BENTON — Benton finally faced a bit of adversity in district play when Minden took an early lead Thursday evening.
Things quickly returned to what has become normal as the Tigers pounced on a multitude of Crimson Tide mistakes to cruise to an 11-1 win in six innings. Timely hitting, solid fundamentals and strong defense behind Tanner Craft carried the Tigers to a fifth straight run-rule win and clinched at least a share of a fourth straight District 1-4A title.
“Early in the season defense was a struggle of ours,” Craft said. “Making mental errors more than physical errors and we get to district, cleaning it up a little bit and we’re getting some nice quality wins out of it.”
Through eight district games, an 8-1 win over North DeSoto on April 8 marks the only time Benton failed to score 10 runs, and even then it led 6-1 after three. One more win Friday at previously unbeaten Minden would give the Tigers a perfect record and outright title, plus a potential top 5 seed in the 4A playoffs.
The infielders rewarded Craft for keeping the ball down in the strike zone, giving him 11 groundouts without an error. Second baseman Garrett Hable made two above-average plays, including a sliding stop to save a run in the first, but coach Jamie Stephens noted even consistent routine outs make a big difference.
Minden proved that point with three errors in a pair of disastrous innings, starting with a five-run second. Benton found a few solid hits and avoided strikeouts against ace Trace Francis, but it was walks, poor defense and an alarming number of pitches past the catcher that doomed the Crimson Tide.
Three hits came on bunts, another seemingly simple aspect of the game Benton consistently executes to perfection. Doing the little things right goes a long way in high school baseball, and Hable said it’s something the Tigers have made a priority.
“Coach told us that we’re going to do a lot of small ball because we don’t have a lot of big power hitters on our team,” said Hable, who lined a single to left to end the game. “So we’ve got to do what we’ve got do.”
The Tigers have scored a whopping 98 runs in eight district games, making life easy for Craft and fellow starter Jackson Rutledge. They’ve been dominant, giving up just 17 hits in 28 innings against 1-4A opponents.
It’s easy to see why Benton will take plenty of confidence into next week’s playoffs, considering district foes have managed to score just twice in eight games. Stephens said he’s pleased with their progress, and the Tigers clearly don’t intend to get complacent.
“These guys are headed in the right direction and if we keep pushing runs across the board, keep throwing up zeroes, these guys have a goal that they set at the beginning of the year,” Stephens said. “They’ve been working hard to get that goal.”
Craft echoed those comments, noting they’re “nowhere near where we want to be.” It seems like a crazy thing to say in light of their seven straight wins and nine in their last ten games, until you take a step back and look at the big picture.
At Benton, district titles are nice and a sure sign of getting back on the right track after a disappointing 6-10 start. But it’s what happens in the playoffs that truly determines the measure of a team and whether it meets expectations.