BELLEVILLE — When the American Legion District 22 South Division baseball playoffs began, the main question seemed to be whether Belleville or Fairview Heights would advance to the Fifth Division Tournament.
Someone forgot to figure Smithton into the equation.
Smithton eliminated Belleville on Tuesday and on Wednesday got another stay of execution by knocking off previously unbeaten top seed Fairview Heights 5-1 at Whitey Herzog Field.
Now the teams meet again at 7 p.m. Thursday at the same site in a winner-take-all situation -- and don't expect Smithton (10-14) to be feeling any pressure.
"We (don't) because we're not supposed to be here," said Smithton manager Dean Neuner, whose pitching staff has been rough on the South Division heavyweights. "We were supposed to go home last night, so it's kind of nice getting an extra couple more games. ... We lost every game to Belleville and Fairview Heights this year in the regular season.
"For us to be able to come back and knock Belleville out and taking Fairview to an elimination game, that means a lot."
Fairview Heights manager Craig Steiner believes his 24-9 club will respond with a better effort.
"We've played a lot of big games, so I think our guys are used to it," Steiner said. "Having played at O'Fallon and having played at Belleville East, they're used to high-pressure games. I think they'll be ready."
Smithton 76ers starter Jeff Barrett struck out the first two hitters he faced to set the tone and Fairview never got a good read on him. Barrett held Post 978 to four hits and one run in six strong innings, before getting relief help from Jake Turner and Nick Yung.
Barrett, who graduated from O'Fallon High School earlier this year but did not play baseball for the Panthers, kept Fairview Heights offstride by mixing his pitches well.
"This is only Jeff's second start this year," Neuner said of Barrett, who battled through arm problems earlier this season. "He's been kind of just a bullpen guy for us, he plays right field for us or left field. I wanted to get at least five innings out of him and he came through in a big way."
Fairview's Sam Hopkins singled to start the bottom of the ninth and went to third on a single by Danny Hughes. Andrew Witkowski reached on an error to load the bases with no outs and Turner was replaced by Yung.
Yung was up to the task, retiring Fairview's Darin Pitts on a line drive to third, Vinnie Birk on a fly ball to center and Logan Reno on a ground-ball force play.
Fairview Heights manager Craig Steiner said Smithton's off-speed pitching made things tough on his hitters. Fairview loaded the bases in the fifth and ninth innings without cashing in a run either time.
"They throw a lot of off-speed and they throw really slow," Steiner said. "We had a hard time staying back on it. We hit a lot of fly balls and when you've got a guy that throws really slow ... these guys are used to hitting off a little bit higher speed and it throws them off a little bit."
Smithton broke loose for two runs in the top of the fourth on a two-run double to the fence in left by Nik Weber that nearly left the park.
Austin Caravia and Joe Kapp both singled to start the fourth and moved up to second and third with no outs when Kapp's single was misplayed by the center fielder.
Weber followed with a blast to left that gave Smithton the lead.
Smithton's Eli Blecha singled leading off the fifth and scored from third on a two-out wild pitch to push the lead to 3-0.
Fairview Heights loaded the bases with two outs in the fifth on a pair of walks and a single by Hughes, but Barrett escaped by getting Birk to ground into a force play at third.
Smithton chased Fairview Heights starter Kyle Wilson on a leadoff single by Kapp in the sixth. Birk relieved and surrendered a single to Weber and Drake Delong smoked a two-run triple into the gap in left-center that made it 5-0.
Fairview threatened again in the seventh against Turner, but Birk's line-drive out was turned into an inning-ending double play.
Neuner said he believed in his team all along, but had trouble fielding a full roster for a variety of reasons.
"We had such a rough year, we had so many injuries," he said. "We had guys leaving for camps, guys leaving on vacation..I guarantee you we played at least five games with nine guys. We never, ever had a complete team.
"I still felt if we had everybody here we had a good enough team to compete. Now the playoffs got here and we've got everybody together, so maybe I was right."
Contact reporter Norm Sanders at firstname.lastname@example.org or 239-2454.