In 2010, the Ada Post 72 Braves finished as close to a championship as they could without winning one at the American Legion Wood Bat Invitational in Blue Springs, Mo.
The Braves won four of their five games and captured their pool at the 40-team event last summer, and they reached the semifinals by virtue of an impressive victory in the quarterfinals. But the final day of the tournament was rained out, and Ada was handed the runner-up trophy by virtue of the second tie-breaker, runs allowed. Although the Braves’ pitchers surrendered just six runs in five games, the host squad from Blue Springs gave up just two.
Coach Travis Graham’s 2011 Post 72 squad — 21-7 heading into Saturday’s final pool play contest at the Brad Holt Memorial Tournament in Stillwater — will leave Tuesday for Blue Springs and a third shot at winning the nation’s largest and most prestigious regular-season Legion tournament. And again pitching is on Graham’s mind.
The Post 72 staff has been gutted by defections and injuries since the season began, and, although Dalton Pickering (3-0) and Matt Benedict (4-1) both turned in strong efforts in pool play contests Thursday and hard-throwing Blake Logan (3-0) was scheduled to start today’s championship game, things are still unsettled on the mound as the team prepares to head to Missouri.
“A lot of it will come down to managing our pitchers this week,” said Graham, whose club will play a minimum of four pool play games Wednesday through Friday and could play as many as seven games by week’s end. “I feel confident that our pitchers can go out there and do the job; we just have to be sure we use the right guys in the right spot and give our team the best chance to win.
“It’s a wood bat tournament, so we should be able to let our defense work,” he added. “I feel like offensively and defensively we’re as good as any team in the state right now.”
The Braves snapped out of a brief two-game funk with a pair of impressive victories Thursday — 18-0 over the Stillwater Pioneers and 16-2 over a Moore squad that had beaten them in the second game of a doubleheader five days earlier — and didn’t make an error in either game. They also got at least one hit from every spot in the order for the third straight game, finishing with 33 hits — 12 for extra bases, including four home runs — in the two run-rule victories.
Graham, who will host a hamburger cookout as a fundraiser at the Post 72 headquarters from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Tuesday before the team heads out, said the Missouri trip arrives at a perfect spot in his schedule.
“It comes in a good time of the year,” he explained. “We get to see teams we haven’t seen, and we have to win every single game to give ourselves a chance. It’s a must-win kind of scenario, and that will get us ready for the playoffs.
“The guys I have are competitive, and this is a tournament that rewards them for their hard work and puts them in a different environment against a different kind of competition.”
He added, though, that he wants his players to look at this week’s road trip as something of a working vacation.
“You want them to have that mentality of winning games, but we want them to understand that you play your best when you’re having fun,” he noted. “I think we’re focused, and hopefully we can go on a little run the rest of the season and make a good showing in the playoffs.”
Graham said the tournament will also give his players who still haven’t committed to a college program for this fall a chance to show their skills to scouts and coaches.
“There are very few places you can go win a tournament and beat 40 teams,” Graham said. “A lot of these kids haven’t signed yet, and it’s a great place to be seen. It’s a wood bat tournament, and it’s just a fun baseball experience to be a part of.”
In 2009, Graham’s most talented Braves squad in his four years as coach suffered a tough loss that cost it the top spot in the pool (despite a 3-1 record) and kept Ada from advancing to the quarterfinal round.
“We’ve done pretty well up there the last couple of years,” Graham recalled. “We were probably set up to win it last year, but we had a rainout and lost by a run (in the tiebreaker).”
Tournament teams are divided into eight five-team “divisions” — North, South, East and West — in “American” and “National” leagues. Ada is part of the American League East with teams teams from Independence and Weldom Springs, MO, Quincy, IL, and Springfield, NE.
The Braves will open play at 12:30 p.m. Wednesday at Blue Springs High School’s south field against Post 37 from Quincy. The will play two games Thursday — against the Post 1000 Bears from Independence at 8 a.m. and Post 262 from Weldon Springs at 1 p.m. — and will wrap up pool play at 8 p.m. Friday against the Associated Fire Titans from Springfield.