They tried. They almost did.

They tried. They almost did.

The Pine Bluff Zebras nearly scored their biggest baseball victory of the season Friday at Taylor Field. Aaron McDonald threw only 69 pitches in a complete-game effort against Benton, but a second-inning sacrifice fly was all the Panthers needed to escape with a 1-0 win and maintain a half-game lead in the 6A-South Conference.

This one hurts the Zebras, doesn’t it?

“I’ll tell you what, this one don’t hurt,” Pine Bluff coach Greg Easter said. “I’m going to tell you right now, that game is the best we have played in three years.”

That was the good news for the Zebras (3-15, 2-6 in 6A-South), who are in their fourth year under Easter. The bad news: Pine Bluff, which had six hits to Benton’s seven, left nine men on base.

“We had some baserunning errors, (and) we didn’t execute the bunt to get them over when we needed to, but those are fixable things.”

A loss would have put Benton (15-4, 7-1 in 6A-South) behind Sheridan (14-4, 6-1), which defeated Lake Hamilton 4-1 at home Friday.

“We just didn’t hit the ball today,” Panthers coach Mark Balisterri said. “Their pitcher (McDonald) kept us off-balance today. We just laid an egg as far as offense. When you don’t hit, it becomes a pitcher’s duel.”

McDonald struck out three and walked none. He threw 10 or fewer pitches in four of the seven innings.

“I thought Aaron McDonald threw one (heck) of a game,” Easter said. “He kept his breaking pitch around the plate, kept them off-balance, made them swing at a few bad pitches and (we) played defense behind him.”

The Zebras’ best chance to tie the game came in the bottom of the sixth, when Easter waived Ryan Green home on a Ladarius Washington single. But right fielder Carson Holloway threw out Green at the plate, and Coulton Lee retired the next batter to get out of the inning.

Lee, whose cousin Cliff pitches for the Philadelphia Phillies, earned his second complete-game shutout victory of the season. The Arkansas and LSU recruit, who is a junior, struck out three and walked three in 98 pitches to improve to 4-1. He went into the game with a 1.73 ERA and now has 52 strikeouts on the season.

“They play tough at the plate,” Lee said of the Zebras’ batters. “I had trouble finding the strike zone here and there.”

Benton left five runners stranded but none in the first three innings. Holloway scored on the sac fly by Jack James and went 2 for 3, as did Grayson Chilton, to lead the Panthers.

No one from Pine Bluff had multiple hits or multiple-base hits.

But Easter warned the Zebras to not let the loss hurt.

“Build off of it because we know now we can play with people,” he said. “We just have to execute at the plate.”