson’s home run in the fifth inning was a high drive down the left-field line. The ball landed in foul territory beyond the fence, but the umpire ruled it crossed the foul pole in fair territory, much to the delight of Fitch, who was waving it fair while it was in flight.

“It was close,” he said. “It was a tough call and it was hard to tell from where I was standing. We got a break with the home run, maybe, and then Drew just smashes the ball and we get a little break there with the winning run. So hopefully, it all evens out in the end. We’ll take it.”

The victory assured the Panthers of a spot in next weekend’s 7A state tournament, where they will be anywhere from a fourth to a sixth seed. They improved to 7-6 in league play with a game at Conway set for Tuesday to close out the conference season.

Two days earlier, Cabot coughed one away against Bryant after taking a 5-3 lead into the sixth inning. A balk, a passed ball and an error proved the Panthers’ undoing in that one.

“The Bryant game I’m still mildly depressed over,” Fitch admitted. “That was just a weird, weird thing. You talk about handing a game away. We knew (if we beat Bryant) and won this game (against Van Buren) we had a chance to win the conference.”

Cabot, which had been playing nearly error-free defense during their four-game winning streak, kicked it around early against Van Buren, and two errors along with three Pointer hits led to three unearned runs.

Cabot pitcher Tyler Erickson absorbed the blow well and pitched a magnificent six innings, striking out eight and allowing six hits to pick up the victory.

“It was another great outing,” Fitch said. “We’re going to need him. Our big three (Erickson, Nicholson and Andrew Reynolds) are going to each throw about 30 pitches against Conway.”

Cabot got one of the runs back in the third when Nicholson landed on second after a throwing error, went to third on a wild pitch, and scored on Ty Steele’s sacrifice fly.

Erickson pitched out of a jam in the fourth, getting a couple of defensive gems along the way. Burks out in right field forced a runner at second on a looper into right and Nicholson saved a run when he charged a slow roller to short and threw out the runner to end the inning.

The Panthers finally made their game-winning push in the fifth. Reynolds led off with flair single to left. One out later, Nicholson belted his home run to tie it. Steele followed with a single to right and Powell Bryant sent him to second with a base hit.

Burks, no stranger to game-winning hits this season, hit a sharp grounder but right at the second baseman. The ball took a bad bounce over the second baseman’s head and pinch runner Daniel Fox came around to give Cabot a 4-3 lead.

Erickson pitched around a one-out bloop single in the sixth and Reynolds came in to collect the save with a 1-2-3 seventh.

“We’ve fought back from behind before,” Fitch said. “We talked about it in the fourth inning. They’re getting all the breaks but something good is going to happen if you keep hitting the ball hard.”

Cabot got five of its six hits in the fifth inning.

Cabot (17-8 overall) takes on Nettleton in a non-conference game on Monday before heading to red-hot Conway on Tuesday.

BRYANT 6, CABOT 5

Cabot gave one away on Tuesday afternoon in Bryant, letting a 5-3 lead disappear in the sixth inning with an error, a passed ball and a balk as the first-place Hornets rallied.

It appeared Andrew Reynolds was about to pitch around a two-on, one-out situation in the sixth when he got a popup to third. Cabot first baseman Matthew Turner then nearly made a great catch on a foul pop that would have ended the threat, but it popped out of his glove as he crashed into the fence.

That led to a walk to load the bases, and a balk that made it 5-4. A passed ball tied it.

Hunter Mayall then sent a grounder deep to behind the third base bag. Ty Steele, who had been magnificent on a pair of early defensive plays, made the tough play, but his throw to first was low and got past Turner as Bryant took the lead.

Ben Wells, brother of University of Arkansas relief pitcher Justin Wells, then pitched a 1-2-3 seventh for the win.

The Panthers’ four-game winning streak ended with the loss. They fell behind 1-0 after one, but Ben Wainwright’s double and a passed ball tied it in the second. Bryant reclaimed the lead with a run in the bottom half.

Steele saved more from coming in when he dove to his left to stab a hard grounder and threw out Joiner.

Cabot then took advantage of a pair of Bryant errors to take 4-2 lead in the third. Joe Bryant reached on an infield single and Powell Bryant forced him at second. After Drew Burks lined an 0-2 pitch into center for a hit, Ben Wainwright brought home Powell Bryant with a sacrifice fly to left that was dropped for an error.

Reynolds dunked an RBI single into right to score Burks, and courtesy runner Zach Uhiren, running for Wainwright, scored on an error on the throw in from the right fielder on the play.

Two singles narrowed the lead to 4-3, but again Steele saved a run when he made a backhand play behind the bag to rob Justin Blankenship of a hit and an RBI.

Reynolds pitched out of a jam in the fifth and Cabot had a chance to blow it open in the sixth when Cole Nicholson and Steele reached on singles with one out.

Joe Bryant’s sharp grounder to third went through Mayall’s legs for an error as Nicholson scored. One out later, Burks drew an intentional walk to load the bases. But Wells, on in relief for Bryant starter Kaleb Jobe, got Wainwright on strikes.

Cabot stranded eight in the game — five in scoring position.

The Panthers pounded out 10 hits — two each by Joe Bryant, Reynolds and Nicholson. Reynolds went the distance for Cabot, allowing 10 hits, while striking out three, walking one and hitting one.