Ada’s Post 72 Braves trekked to the 2011 Brad Holt Memorial Tournament with a compact (15 players) but veteran roster and an 18-7 record, and they they lived up to their pre-tournament hype by capturing the Stillwater event on their way to the Legion state title.
But heading into Thursday’s first two pool play contests at the 2012 Holt, last year seems light years away.
The Braves began the season with a new coach (Chris Montgomery), only four returning starters from their state championship team and question marks at virtually every position. Through 19 games, very few of those questions have been answered.
Coming off a 1-3 performance in last week’s Battle of Omaha, Montgomery’s squad is a dismal 6-13 — easily the worst record for a Post 72 squad since former coach Travis Graham revived Legion baseball in the Ada area in 2008 — and has spent most of June searching for an identity. The pitching has been good at times but spotty overall, the defense has experienced critical breakdowns that have forced the pitching staff to work overtime, and the offense — although better recently — hasn’t been able to manufacture runs as fast as the pitching and defense has given them away.
On the plus side, the Braves will be at home for most of July after spending almost all of June on the road, and their overall youth could translate into a still untapped upside that will have to produce some victories over the next month if they are going to get any kind of favorable playoff draw and reach their fifth consecutive state tournament.
“Being able to play at home should help,” Montgomery said earlier this week. “The road games have taken a toll. Most of our games are at home this month, and I think we’ll respond to that and protect our home field.”
Any kind of late-season surge needs to begin this week, and Montgomery said he believes the Braves stack up well against anybody they will see in Stillwater.
“It’s a nice field, but we’ve played all the teams that are in it,” he noted. “If we can play error-free baseball, we have a chance to win the tournament.”
Playing error-free ball, though, has been quite a challenge for Montgomery’s squad this summer. He said having a little break between the Omaha Tournament and Thursday’s Holt opener should give him a chance to work on that.
“We were pretty good defensively at the start of the year, but since then we haven’t had a lot of chances to practice,” he noted. “On Wednesday we’ll be able to give everybody at least 100 ground balls each, and that should help.”
The Braves struggled to score runs early in the season, and, although they weren’t outhit by a wide margin in any of their games in Omaha, they left too many runners on base.
“Offensively, I think we’re going to be pretty good, but with as many young kids as I have, it’s all about pitch selection,” Montgomery said. “We have young kids in our lineup that, if they get their pitch, they’re going to hit it hard — it’s just a matter of getting that pitch.”
Hard-throwing Blake Logan and breaking-ball specialist Matt Benedict were the clear-cut aces of the Post 72 staff a year ago, but both are gone, and so far this spring the Braves haven’t had anyone emerge as a No. 1 starter. Phillip Langley has probably been the best of the Ada arms, and several others have had their moments; like the team’s defense and offense, though, the pitching has struggled to find any consistency.
“I still think we’re strong pitching-wise,” Montgomery said. “We just have to be able to spot up better, because we don’t have an overpowering arm who can throw it by everybody. We’ve been better at that, but we still have to do a better job if we’re going to beat a good team.
“We’ve had problems getting out of innings,” he added. “Every time we make an error with two outs, it costs us.”
Five of the Braves’ six wins this season have come against two of the teams in the Holt field — host Stillwater (Ada is 3-0 against the Majors) and Ardmore (2-1). But the other two teams in the pool with the Ada and the Majors — Durant the Moore-based Cleveland County Shockers — handled the Braves with ease in their only previous meetings.
Still, Montgomery said he likes his club’s chances for a breakout performance this week and over the rest of the season.
“I haven’t really been that impressed with anybody,” he said. “I think we’re as good as anybody we’ve played, but we’re young and we seem to put ourselves in holes at the beginning of games that any team would have a tough time climbing out of.
“We just have to take it one game at a time,” Montgomery said. “We still have a lot of games left, and we just have to go out and play and be relaxed.”
The Braves will open the Holt Tournament with two games Thursday evening, against the Shockers at 5 p.m. and the Stillwater Majors at 7:30, then they will be off until Saturday, when they wrap up pool play with a 3 p.m. contest against Durant. Only the two pool winners will advance to Sunday’s championship game.