With heavy rains earlier this week giving way to sunshine, the timing appears just right for the Southwestern Illinois Firecracker Classic Tournament being held at three American Legion baseball sites this week throughout the metro-east.
Now in its second year, the 15-team tourney begins at 10 a.m. Friday with pool play at Whitey Herzog Field in Belleville, Moody Park in Fairview Heights and Gordon Moore Park in Alton.
"Having just the three sites has allowed us to be selective on the teams that are coming in, so the level of competition is very good," Fairview Heights manager Craig Steiner said. "Last year Moline did not get out of their pool and they went to the American Legion World Series and won the state championship. That speaks a lot to the quality of teams we have in our tournament."
Games are set for 10 a.m., 12:15 p.m.., 2:30 p.m., 4:45 p.m. and 7 p.m. at each of the three host sites on Friday and Saturday.
The semifinals will be played at 11 a.m. and 1:15 p.m. Sunday at Gordon Moore Park in Alton, followed by the championship at 3:30 p.m.
Jefferson City (Mo.) is back to defend its tourney championship with a 24-1 mark this summer after defeating Eagan (Minn.) in the 2012 championship game.
"They've got a lot of good pitching and a lot of good hitting," Steiner said of Missouri's capital city entry.
Texarkana (26-7) and Bryant are two strong entries from Arkansas while House Springs (Mo.) is coming off a victory in the Bosse Throwback Tournament last weekend in Evansville, Ind.
The Belleville Hilgards (19-8) won their pool last season before losing in the semifinals. Belleville opens the tourney with a 10 a.m. home game Friday against Eureka (Mo.), then takes on Fulton (Mo.) at 7 p.m.
"The wood bats don't let you run away from anybody if you get up early. If somebody has a really good pitcher, anybody can win any of these games," Belleville Hilgards manager Zach Rakowski said. "The good thing is it's not going to be as hot as last year, that was absolutely brutal. I think it was the hottest week of the whole summer."
Belleville's top hitters are Missouri State recruit Aaron Meyer (.365, 14 RBIs), Southwestern Illinois College recruit Adam Bauer (.359, one homer, 11 RBIs), Bryce Richter (.333, 10 RBIs) and Fontbonne College infielder Jason Klein (.303, six doubles, two triples, 20 RBIs).
"With all the rainouts it's been tough to get consistency and we've had a difficult time holding leads," said Rakowski, whose club has had the lead in eight of its nine defeats. "We've been good early and late, but we haven't really been good in the middle of the games and that's been one of the problems offensively. I bet (Klein) has raised his average maybe 100 points in the last few weeks."
Belleville's top pitchers are Cory Renois (4-1, 1.78 ERA), Richter (3-1, 1.14 ERA) and Parker Beine (1-1).
Fairview Heights (9-12) has been bothered by injuries and consistency, but catcher Brenndon Tindall has proven to be a solid run producer. Post 978 is currently dealing with injuries to the heart of its lineup; Jake Jarvis and Tanner Hudson are out and Marty Brunk has been playing with a thumb injury.
"We're struggling a little bit offensively, but we've really stabilized our defense and our pitching is doing really well," Steiner said, pointing to Ethan Wild's four-hit shutout Monday against Collinsville.
Fairview pitchers Sam Bassett and Andrew Witkowski each have ERA's below 2.00.