BENTON – Bryant Hornet senior Nate Rutherford didn’t allow a Benton Panther past first base until the final inning in a 6-1 Bryant win over Benton in 7A/6A South conference action on Friday at Panther Field. The Hornets returned the favor to the Panthers as Benton defeated Bryant in the first matchup 1-0.
“I’d say he’s one of the top two pitchers in the state” Benton Coach Mark Balisterri said of Rutherford. “Pretty much when they got one run they felt like they won the game. We didn’t do anything to change their mind. They had the confidence, the momentum, and we couldn’t get it back from them.”
After a scoreless first inning, Bryant (19-5, 7-1 South) would get on the board in the top of the second on an unearned run. Senior Hayden Daniel hit a grounder to Panther third baseman Grayson Chilton, but Chilton couldn’t get a good grip resulting in an error. Daniel went to second on a passed ball and to third on sophomore Ty Harris’ sacrifice bunt. Daniel would score the unearned run on junior Korey Thompson’s RBI ground out to third base for a 1-0 lead after two innings.
Senior Panther starter Coulton Lee was questionable to start as he sat out Thursday’s loss to Sylvan Hills with a muscle issue in his back. Lee, who hadn’t given up an earned run all season, had his streak broken in the top of the fourth inning. Daniel led off the fourth with a single and Lee walked Harris for runners at first and second with no out. A wild pitch moved the runners up a bag and Daniel scored on an RBI single from sophomore third baseman Brandan Warner for a 2-0 lead. Lee had gone over 37 innings before giving up his first earned run.
“Lee wasn’t as sharp as he was the first time,” Bryant Coach Kirk Bock said of Lee. “I think he was sore or something. I know we just caught him on a bad day, which is fortunate for us. That’s a quality arm right there that’s going to play a lot of baseball.”
Lee would come out after the fourth inning for Benton (13-4, 6-1) because of his back and finished giving up two runs (one earned) on three hits and two walks, while striking out three for the loss.
“We knew it was iffy with Coulton,” Balisterri said. “He tried and pushed it as far as he could go. He showed some signs that he was laboring. He was doing something with his leg that wasn’t normal. I went out and asked him if he was OK and he said he was fine. After the inning was over I told him he was done, and he said, ‘I was going to tell you anyway.’”
With senior Carson Holloway in relief of Lee, Hornet senior leadoff Tyler Green would open the top of the fifth with a solo home run over the left-field wall for a 3-0 Hornet lead, and junior shortstop Trevor Ezell, who went 3 for 4, scored on Daniel’s sacrifice fly for a 4-0 Hornet lead after five.
“Last time we faced them we swung at too many balls out of the zone,” Bock said. “ We shrunk our zone down and it worked out pretty good. We pounded out 10 hits and our approach was totally different than it was the first time that we saw them. We came up with some big hits. We scored a couple runs there with two outs.”
Bryant would score two more runs in the top of the sixth on four consecutive hits, including two doubles to make it 6-0.
Rutherford retired 11 of 12 Panthers until sophomore Colby Johnson singled with one out in the bottom of the seventh. Johnson would be the first Panther to reach second base when freshman catcher Brinson Williams singled up the middle to put runners at first and second with two outs. Chilton would get the Panthers final hit of the game with an RBI double to left field for the 6-1 final. Rutherford pitched a complete game giving up six hits and a walk, and struck out two. He threw just 59 pitches through the first six innings until the Panthers got to him a bit in the last inning. He finished throwing 78 pitches through seven, which is still very efficient.
“Rutherford is the kind of pitcher that he’s not going to strike many people out,” Balisterri said. “He’s going to make people hit the ball and we didn’t hit well. That’s our downfall. We don’t have any consistency hitting. We just didn’t get it done [Friday].
“That’s the difference in the two teams right now. They have momentum. They were hungrier than we were. We didn’t get the job done at the plate.”
“He did a tremendous job,” Bock said of his starter. “Nate’s Nate. He’s going to throw a lot of ground balls. He has a lot of life. As long as we play good defense, Nate’s always going to do good.”
The bottom of the Panther lineup did all the damage for Benton. Williams (2 for 3), Chilton ( 2 for 3) and senior Blake Nations (1 for 3) went a combined 5 for 9 with an RBI, while the rest of the lineup went 1 for 16, with Johnson going 1 for 3 with a run.
Behind Ezell’s day, senior Marcus Wilson went 2 for 4 with an RBI, Daniel went 2 for 3 with two runs and an RBI, and Green went 1 for 3 with his home run.
If both teams win out in the South the rest of the way, Bryant would take conference because the Hornets just had to cover two runs over the Panthers. As far as Bryant’s State Tournament aspirations, the Hornets, the lone 7A team in the South, covered the five runs it needed to stay relevant for a first-round bye.
“In order to get one of the two byes out of the West, we have got to win this conference,” Bock said. “We’re just one step closer right now.”