MOUNTAIN HOME â€“ 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.
â€śCoulton pitched awesome,â€ť Benton Coach Mark Balisterri said. â€śWe played really good [Thursday]. We played about as good as we played all year.â€ť
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 fielderâ€™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.
â€śWe hit the ball when we needed to and scored four big runs in the first inning,â€ť Balisterri said. â€śTheir shortstop made an error that helped us out a bunch.â€ť
Balisterri said the momentum was big, â€śespecially against a pitcher who was as good as he was.â€ť
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.
â€śThatâ€™s pretty good,â€ť Balisterri said of the percentage. â€śHe did a heck of a job. Hopefully weâ€™ll get to see him pitch one more time.
â€śCoulton just pitched good and we played good defense,â€ť Balisterri said. â€śThatâ€™s what it takes â€“ stepping it up State Tournament time and thatâ€™s what we have to do.â€ť
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 Eastâ€™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.
â€śThey are a really big team, physically,â€ť Balisterri said of Jonesboro. â€śThey donâ€™t have a lot of speed, but they hit the ball real well.
Theyâ€™re noted for sitting back and trying to hit it long and far. They say theyâ€™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.â€ť