Panthers win in first round

BENTON - The Benton Panthers came into the Central Arkansas Invitational on Thursday looking for a win after falling in their last contest against Lake Hamilton 4-2. With their bats struggling, Benton looked to turned things around at home against Central Arkansas Christian.

Though their bats were no hot, or even warm, the Panthers got past the Mustangs 2-0 behind stellar defense once again.

Justin Vincent started for the Panthers. After striking out the leadoff hitter, Tanner Kirby tallied the games first hit with an infield single. Though he reached third in the inning, Vincent got out of the inning with a ground out and a fly out.

The Panthers started the game with threats on the bases. After Matthew Krikorian grounded out in the leadoff spot, Jack James walked followed by a strikeout from Brooks Balisterri to put one on with two outs. Carson Holloway jumped on the first pitch from CAC in his at-bat for Benton’s first hit to move James to second. Greg Pryor followed with a walk to load the bases for Benton with two outs.

With the momentum in Benton’s favor and the sixth hitter in the box, CAC’s Joey Penny forced a ground out back to the pitcher after throwing a very effective curve ball to Taylor Schmidt to end the first inning in a 0-0 score.

Vincent continued to pitch well in the second. After walking the lead man, he quickly shut CAC down with three straight outs forcing a ground out and two strikeouts to end the top of the second.

Garrison Roy struck out to start the bottom half of the inning for Benton. Ryne Besancon reached on an error by the shortstop, followed by a double from Vincent to put runners on the corners with one out.

Krikorian answered on the very next at-bat with an RBI ground out to second to give Benton the early lead at 1-0. James struck out to end the inning for Benton.

Then both pitchers went in to shutdown mode for nearly the rest of the game.

Vincent allowed two runners in an inning for the first time in the game in the third after walking Turner McDaniel to start the third. He allowed Kirby to reach for CAC’s second hit of the game a couple batters later before ending the inning with the lead still intact at 1-0.

Benton would get two on in their half of the third but could drive neither in as Penny continued to fool hitters with his breaking pitches getting two Panthers looking at strikes in the inning. It wasn’t until the fifth inning that CAC really posed as a threat the Benton. Vincent started the inning by walking the lead off man once again. Head coach Mark Balisterri quickly headed out to the mound and pulled Vincent, sending him to left field and bringing in Roy.

Roy allowed his first batter to reach on a single to put two on with none out for CAC. A sacrifice bunt from Kirby moved both runners up, putting the Mustangs in a prime spot to capitalize. That is exactly what they could not do. WIth the three-hole hitter at the dish, CAC’s head coach decided to try and bunt again to tie the game. Instead the bunt ended in a pop-out, throw-out double play. Jack Thomas popped out to Besancon, who was charging the play. Besancon then threw McDaniel out trying to get back to third base to end the inning.

Benton finally scored their final run of the day in the sixth for a little bit of insurance. Roy reached on an error by the catcher after striking out on a dropped third strike. After stealing second and a wild pitch from Penny, Roy was standing on third with no outs. Another strikeout looking for Penny sent Vincent to the plate with something to prove. With a double early in the game, Vincent scored Roy on a sacrifice fly to left to put Benton up 2-0 heading into the top of the seventh and final inning. But the drama was far from over.

After collecting two quick outs, Roy gave up three straight hits to load the bases for CAC with two outs to bring the very powerful Penny to the plate. After fighting off pitches from Roy, Penny finally struck out swinging to end the game, giving Benton the 2-0 win.

Though the Panthers won, Coach Ballisteri still was not happy with his team’s production at the plate.

“Our pitching has been fine, but we are making it so hard on our pitchers because we are not scoring any runs,” Balisterri said.

“Our pitchers have to pitch intense because they are not getting any run support to be able to go out and just pitch.”

Vincent struck out four and allowed two hits and four walks in four innings of work. Roy allowed four hits with one walk and four strikeouts in three innings.

“Vincent had trouble getting the first and second pitch over the plate for strikes,” Balisterri said. “But when it was crunch time he tightened up and pitched well.”

Balisterri led Benton with two hits going 2 for 3 on the day. Vincent, Pryor and Holloway added one hit apiece for Benton. The Panthers allowed 11 base runners.

“I would really like for our offense to start coming alive because our pitchers feel like they have to be perfect,” Balisterri added.

With the win, the Panthers move to 6-3 on the year. The Panthers played again today at 12:30 p.m. in the quarterfinals of the Invitational against Vilonia. If they win they will play again at 8:30 p.m. at Panthers Field. Check Saturday’s Saline Courier for the full story from the Vilonia game.