Three weeks remain on the regular season schedule, but any team that hopes to challenge Edwardsville for the Southwestern Conference champsionship better make its move soon.
The Tigers gave themselves a big advantage in the standings and toward the top seed in a stacked Edwardsville 4A Regional with a 4-0 win over Alton at Tom Pile Field Tuesday.
Making just his third start of the season, junior Jake Garella shut out the Redbirds on three hits through sixth and a third innings. Edwardsville improves to 21-1 overall and 8-0 in the Southwestern Conference.
"One of our goals is to win conference and one of our goals is to get a No. 1 seed. The win helped us today with both those," said Edwardsville head coach Tim Funkhouser. "But we've got a lot of baseball ahead before the seeding comes out and to become the team we want to be heading into the post season."
Alton got four solid innings from starter Ben Cusac who held Edwardsville to a single scratch run before giving up a two-out, three-run home run to Tiger center fielder Colin Clayton in the fifth.
The Redbirds have lost twice to their primary baseball rival, but at 17-4 overall and 5-2 in league play, are not quite ready to concede the conference title or the top regional seed.
"In the Southwestern Conference and in high school baseball it's always 'what have you done for me lately,'" said Alton coach Todd Haug. "This one is done and our next important day is Thursday. That's how we have to approach it and you're kidding yourself if you don't because you cannot overlook any team in this league."
Garella entered the game with a 2-0 record and 1.21 earned run average through 17.3 innings pitched. He struggled early, running the count full to five of the first six batters he faced.
He had to pitch his way out of a first inning jam when he allowed runners on second and third with one out. But he struck out Alton's fourth- and fifth-placed batters to end the threat. By the second, he had found his control and allowed just three more Alton base runners before he was relieved with one out in the seventh.
"I thought Jake was outstanding today," Funkhouser said. "He threw some pitches early on and I thought 'man, this may not be his day.' But to overcome that is not easy to do, which took mental toughness as well as physical adjustment."
The difference, Garella said, was a slow curve he was finally able to throw for strikes.
"I was struggling a little with my curve ball, but I bore down, went to concentrate in the dugout a little and went out and figured out what I was doing wrong," Garella said. "Luckily, that curve ball turned out to be the best pitch I threw tonight after those first two innings."
Edwardsville took the lead in the third inning when first baseman Bailey Zimmer singled, advanced to second on an error, to third on a sacrifice bunt by Dylan Burris and scored on Jordan Hovey's groundout.
Through four innings, Cusac also had allowed just three hits to go with a pair of first-inning walks.
He got the first outs of the fifth before walking Burris and allowing a single by Hovey. The next batter, Clayton, turned on a 2-2 pitch and parked it over the left field fence for a three-run home run to cushion the Tigers' lead.
"That was a huge hit," Funkhouser said. "We haven't been hitting the ball as well recently. We were really stroking it until the last week and a half, but that was a big pick-me-up. Credit Burris for drawing the walk and Hovey for getting the hit to bring Clayton up all with two out."
The Edwardsville defense was outstanding, despite a rare outfield error that put the then-tying run on base. But Krebs, the second baseman, saved the run by ranging far to his right to back-hand a sharply hit groundball up the middle by Alton's Matt Hopkins. Krebs' strong throw to first from his knees got Garella out of the jam.
"I love going out on the mound and knowing they are behind me," Garella said. "I know they are going to have great concentration on getting the job done and it's fun to see them make the great plays.'
Edwardsville still has conference games remaining against East St. Louis, Belleville West and East, Granite City, Colllinsville and O'Fallon.
Alton also has seven league games remaining including the continuation of a postponed game against East. The teams will pick that game up Thursday in the 11th inning tied, 4-4.