By Bill Sorrell
As she has all his life, March Smith was looking over her son Josh Smith, a senior right-handed pitcher for Bartlett High School.
This time she was in the press box overlooking Elrod Field watching Josh throw 84-mph fast balls against the state’s No. 1 ranked team, the Arlington Tigers.
The t-shirt she wore read “Baseball Mom” on the front and on the back, “Some People Have To Wait Their Entire Lives To Meet Their Favorite Player. I Raised Mine.”
The favorite in the season’s first meeting between the archrivals last Thursday in Bartlett was Arlington.
The Tigers entered with a 19-game winning streak and a chance to earn the No. 1 seed in the District 14-AAA tournament. Bartlett, playing a schedule that included top five-ranked teams in three states, was 13-12 but with raised expectations for an upset.
The game became a pitcher’s duel between Smith and Arlington senior Hayden Edwards and a defensive battle that featured a magnet glove belonging to Arlington center fielder Tyler Hubbard.
There was also a major-league throw by Arlington right fielder Tyler Gentry to catcher Hunter Goodman that put out Bartlett’s Justin Ammons at the plate in the sixth inning that would have given the Panthers a lead.
Taking the lead in the eighth inning, Arlington defeated Bartlett 2-1 in a confrontation that continued to make this one of the state’s best rivalries.
“If you don’t enjoy baseball tonight, then you need to stop coming,” said Arlington Head Coach Chris Ring, a former assistant coach at Bartlett. “Obviously playing Bartlett has been and always will be, a big rivalry game.”
Bartlett head coach Josh Stewart said, “Just the atmosphere, the intensity and the crowd get you ready for the post-season. Both schools get pretty fired up about it because we are pretty much neighbors. It’s as close to the post-season as you can get. We knew tonight it was going to be like this. That is a good bunch. They are not ranked No. 1 in the state for no reason. They are a good, solid baseball team.”
Arlington improved to 22-2.
Ring said, “It’s always been a rivalry. I love it. I think it is a friendly rivalry. We respect each other. Any time you get a chance to play against a good team, it’s a good challenge, a good test.”
Both Smith and Edwards met the challenge. Smith, who has committed to play at Jackson State Community College, pitched a seven-hitter, striking out six.
Edwards pitched a six-hitter, striking out three with his fast ball, while improving his record to 6-0.
Edwards’ favorite pitch? “Strike,” he said after the game, laughing between runs in the outfield to reduce lactic acid.
“Our pitcher did a heck of a job at location and giving us a chance to stay in the game,” said Goodman.
“That kid on the mound battled. He threw strikes and walked one person,” said Stewart of Edwards. Stewart also praised Smith, now 4-2. “He has done it time and
time again. He goes out there and pitches well.”
Ring said, “We try to hit as many balls as hard as we can off Smith because he is an amazing pitcher.”
Concerned more about pitch location, Smith said, “I threw strikes and let my defense do the work and they did their job. It was a great all-around game. They are a good team and did not back down at all. Our team came out there and gave 100 percent like every time. It’s a sad loss but not everything is going to come out on your side.”
The Tigers had 11 base runners with six in scoring position but could not produce the game-winner until the eighth. Ian Bibiloni walked. Gentry reached base on the game’s only error. Goodman singled, scoring Bibiloni for the 2-1 lead.
“We had to get the big hit,” said Ring.
Braedon Melton’s single then loaded the bases before Brelin Carroll’s pop up to Bartlett second baseman Cole Smith ended the inning.
In the bottom of the eighth, third baseman Landon Caldwell doubled with two outs. Barrett Taylor popped up to end the game.
The Panthers (13-13) had taken a 1-0 lead in the second inning when designated hitter Phillip Bay hit a 340-foot home run to center field. It was Bay’s fourth home run of the season.
“I came up to the plate, ready to get us going. I was just really looking for a hit and I saw it leave the fence and it got some height. I was hoping it would help us out,” said Bay, whose batting average is .315, among the best on the team along with Ammons (.380) and Taylor (.330).
In the sixth inning the Tigers tied the game. Gentry walked, the game’s first, on a 3-2 count. Goodman then hit a double with two out scoring Gentry. It was the Tigers’ fourth hit.
“I was trying to give us a chance,” said Goodman. “We end up scoring a run and scoring another one.”
The play that turned the game around said Stewart started when Ammons, who has committed to play baseball at Tennessee, singled in the sixth. Caldwell walked. Taylor doubled.
From second, Ammons was racing home as Gentry was throwing to Goodman. Goodman tagged Ammons out.
After a Bay walk, the Panthers loaded the bases but left three.
“The play that kid made in right field, I think that was a big play for them,” said Stewart. “That was a momentum builder for them going into the next inning and he made a great play, getting that ball of the fence and bare- handling it and being able to throw to get Ammons out at the plate.”
Hubbard made big plays in center field. He made numerous catches that kept the Panthers off base.
“He is probably one of the best outfielders we have ever had. He gets good reads on balls. Obviously, he has got plus-speed and he has just got that it factor in the outfield you want,” said Ring of Hubbard, one of nine seniors.
Goodman got the game’s first hit, a single in the second. Carroll got the first of three straight Arlington lead-off base runners when he singled in the third inning.
Taylor singled in the fourth and Melton was hit by a pitch in the fifth. In the seventh inning, Melton singled as did Bartlett catcher Tucker King.
Caldwell was Bartlett’s leading hitter with two. Goodman led Arlington hitters, going three-for-four while Melton had two hits.
“It was a good team win. It feels good to beat them,” said Goodman. “We lost to them last year. It gives us confidence.”
Bartlett lost 13 seniors from the 2015 team that advanced to the semi-finals of the TSSAA state tournament.
“These kids have had to adjust to playing every day instead of being more role players,” said Stewart. “The pitching staff, we have one returning with a bunch of innings this year and that is Josh. It’s been an adjustment going from JV to varsity but we have played about as tough a schedule as you can play.”
The Panthers, who will have the two-seed in the district tournament because only the first game of a series counts in district standings, have played Cullman, Ala., Pensacola (Fla.) Catholic and McCracken County (Ky.), each ranked among the best in their state.
“This is not the first night, these kids have been in a dog fight like this. Hopefully it’s wont be the last,” Stewart said.
The Tigers have also been in dogfights.
“We have been down two, three or four runs,” said Edwards. “When we are down, we never quit, we never give up. We are a family. We are together all the time.
We hate to lose. I didn’t want to lose.”
Said Ring, who played baseball at Union University and was an assistant nine years at Bartlett, “It was a good team win. It gives us the one-seed in the district tournament. I have been very proud of them the whole year.”
Arlington has hit .390 as a team. “Everybody is contributing,” said Ring. Along with Edwards, the Tigers have been led by sophomore pitchers Dalton Fowler and Justin Ogle.
Senior pitcher Austin Mayfield has signed to play at Freed-Hardeman University. Sophomore shortstop Tate Kolwyck has committed to play baseball at Vanderbilt.
While the Tigers got timely hits in their 20th straight victory, Bay said the Panthers “weren’t ready to hit.
We had good defense and good pitching. We couldn’t get some runs scored behind Josh Smith. We had men on but couldn’t get those clutch hits and they got them.
We are just going to come out tomorrow and we’ll end it (the Tigers’ 20-game win streak) then.”
The Panthers did. In a rematch less than 24 hours after the game, Bartlett defeated Arlington 6-4 at
Arlington on Friday. Bay hit his fifth home run of the season in the fifth inning.
Bartlett’s record went to 14-13, Arlington 22-3 with both teams 5-1 in district.