If things really do even out in the end, it only makes sense that the Ada Braves would be due for smooth sailing in the final week of what has been a stormy — but nonetheless successful — season.
But it's been hard to make sense out of a lot that has happened for — and to — the Braves this summer. Head coach Travis Graham came out of tryouts in May with a team he thought could contend for a state title, then he watched as players he had counted on to replace those he had lost since last season either got hurt or decided to play somewhere else.
By the time the playoffs rolled around, Graham was three players below the 18-player limit allowed by Legion rules. Instead of crying about things he couldn't control, he simply played the hand he was dealt and led his resilient club to 30 wins in 38 games heading into last week's west regional tournament in Midwest City.
Graham might have overplayed his hand a bit when he gambled on Dylan Johnson — who had worked only a handful of innings on the mound all summer and hadn't started a game — to pitch the regional opener. Johnson, an oustanding utility player who has been one of Graham's top additions this summer, gave up 11 runs in less than three innings of an eventual 18-8 loss to a Lawton club the Braves had run-ruled in their three previous meetings this summer and would beat, 17-13, on Friday afternoon to reach the loser's bracket final later in the day.
The Braves bounced back to win three straight before losing to the two-time defending state and reigning national champion Oklahoma Outlaws in Saturday's regional championship game. Graham's club accomplished a lot last week considering No. 2 starter Dalton Pickering didn't pitch an inning while nursing a sore elbow and Brandon Maggia, one of the team's hottest hitters late in the regular season, also missed the regional.
Ada's offense was solid all week long, with former Purcell teammates Tanner Bell (who had 13 hits, including three home runs and a triple) and Hunter Marcum (who missed Wednesday's game but went 11-for-16 over the next four) posting some impressive numbers and former Roff star Blake Logan hitting his 17th home run to add to his Post 72 single-season record.
Graham and his team could pay a big price, though, for reaching Saturday's championship game — a game that, in the overall scheme of things in this year's wacky Legion playoff system, meant absolutely nothing.
Five of the six teams in the west regional advanced to the state tournament, and the Braves wrapped up one of those spots when they beat Brassfield Thursday. By run-ruling Ardmore, 16-0, Friday night, they simply ensured themselves of the runner-up spot in the regional and advanced to a game that, in the end, might have cost them more than just their 10th loss of the season.
If Logan — ejected in the fourth inning of Saturday's loss for arguing a checked swing by Outlaw leadoff hitter Alex Polston from the bench — can't play in this morning's state tournament opener against Lawton, the high-powered Ada offense figures to be only a shell of its former self.
Bell, who earned All-State honors in basketball at Purcell as senior, will be in Tulsa today and Thursday to play in the All-State game, and the loss of his bat — even with Maggia's return — figured to slash the Braves' run production. With both Bell and Logan in the lineup, the Braves had to come from behind twice — the first time on a grand slam by Marcum and the second time on a grand slam by Bell — to beat Lawton Friday. The improving Colonels scored 31 runs in 16 at-bats against Ada pitching at the regional, and depending on Pickering's health, they figure to get their hacks in again today.
If the Braves can get past a scary opener, they will probably face a Bartlesville club Thursday that won the east regional in Muskogee and is seeded third at the state tournament. Ada and Bartlesville haven't played this summer, and with Bell still unavailable, that game is another one Graham and his club can't take for granted.
By Friday, Ada should be at full strength for the first time in the postseason — just in time for a fifth meeting this season with the Outlaws (a team the Braves haven't beaten since the the 2009 state tournament), if they can remain in the winner's bracket. If they don't win today and Thursday, their already thin pitching staff figures to be stretched too far to make a run to Sunday's championship game and then beat the Outlaws (who figure to cruise through the first two rounds) twice.
All this puts Graham in a tough situation today. If Pickering — who has turned in solid efforts in all of his starts this season — is healthy, he figures to be effective against Lawton; if he's not, Graham could turn to Moses Isham (who allowed two hits and no runs over six innings against Ardmore Friday night in his first start of the summer) or Roff's Jordan Scott, who has been very effective both as a starter and reliever down the stretch.
Ideally, Graham would like to be able to pitch Pickering (5-0) today and either Isham or Scott (who is also 5-0) on Thursday. That would leave staff ace Matt Benedict (7-2) available for a possible Friday match-up with Outlaws ace Kevin Hill (3-0 against the Post 72 squad this summer) in a game Ada would probably have to win to save pitching and have a legitimate shot at the title.
If the Braves can overcome the latest hurdles thrown into their path by the baseball gods and somehow survive their first three games this week, they would put themselves in position to dethrone the Outlaws as Oklahoma's top Legion team. A loss in any of those three games, however, makes their road much longer and a lot more treacherous and could ensure the Outlaws their third straight state title.