SPORTS >> Fifth-inning breakdown dooms Lions
Leader sports editor
FAYETTEVILLE – It was a fifth inning the Searcy Lions will forever want to purge from their memories.
After busting through a scoreless tie Friday to take a 2-0 lead in the fourth inning, the bottom fell out for the Lions in the form of two errors, two walks and three doubles. The Benton Panthers parlayed all of that into a five-run fifth inning and went on to claim the 6A championship with an 8-5 win on Friday afternoon at Baum Stadium.
It was Benton’s first-ever state baseball crown as they finished the season 28-2.
“Offensively, we had some opportunities early that we didn’t take advantage of,” said Searcy coach Clay McCammon, whose Lions finished the season 21-5. “In the fifth, we had a couple of breakdowns that hurt us and then Benton came up with some big hits.
“It’s disappointing, but the kids played hard. I’m proud of our seniors and I’m proud of our team.”
In a game in which pitching was dominant, Searcy’s two runs in the fourth put them in prime position to claim its first-ever state baseball title.
But just like that, sophomore starter Dillon Howard, who entered the fifth inning allowing just two hits and fanning six, couldn’t find the plate. His first 10 offerings in the inning were balls, and that was just the beginning of Searcy’s troubles.
“I think Dillon got a little winded out there,” McCammon said. Dillon threw 72 pitches in the contest. “It was kind of humid and that may have been a factor.”
With two on and no one out, Drew McCurry tried to bunt the runners over, but popped it up but in no man’s land behind the pitcher’s mound. Still, Howard scooped it up and had an easy force at third. But he threw wild as a run came in to make it 2-1.
Howard left in favor of reliever Jonathan Luthe, who was greeted with an Ashton Wilson double into the gap in right center that put Benton up 3-2. One out later, Lee Richardson’s shot to right hit the yellow piping and stayed in play, but it was good for a double and a 4-2 Panther lead. For good measure, Chase Southworth lined a double into the left field corner and Benton went up 5-2.
Reliever Zach Langley came in to put out the fire with a pair of strikeouts but the damage was done.
That inning temporarily took all the starch out of the Lions’ sails as Benton reliever Colby Roberts set them down in order in fifth and sixth innings.
Benton added three runs in the seventh and they turned out to be the difference as Searcy gamely tried to rally in the bottom half of the inning. Trailing 8-2, Jordan Bradley, Luthe and Mac Ellis all singled to load the bases. An error on the Benton second baseman scored a run and Zach Langley lined a two-run single to center and, suddenly, the Panther lead was down to 8-5 and the tying run was at the plate, still with just one out.
But relief pitcher Nathan Pirl got Preston Tarkington to bounce back to the mound. Tate Ruddell grounded out to the third baseman to end it.
“That’s been our team all year long,” McCammon said. “They’re not going to quit. We’ve been behind before and I think they really believed they had a chance. I’m proud of them for not giving up.”
Searcy finished with four errors, though as it turned out, only one of Benton’s eight runs was unearned.
After squandering a bases-loaded, no-outs opportunity in the third, the Lions finally opened the scoring in the fourth.
Langley beat out an infield hit. With two outs, Cody Perry ripped a single to left and Langley was able to slide around the tag of Panther catcher Cole Durham as Searcy took a 1-0 lead. Perry, who took second on the throw home, scored on Bradley’s looping single to left.
An inning earlier, walks to Perry and Bradley sandwiched around an infield single by Nick Ginardi loaded the bases with no one out and chased Panther starter Ashton Wilson. But reliever Roberts got Luthe on a pop up and Ellis on a fielder’s choice force at the plate.
Howard then sent a slow roller that got under the glove of the charging third baseman. But shortstop Justin Mills scooped it and threw on the run, just getting Howard when Richardson made a great scoop of the low throw.
Each team had nine hits, though Benton had five doubles and a triple while it was all singles for Searcy. Bradley, Luthe and Langley had two hits apiece. Howard took the loss, despite giving up only two hits and striking out six over four-plus innings.
Colby Roberts, the game’s MVP, got the win in relief, though he allowed seven hits and four earned runs over 4 1/3 innings.
“We lose eight seniors who all contributed in some way or another,” said McCammon. “But we started three sophomores and a junior so we’ll have a good nucleus coming back.”