Defeating Swansea/Fairview Heights three times in the regular season wasn't a problem for the Metro-East Bears. Beating the Giants a fourth time proved to be an issue.
Swansea/Fairview Heights saw a five-run lead shrink to one Thursday before pulling away for a 12-6 victory over the Bears in the American Legion Fifth Division Tournament in New Baden.
The Giants had 18 hits and gained the inside track on the championship. They are the lone remaining undefeated team in the tournament and can clinch the title with a win at 7:30 p.m. Friday.
"We're taking a better approach to hitting than we've taken lately," said Giants manager Craig Steiner, whose 31-9 team has scored 47 runs in its last three games. "We're being more aggressive. We've talked about our hitting and looking at the pitcher we're going against. ... We got the guys thinking about their approach they're taking at the plate, and that's really helped us, too.
"We haven't hit the ball worth a hoot against (Metro-East) all year, so we were due."
Swansea/Fairview Heights broke out to a 5-0 lead, scoring four two-out runs in the second and one more in the third against Metro-East right-hander Tommy Flack, who had been the winner against the Giants in the Bears' three regular-season victories.
Blake Deatherage and Collin Holton had two-run singles in the second, and Dean Gerros had an RBI single in the third.
Right-hander Rich Boatman, meanwhile, sailed through the Bears lineup in the first five innings, retiring all 15 hitters.
But singles by Levi Wallace and Jacob Scrabacz and a walk by Carter Hayden in the sixth set up Drew Curtis' long two-out grand slam to left that whittled the Giants' lead to 5-4 and suddenly provided Metro-East (24-7) with momentum.
Citing a noticeable drop in Boatman's velocity, Steiner turned to reliever Robert Guithues, and he worked the final 3 1/3 innings for the save, allowing only a pair of unearned runs in the ninth.
"Rich made one bad pitch," Steiner said. "We didn't want him to throw a fastball to (Curtis), even with the bases loaded. If we throw a curveball and he hits a double, it's still a three-run game. So we were staying away from the fastball.
"But he wanted to throw that fastball inside, and he left it out over the plate a little bit. The guy who hit it is the guy who's going to do that. He got us on that. All the credit to Drew Curtis. He was in a clutch situation there and he did his job. He put the ball out."
The Giants, however, stemmed the tide in the seventh on Gerros' two-out RBI single, and they put the game out of reach with a six-run eighth against Ray Bailey that was highlighted by Brady Schanuel's two-run triple and Gerros' third RBI single of the game.
"We had the momentum, but they worked hard and got the run just to silence that (grand slam) and give themselves a little bit more confidence," Metro-East manager Ken Schaake said. "But hey, that happens. The kids have been here before in tournaments. We've got to play one game at a time."
Schaake bemoaned Flack's two-out walk to Anthony Garza that fueled the Giants' four-run second.
The free pass was followed by Hayden Hewitt's single, one of his four hits in the game, and Dominic Blaylock's infield single off the throat of Bears third baseman Austin Stilts, who left the game in the fourth to receive medical attention.
"That was a killer. That hurt," Schaake said of Garza's walk. "They just kind of rolled from there."
It was a rough game for Stilts. Prior to being struck in the throat by Blaylock's grounder, he fell hard on the bullpen mound while he unsuccessfully pursued a foul popup. Stilts resisted leaving, and was noticeably angry in the parking lot before departing.
Steiner was coaching third when Stilts was removed.
"I hated to see him go, but the coach did the right thing," Steiner said. "He was coughing a lot out there while he was on the field. You could see him taking a lot of deep breaths. That's not good. You've got to protect players from themselves once in a while."