Ada Post 72 coach Travis Graham started the summer with a lot of new faces but the same old target. Now just two games shy of a third straight trip to the American Legion state baseball tournament, Graham simply wants his young Braves to keep their eyes on the prize heading into Thursday’s zone tournament showdown with McAlester.
“If we lose focus, McAlester has enough talent to beat us,” said Graham, whose squad has won six of seven July games to improve to a season-best six games above .500 at 22-16. “I’m hoping our pitchers keep this momentum going.
“We’ve only allowed eight runs this month in seven games, so I think our pitchers are getting some confidence,” he added. “I believe they’ll pound the zone and let our defense work.”
Graham’s pitching staff will enter Thursday’s 7 p.m. zone opener in Holdenville off an impressive seven-game stretch. After a pair of run-rule victories over a previously red-hot Ardmore squad Monday, the Braves won four of five games on their way to the runner-up trophy in a tough 40-team field at the American Legion Wood Bat Invitational in Blue Springs, Mo., last week.
When Sunday’s semifinal and championship games were rained out, the tournament’s order of finish was decided by runs allowed, and the six given up in Ada’s five outings were second only the two surrendered by the host squad, Post 499/Fike from Blue Springs.
“I think we have a little bit of confidence right now,” Graham noted. “When I selected this team, I wanted kids who had that drive, and I think right now that’s starting to show. I think we had some intensity this year we didn’t have last year (when the Braves were state Legion runners-up after a 43-11 season).”
McAlester and Ada split a doubleheader at home on June 6, with the Braves blowing a 5-0 lead in the opener and losing, 8-6, then rallying for a 9-8 victory in eight innings in the nightcap. Graham said his club has come a long way in the last five weeks, adding that the loss to McAlester could be a good thing in the long run.
“It puts everything in perspective for (the Braves) that they can still lose,” he said. “We’ve had 16 losses. It’s not like last year, when we only lost four games all season with our best players out there.
“We had to come back and beat McAlester in the game we did win, and I’m hoping we have a little more ‘want-to’ to prove something now,” Graham said. “We lost some games early in the season we should have won. With the exception of a couple of games against (the Elk City-based Oklahoma Travelers), most of our losses have come from us beating ourselves.”
Despite his team’s impressive showing so far in July, Graham had a tough time finding a site for his zone tournament. The Braves played the majority of their home games this season at East Central University, but Tiger Field is undergoing a renovation and is unavailable. With most of the area’s high school coaches also readying their fields for the start of the fall season in less than a month, Graham decided to play this week’s games at Holdenville, where he spent his first season as head baseball coach this spring.
“I’m looking forward to bringing Legion up here to play,” Graham said Tuesday as he prepared the field for Thursday’s opener. “We’ve done a lot of good things at Holdenville this last season, and I’m proud to bring my Legion guys up here. With it being 360 (feet) in center (field) here, I’m hoping our pitchers will keep the ball in the park.”
Graham said he will hand the ball Thursday to ace right-hander Jon Gray, an All-Stater at Chandler High School and a 13th-round draft choice of the Kansas City Royals this spring. Gray (2-0) has allowed two runs (both unearned) in 11 innings this summer, and he is one of only three players on the roster (Tyler Porter and Matt Johnson are the other two) who have been members of each of Graham’s first three Post 72 teams.
Roff’s Blake Logan (3-4) is expected to start Game 2 (at 6 p.m. Friday) in the zone, and Graham can choose from among Byng’s Blake Wheat (6-2), former Coalgate star David Cagle (2-4) or Porter (2-0) to start a third game, if needed, in the best-of-three.
“I’m hoping we do well enough in this zone that we will get a good seed in the state tournament,” Graham said. “I’d like to be a 2 or 3 seed, because you figure Midwest City (the Midwest City-based Oklahoma Outlaws, the defending state Legion champions) will be the No. 1 seed.
“We have the pitching, the offense and the defense to take us there,” he added, “but momentum — good or bad — is only a game away.”