BRYANT – For the baseball purist, Tuesday night’s 7A/6A South conference opener between rivals Benton Panthers and Bryant Hornets was the game to be at. The Panthers topped the defending 7A State Champion Hornets 1-0 in a pitcher’s duel between Benton senior left-hander Coulton Lee and Bryant senior right-hander Nate Rutherford.
The Panthers (5-1, 1-0 South) picked up three consecutive hits to start the game in which senior Carson Holloway’s single up the middle plated senior leadoff man Jack James for the 1-0 lead, but that would be it as both pitchers put the game on shutdown. Though he gave up a one-out double in the bottom of the seventh, Lee struck out the side to end the game for the win giving up four hits and no runs in seven innings, walking four and striking out nine.
“Coulton bowed up,” Benton Coach Mark Balisterri said. “I think there were four or five innings they had a runner on second with one out. He just got better and better as the game went on.
“I almost took him out that last inning because his pitch count was a little bit up. He wasn’t laboring out there. If it had been cold, it would have been a little different, but it definitely did cross my mind that we might need to get him out of there. We had another pitcher ready, but he did an excellent job. It’s probably one of the best performances I’ve seen him pitch since he’s been here and he’s pitched a lot of good games for us since his sophomore year.”
James led the game off with a single to right field, went to second on senior Justin Vincent’s attempted sacrifice bunt turned into a single because of good placement, and James came around to score on Holloway’s single. Clean-up hitter Lee moved the runners up to second and third with a ground out to second base, but Vincent was picked off third base to end Benton’s momentum.
The Panthers wouldn’t get another hit until senior Trey Bishop’s tough-hop single to short in the seventh. After Holloway’s hit, Rutherford would have set down eight in a row if not for a Bryant error, and would have set down 11 in a row after his only walk in the game if not for another error. Rutherford picked up the tough-luck loss giving up the one run on four hits in seven innings. He struck out three.
“Nate did a great job,” Bryant Coach Kirk Bock said. “Lee did a great job. The difference is they strung three hits together and we couldn’t string ours together. That was the difference in the ballgame.
“Sometimes he can get started a little bit slow,” Bock said of his starting pitcher, “but once you get him out of that, he cruises on. He left the ball up to Holloway. He didn’t hit it hard, he just hit it.”
Despite picking up only four hits on the day, it wasn’t for lack of hitting the ball for Benton. The Panthers struck out just three times and hit the ball hard all night.
“We hit the ball as hard today than we have all year,” Balisterri said. “We hit eight or nine balls that were just on the nose but right at them. When you face a kid like Rutherford, that’s what he does. He goes to work and makes you hit his pitches.
“We were aggressive. That was the game plan. We knew he was going to throw strikes and not walk a lot of people. We almost changed it in the middle of the game, but it wouldn’t have mattered because he was going to throw the same pitches anyway.”
After a Hayden Daniel one-out single in the second, the Hornets got a man on second after a Lee wild pitch. Lee would get Trey Breeding on a soft line out and would strike out Korey Thompson with a fast ball to get out of the inning. The Hornets (4-4, 0-1) would put runners on second with one out in each of the final four innings, but Lee would pitch out of trouble each time.
James, Vincent, and Bishop each went 1 for 3 and Holloway went 1 for 2 with an RBI for the Panthers, and senior Tyler Green had two of the Hornets’ four hits, going 2 for 2 with a double and a walk. Senior Marcus Wilson went 1 for 2 with a stolen base, and Daniel went 1 for 3.
“We feel fortunate to win the game, but we earned it,” Balisterri said. “We didn’t make a fielding error, we battled at the plate and did a heck of a job on the mound. I’m very, very pleased.”