MOUNTAIN HOME – Losing 5 of their last 6 games going into the State Tournament, the No. 3 seed Benton Panthers shrugged off their bad play of late and defeated the No. 6 seed Jacksonville Red Devils 5-0 in the opening round of State on Thursday night at Mountain Home High School. Junior left-handed starting pitcher Coulton Lee struck out 12 Devils in his complete-game, shutout win.
“Coulton pitched awesome,” Benton Coach Mark Balisterri said. “We played really good [Thursday]. We played about as good as we played all year.”
Benton (20-9) struck fast, scoring four runs in the bottom of the first inning to propel the Panthers with early momentum.
Senior shortstop Brooks Balisterri led the inning off with a single to left field and was sacrifice bunted to second base by senior center fielder Greg Pryor. Senior catcher Matthew Krikorian was hit by a pitch and junior Carson Holloway was walked to load the bases. Senior Ryne Besancon bounced to the shortstop for a fielder’s choice out, but Balisterri scored on the RBI to put the Panthers up 1-0.
Junior Taylor Schmidt, who was the courtesy runner for Krikorian, scored on an error to make it 2-0, and consecutive singles by Lee and junior third baseman Grayson Chilton scored Besancon and junior Jack James for the early four-run cushion.
“We hit the ball when we needed to and scored four big runs in the first inning,” Balisterri said. “Their shortstop made an error that helped us out a bunch.”
Balisterri said the momentum was big, “especially against a pitcher who was as good as he was.”
The Panthers picked up a run in the bottom of the fourth inning when Balisterri singled with one out, went to second on a throwing error and third on a ground out to the shortstop. Krikorian had a two-out RBI double to put the Panthers up 5-0, not that they needed that many runs as Lee was dynamite on the mound.
Lee got the win with a complete-game shutout, giving up four hits and no walks, while tying a season-high striking out 12 batters. He struck out the side in the third and seventh innings. No Red Devil got past second base as he had a 73.4 percent strike percentage.
“That’s pretty good,” Balisterri said of the percentage. “He did a heck of a job. Hopefully we’ll get to see him pitch one more time.
“Coulton just pitched good and we played good defense,” Balisterri said. “That’s what it takes – stepping it up State Tournament time and that’s what we have to do.”
The shortstop Balisterri went 2 for 4 and scored two runs, and Krikorian was 2 for 2 with an RBI and was hit by a pitch. Lee and Chilton each went 1 for 3 with Chilton adding two RBIs.
The Panthers take on the East’s No. 2 seed Jonesboro Hurricane after the Hurricane routed the Little Rock McClellan Lions 21-0 on Thursday. First pitch today is 2:30 p.m. at Mountain Home High School and left-handed junior Justin Vincent will get the start for the Panthers.
“They are a really big team, physically,” Balisterri said of Jonesboro. “They don’t have a lot of speed, but they hit the ball real well.
They’re noted for sitting back and trying to hit it long and far. They say they’re the best-hitting team in their conference. I think [today] is going to be one of those days where we have to play good defense, keep them from scoring a lot of runs and score four or five ourselves.”