Top-seeded Jonesboro Westside’s Warriors entered Friday’s 4A East Regional first round game against Heber Springs with a record of 20-9 compared to a 9-15 record for the fourth-seeded Panthers, whose only advantage seemed to be home field.
However, with a spot in the state tournament at stake, Heber played its best game of the year as ace pitcher Michael Ludwig held the Warriors scoreless through six innings while the Panthers backed him up with bullet proof defense.
With Heber leading 4-0 heading into the final frame, Westside scored three runs and had the tying run at third base when Ludwig induced Westside cleanup batter Dylan Clark into a sharp grounder up the middle. Ludwig snatched the grounder near his shin and threw to first baseman Nathan Martz for the final out as the Panthers stunned the Warriors 4-3 and claimed a spot in this week’s state tournament in Harrison.
Panther Coach Darren Gowen could not have been more proud. “I told the kids all week with Michael Ludwig on the mound as long as we play good defense behind him we’ve got as good a chance as anybody. He went out there and pitched his guts out. It was so hot I bet he lost 10 pounds but he did a great job and came up with a huge hit.”
“Judson Smith, Michael Kramer they played well. Judson got us going with a triple then Kramer got a double and Smith came back with a big hit in that last inning so he had a big night. I just love these kids and how they just keep playing hard. We played solid defense and that’s what it takes,” added Gowen.
Clark, Westside’s left-handed starting pitcher, worked a perfect first inning, included one strikeout. Ludwig pitched around a two-out single by J.T. Nortier in the bottom half while striking out two.
In the top of the second, Heber struck with one run on two hits as Smith led off with a triple deep down the right field line and he scored moments later when Kramer hammered an RBI, ground-rule double that bounced over the right field wall. Clark responded with three straight strikeouts, leaving Kramer stranded in scoring position.
Ludwig retired the Warriors in order in the bottom of the second with the help of centerfielder Goeffrey Anderson, who took away a potential extra base knock with a running grab near the warning track. Ludwig also notched another strikeout, ending the second.
Tyler Dennis lifted a single to left field to start the third and he eventually moved to second on a throwing error. But, after Ludwig received an intentional pass, Westside got out of the inning on a wild play, starting when Smith sent a chopper to the left side.
Westside’s third baseman missed a charging stab at the ball, which gave Dennis a glimpse at home. But, shortstop Jared Fuqua alertly backed up the play and cut down Dennis on a close call at the plate.
Clinging to a 1-0 lead, Ludwig pitched around a one-out walk in the bottom of the third with the help of a 4-6-3 double play turned by Kramer at second and Smith at shortstop.
In the top of the fourth, Brooks Morgan pushed a one-out bunt single to the right side and he scampered to second on a fielding miscue. But, Clark induced an infield pop-out before plunking Martz.
With two runners in scoring position after a wild pitch, Clark retired Dennis on a fly-ball to left center handled by left fielder Clint Brown. In the bottom half, Ludwig continued to cruise as he sat down the first two hitters, including one by strikeout, before Clark pulled a single through the hole on right side.
Lucas Johnston followed with a looping single to right field but Ludwig stranded both runners when Josh Baker sent a high fly-ball to right field, where Blaine Hill made the catch to keep the Warriors scoreless.
Clark pitched a perfect fifth, including two more strikeouts but Ludwig retaliated by retiring the side in order in the bottom half, also recording two strikeouts.
Smith led off the sixth by working a full-count walk and he advanced into scoring position on a sacrifice-bunt from Kramer. But, Clark fanned the next two batters, leaving Kramer at second and Heber’s lead at 1-0.
In the bottom of the sixth, Smith and Kramer each took care of a pair of ground balls as the Panthers got two quick outs before Nortier roped a single to left field. After Clark poked a single to center, Ludwig retired Johnston on a fly-ball to left, where Morgan made the play to end the sixth.
The Panthers added three important insurance runs in the top of the seventh, which ended up making the difference. With one down, Dennis got Heber started with a walk then Anderson reached on a fielder’s choice turned error as Westside attempted to turn a double play but was ruled off the bag at second, allowing both runners to reach safely.
The Warriors relieved Clark with Nortier, who struck out the first batter he faced. With two out and two on base, Ludwig slammed an RBI single to center that scored Dennis then Westside committed an error that allowed Anderson to reach third base as Ludwig cruised into second.
Next up, Smith delivered a 2 RBI single up the middle that plated Anderson and Ludwig as Heber’s lead grew to 4-0 before Nortier stopped the Warriors’ bleeding with a strikeout.
Needing three outs to pull of the upset, Westside made it nerve-wracking with three runs on three hits in the bottom of the seventh. Baker worked a full-count walk to start the frame then Tyler Hart beat out an infield single.
Left-handed pinch-hitter Zach Anderson pulled a single through the hole on right side to load the bases for Drake Collum, who lifted a sacrifice-fly, RBI to left field that scored Baker.
Jared Fuqua followed with an RBI double to deep left field that scored Hart and placed two runners in scoring position. Justin Fuqua’s RBI groundout to second plated Anderson as the Warriors pulled within one at 4-3 with one out remaining.
After issuing an intentional walk to Nortier, giving Westside runners at the corners, Ludwig finished off the Warriors when he cut off Clark’s full-count ground ball back up the middle.
Without a block of a previous pitch in the dirt by Heber catcher Harley Hooten, Westside may have scored the tying run.
“Harley has done a great job behind the plate all year long. He didn’t have his best game [offensively] but he can leave that on the field,” said Gowen.
“He called a great game. He is important because he called the [pitches] and came up with a great block, holding their runner at third. We only walked two and didn’t have any errors. When you do that great things are going to happen,” Gowen added.