FAIRVIEW HEIGHTS — In a double-elimination tournament, having a deep pitching staff like the Belleville Hilgards is always an advantage.
The Hilgards (29-12) will be playing in the American Legion Fifth Division Tournament this week at Moody Park in Fairview Heights.
"I think you win with pitching and defense,'' Hilgards manager Zach Rakowski said. "If you get good starts and you get good defense, you are going to be in every game. Our pitching has pretty much led us all year, and we play pretty good defense.
"If we can keep doing those things, I think we'll find a way to manufacture some runs.''
Ten different pickers have notched wins for the Hilgards, who have a team ERA of 2.54.
"We've been really fortunate with the pitching this summer,'' said Rakowski, whose pitchers surrendered only one run in three District 22 South Division playoff games. "Honestly, it has developed even deeper than I thought it would. I knew we had 10-11 guys who could pitch, but some guys have really stepped up.
"Ryan Marcum (3-0) and Alex Sandheinrich (2-1) have turned themselves into starting options that we feel really good about. You add in Cory Renois (6-1), Parker Beine (2-3), Bryce Richter (5-1) and Brendan Saak (4-1) and you have a pretty formidable group.''
Offensively, the Hilgards are averaging 4.4 runs per game.
Adam Bauer is hitting .353 with a team-high 32 runs scored and Aaron Meyer is hitting .345 with 28 runs scored. Klein is hitting .297 with a team-high 29 RBIs.
"A lot of the guys who have been hot offensively have been the guys who have done it all year,'' Rakowski said. "Meyer and Bauer have really paced us. Jason Klein has really come on, which has helped. He kind of felt his way through the early part (of the season). He's really swinging it well now.''
The Hilgards open the Fifth Division Tournament against Aviston at 10 a.m. Monday.
Aviston advanced to the Fifth Division Tournament by beating Trenton 11-1 in the championship game of the District 23 West Division Tournament.
Aviston scored a combined 36 runs in their four playoff games.
"Aviston year-in and year-out puts together a good team, so you always expect them to have a chance to be in the Fifth Division,'' said Rakowski, whose team beat Aviston 2-0 on June 15 as Richter threw an eight-hit shutout.
As the host team, Fairview Heights (14-17) gets an automatic berth to the Fifth Division Tournament.
"We're having a little bit of a down year,'' Fairview Heights manager Craig Steiner said. "We've had a lot of injuries and stuff that knocked us off track this year. We're kind of looking at this as a rebuilding year. The fact that we still get in the Fifth Division is good for the kids."
Fairview Heights plays Effingham at 7:30 p.m. Monday. The two teams were supposed to meet earlier this season in Bethalto, but the game was rained out.
Steiner said his squad is taking a nothing-to-lose attitude into the Fifth Division Tournament.
"That's the beauty of where we are right now,'' Steiner said. "Everybody is aware that we don't have the kind of record we've had in past years. We're kind of going in there as the underdogs. We can tell the kids, 'Just let it all hang out and see what happens.'"
Steiner also feels like his pitching staff has the depth to be dangerous in the tourney.
"Our team ERA is still floating down about 2.30,'' Steiner said. "Anytime you can keep your runs per game to about 2.5 or less, you're going to have the opportunity to win.''
Steiner said the ace of his staff has been Ethan Wild, from O'Fallon.
"Ethan struggled a little bit out in O'Fallon during the spring,'' Steiner said. "He threw with a little bit of an injury in the spring, and after O'Fallon got knocked out the playoffs and until we started, he had time to sit and rest and not do anything. I tell you what, he has been as good as anybody in the league over the last month of the season.''
Steiner said Wild would get the starting assignment against Effingham.
Another O'Fallon product, Brenndon Tindall, has led Fairview Heights' offense.
"Brenndon Tindall has been really good in the clutch situation,'' Steiner said. "He has come up really big for us when it comes to driving in runs. He has the majority of our RBIs.''
Steiner also praised second baseman Jake Warren and third baseman Jake Jarvis for their heart and toughness in playing through injuries.
Edwardsville (24-6) will play Steeleville at 1 p.m., while Louisville will play Murphysboro at 4 p.m.
The tournament runs through Friday with the winner advancing to the state tournament in Trenton.
For District 22 teams, the Fifth Division marks the return of metal bats after using wood bats most of the season.
"You sneak in a few more hits and you hit with a little more power than you would with the wood bats,'' Rakowski said. "In the wood bat games, a lot of times it may take three hits to score a run. With the aluminum bats, you get a few more extra-base hits, and it really opens up the games for you.''
Contact reporter Steve Korte at email@example.com or 239-2522.