Benton baseball looks to be back on its feet ready to fight for another district title and more after getting knocked down by a challenging early schedule.
Tigers coach Jamie Stephens said those unfamiliar struggles may have led to an ugly record, but they never fazed his team or affected its work ethic. The three-time defending 1-4A champions looked much more like themselves in a 10-0 run-rule win to complete a two-game sweep of North DeSoto (14-7, 2-2 District 1-4A) Saturday afternoon, highlighted by Jackson Rutledge’s 10 strikeouts in five shutout innings.
“When you play the schedule that we do, we want to learn from our mistakes,” Stephens said. “Great teams do that to you and that prepares us for playoffs.”
Four losses to 5A opponents in six games to start the season and a six-game losing streak in March made Benton’s (11-11, 4-0) quest for a high playoff seed an uphill battle, though it had risen to No. 10 following an 8-1 win over No. 6 North DeSoto according to Louisiana SportsLine. The Griffins entered this weekend’s series with five straight run-rule victories, three of which came against Class B opponents.
From the moment reigning Shreveport Times All-Area Player of the Year Alex Boone’s first pitch left the bat of Wade Grubbs and sailed over the right field wall, the Tigers left little doubt in regards to their superiority Saturday afternoon. Three North DeSoto errors turned into four unearned runs, and Benton’s five straight hits to lead off the fifth served as an impressive exclamation point.
Everyone in the lineup reached base at least once and the defense made all the routine plays behind Rutledge, who lowered his season ERA to 1.97 with 67 strikeouts in 39 innings. His teammates on the field and in an always-vocal dugout rallied behind the Arkansas signee to get out of jams when North DeSoto baserunners reached third base with one out in the first and third innings.
“You want to minimize damage and (Rutledge) made timely pitches when he needed to,” Stephens said. “Our goal is to stay intense and treat everything like a playoff game. These guys stepped up big.”
Rutledge and Tanner Craft, who gave up only one run on eight hits in a complete game win Friday night, figure to be crucial to Benton’s hopes of another district title and playoff success. If they can hit their stride at the right time, the Tigers could make some serious noise beyond their own dugout.
But Stephens emphasized more progress over the next two weeks will be critical, even for his star pitcher. Rutledge earned a warning from the umpire when he turned toward the North DeSoto dugout to celebrate a strikeout after a balk in the fourth, and Stephens wants the lefthander to maintain his composure without changing the demeanor that contributes to his success.
“I try to focus on just what I’m doing and to do my best for our team to win,” Rutledge said. “Being intense is how I do that.”
His approach underscores another effect of a schedule featuring some of the best teams in the state. Even if the Tigers might not always be the better team this postseason, they’re not going to be afraid of anyone.