Heber Springs' roller coaster baseball season came to a sudden halt on Thursday evening as Clinton took a page out of the Comeback Cats' book.
After squeaking past Pine Bluff Dollarway 9-8 in eight innings, the Yellow Jackets rallied from a two-run deficit in the top of the seventh to edge the Panthers 8-7 in the 2-4A District Tournament elimination game.
“We didn't get started until late,” said Heber Coach B.J. Greene. “They hit the ball early and we didn't really hit it until the fifth inning when we started putting it in play. The pitching wasn't bad, I thought Michael Kramer and Judson Smith did a good job and unfortunately we made some bad plays defensively that hurt us.
“I thought the kids fought hard. They showed a lot of heart and a lot of class. You could see that it meant a lot to those kids and I hate to see our senior class go out the way they have because they have been a big part of some good baseball here.”
Clinton took a 1-0 lead in the top of the first inning on a one-out RBI single off the bat of Harrison Lester, whose hit up the middle drove home designated hitter Nic Tester, who led off the game with a double to deep right field.
Kramer, Heber's starting pitcher, retired the next two batters including one by strikeout.
After Clinton right-handed starting pitcher Ben Smith worked around a one-out walk drawn by catcher Harley
Hooten in the bottom of the first inning, Kramer pitched a perfect top half of the second while notching a strikeout.
In the bottom of the second, Heber claimed the lead with two runs despite only one hit. Smith walked and Morgan beat out a bunt single to spark the Panthers, but Ben Smith fired back with a strikeout. Smith then retired Chandler Jones on a bouncer back to the mound as Judson Smith and Morgan moved into scoring position.
Moments later Judson Smith scored on a wild pitch before Dillion Moore sent a sharp grounder up the middle that turned into an error, which allowed Morgan to score, giving the Panthers a 2-1 advantage.
After Moore swiped second, Ben Smith avoided further damage by retiring Zach Ingram on a groundout to
Garrett Bradley at second.
Kramer pitched around a leadoff walk in the top of the third and Smith worked around a hit batter with one out in the bottom half.
With Heber still clinging to a 2-1 lead entering the fifth, Clinton scored four runs on three hits. The 'Jackets tied the game when Tester's RBI groundout brought home Kannon Bradley, who led off with a walk.
Following a single by Fielder Dufrene, Heber relieved Kramer with Judson Smith, who Lester greeted with an RBI single to left field, giving Clinton a 3-2 lead.
Page 2 of 2 - Dalton Jackson drove home another run with an RBI groundout and Ben Smith delivered a two-out RBI single to center field, scoring Lester and boosting the 'Jackets' lead to 5-2.
Judson Smith closed the top half of the fifth with a strikeout and down by three, the Comeback Cats played up to their billing, scoring three runs on five hits.
Moore led off with a sharp single up the middle then Ingram poked a single to shallow right field, but Ben Smith fired back with a strikeout. Paden Flippin slammed an RBI single to center field that scored Moore and Kramer added an RBI groundout that scored Ingram as the Panthers pulled within one at 5-4.
Heber tied the game at 5-5 when Judson Smith scalded an RBI single to center field that scored Flippin. Morgan then collected his second hit of the evening, sending a line drive to right field for a single, placing runners at first and second while causing Clinton to relieve Ben Smith with Dufrene, who started at shortstop.
The Panthers loaded the bases when Chandler Marquardt worked a walk, but with a full-count and the runners moving, Dufrene notched a huge strikeout to keep the game tied entering the sixth inning.
Judson Smith retired the 'Jackets in order in the top of the sixth, and the Panthers took the lead in the bottom half, starting when Moore was hit-by-a-pitch. After Ingram's sacrifice-bunt advanced Moore into scoring position, Hooten pulled an RBI single through the hole on left side, plating Moore as Heber took a 6-5 lead.
Flippin followed with a deep fly-ball to center field that turned into an error as courtesy runner Tyler Moss came around to score from second, giving the Panthers a 7-5 lead. Dufrene responded with two consecutive strikeouts, leaving Flippin stranded 90 feet from home.
Down to its final three outs, Clinton caught a break in the top of the seventh when Tester lifted a high pop-up to shallow center that dropped for a double. With one out, Lester pulled an RBI single through the hole on left side that scored Tester, then Jackson plugged the gap in deep left center with an RBI double, which scored Lester and tied the game at 7-all.
After issuing a full-count walk, Judson Smith recorded a strikeout and the Panthers nearly got out of the inning but Cody Lowder's ground ball turned into an error, allowing pinch-runner Drew Farmer to score as Clinton snatched an 8-7 lead.
Clinton held off the Comeback Cats in the bottom of the seventh on three consecutive ground balls, including one to first, second and third.