Rested, refreshed and — most importantly — reinforced after a break for the July 4 holiday, the Ada Legion Post 72 Braves will begin the stretch run to their 2010 campaign with a doubleheader at Ardmore Monday and their final tournament trip of the regular season later in the week.
The Braves, who began the summer with a sweep of the Ardmore Legion squad at Roff on May 27, got an early start to their holiday respite when last Monday’s home game with Bartlesville was cancelled because of a wet field at East Central University. Coach Travis Graham said the break came just in time for his young team.
“Our longest break in the last month had been two days,” said Graham, whose club enters the final month of the season at 16-15 after splitting four games at the University of Arkansas Festival last weekend. “It was nice to get to play that much baseball, but it can wear on you after awhile. We basically played 31 games in 30 days.”
Ada’s offense — considered the biggest question mark coming into the season for a team gutted by losses from Legion age restrictions after a 43-11 campaign in 2009 — showed during the Braves’ final week of action in June that it might not be such a big concern after all. Graham’s squad scored at least six runs in an inning six times in its last nine games, and the offense should be bolstered by the return of former Roff star Blake Logan.
A key member of three straight state championship teams to close out his high school career, Logan wasn’t available for the last nine games because he was competing at the Senior Sunbelt in Norman. His bat and glove should give a boost to the Ada offense and defense, and he and Chandler’s Jon Gray (who was also at the Sunbelt Tournament) will provide some badly needed innings for a pitching staff that was stretched to the limit while they were gone.
“We should finally be able to get our rotation set,” Graham said. “Having Gray (who has pitched only seven innings — all scoreless — for the Braves this summer) and Logan (who pitched a perfect game against Ardmore in the second game of the season) in the lineup will take a lot of pressure off the other guys and make us a lot better team.”
During the nine games Gray and Logan were unavailable, former Byng ace Blake Wheat went 3-0 and allowed just one earned run in 19 innings. Graham said that trio will now lead a staff that has the potential to be pretty solid by the time the Zone playoffs begin on July 15.
“Our pitchers have been walking a lot of batters lately, but I think a lot of that is that our pitchers have been throwing on short rest and they were just tired,” he noted. “Hopefully, the break will take care of that.
“I think with Logan, Gray, Wheat, (David) Cagle and (Tyler) Porter, we should have a pretty good five-man rotation,” Graham said. “Any of those guys should be able to beat anybody we play.”
Cagle, who was expected to be a top-of-the-rotation guy for the Braves this summer, has struggled to a 1-4 record but has been able to dominate when he has his control; Porter, the team’s regular first baseman but unable to pitch early in the season because of an elbow injury, got a save at Stillwater and a complete-game victory in Arkansas two days later in his first two appearances of the summer. Knuckle-baller Rhett Acker has been inconsistent but has a five-inning no-hitter to his credit this summer and, along with Les Wesberry, can be counted on for spot starts and relief duty, and lefty Jordan Boone has provided a nice change of pace out of the bullpen.
The Braves will need all of their pitching depth this week against an improved Ardmore squad and some of the top Legion teams in the Midwest Wednesday through Saturday at the American Wood Bat Classic in Silver Springs, Mo.
“This is probably the best team Ardmore has had a long time,” Graham said. “We’ll probably give all of our starting pitchers two or three innings (in a doubleheader that begins at 6 p.m. Monday). That will get everybody ready for the tournament.
“I’m hoping we come back from this break rejuvenated and healed up and not dead,” he added. “If five or six days off doesn’t bring them back, we didn’t do a very good job of getting them ready.”
Graham’s 2009 squad had a 23-game winning streak snapped with a loss in Missouri, and this year’s Wood Bat Classic is expected to draw 40 of the best Legion squads from Oklahoma, Nebraska, Missouri, Kansas and Arkansas. The Braves will host a hamburger cook-out as a fundraiser Tuesday from 11 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. to help pay for a trip Graham said should be good for his players on several levels.
“We’ll play teams we wouldn’t see if we didn’t go to this tournament,” Graham said. “We get a chance to see what baseball is like in those areas. If you win this thing, it’s almost like winning a regional.
“I still think our strength is pitching and defense, and I think it will help our hitters to swing a wood bat for a week,” he added. “Last year, I had quite a bit more pitching than I have this year, but I think we’ll be able to match up pretty well with those teams. The first tie-breaker (in the event of a tie in pool play) is earned runs allowed, so that has to be our focus going in. There will be a lot of college scouts up there, and these guys should get a lot of exposure that will help them down the road.”
While Graham’s 2008 and 2009 Post 72 teams — both dominated by college players — were able to put together long winning streaks, his 2010 squad — which has just three players (Cagle, Porter and Wesberry) with college experience on the roster — hasn’t won more than four games in a row and went 5-4 over its last nine.
“We definitely have a long to way to go, but I think we’ve seen glimpses of the team that hopefully we’re going to be,” Graham noted. “We’ve had some big innings; if we could start stringing some big innings together, that would be ideal.
“I want everybody to be relaxed and realize the hard times are over,” he said. “We haven’t had a winning streak of more than four games, but we haven’t lost more than four in a row. Even though we’re a .500 team, we haven’t gone through a long down time, and with our pitching staff I don’t think we will.”
With the Zone tournament less than two weeks away, Graham said his team’s upside gives the Braves — a state tournament team the past two seasons and state runner-up in 2009 — a chance to make some noise in the Legion playoffs again this year.
“I think we’re set up pretty well, and I’m pretty confident in the guys we have,” he explained. “When everybody is there, I think I have the best five-man rotation in the state. Hopefully we can get on a little winning streak now.
“The good thing is we haven’t peaked yet,” Graham added. “I don’t feel like we’ve been beaten yet. We’ve just LOST those games. Teams have scored a lot of runs against us at times, but they’ve been self-inflicted wounds.”