With a tightly compressed schedule that has the Belleville Hilgards playing up to five games a week this summer, manager Zach Rakowski is fortunate to have a deep pitching staff to absorb the innings.
"It really comes down to if we have enough offense and can make enough plays, because we've got a lot of guys that have thrown well at the varsity level," said Rakowski, now in his fourth season with an American Legion baseball club that won five of its first six games before Tuesday.
The top of the rotation includes pitchers Cory Renois (Belleville West, Rend Lake), Parker Beine (Belleville West, Jefferson College), Austin Keen (Althoff), Bryce Richter (Althoff, now at Illinois playing club baseball); Brendan Saak (Belleville West, Quincy), Matt Klosterman (Belleville West) and Tyler Schmid (Althoff, Southwestern lllinois).
Richter and Schmid are both 2-0, with Richter getting a win Sunday after throwing seven innings of scoreless one-hit relief against Maryland Heights. Keen (1-0) has 10 strikeouts in eight innings and Beine is coming off a standout season for West.
Richter and Renois were a combined 12-3 last summer for the Hilgards. Richter was 6-1 with a 0.86 ERA and Renois, who just finished his freshman season at Rend Lake, was 6-2 with a 1.82 ERA.
"Other than Keen they all pitched Senior Legion last season too and Austin was one of the front-end starters on the Junior Legion team that won state," said Rakowski, who also has Grant Strieker, Eric Mertens and Josh Davinroy available out of the bullpen.
"It's pretty similar to last year, we had a lot of guys that could throw last year, too. It's good because you play a bunch of games in a short amount of time and it allows you to keep everybody fresh."
Keen, Klosterman and outfielders John Dozier and Sam Haudrich played key roles on the Belleville 1 Junior Legion team that won the Illinois state championship last summer.
The big bat returning for Belleville is first baseman Adam Bauer, an All-Great Rivers Athletic Conference selection following his strong freshman season at SWIC.
Richter (.538, two RBIs), Bauer (.524, five RBIs), Haudrich (.522) and Renois are off to strong starts along with second baseman Luke Frazier (.280, eight RBIs).
Belleville led 2-0 heading into the bottom of the seventh of its only loss, allowing three unearned runs in a 3-2 loss to Highland.
Rakowski, whose 31-14 team won the District 22 South Division and postseason tournament titles last season, lost in the Fifth Division to eventual state champion Edwardsville.
Edwardsville has merged with Alton, Bethalto and Roxana this season and should be a strong contender once again along with Swansea/Fairview Heights, Smithton, Collinsville and maybe a few more.
"Every year you hope you have a chance to win District 22 and get to the Fifth Division, then take your chances," Rakowski said. "It's just hard getting out of District 22 because there's so many good teams and it's so balanced. Whenever you can do that you've had a good year.
"Obviously getting to state would have felt a lot better, but I still felt we had a good year."
The catchers are Mertens (Althoff) and Ethan Lewis (Belleville West), with Bauer at first base and Frazier (Althoff) at second.
Strieker (Althoff) is at short and Klosterman (Belleville West) is at third. The outfield includes Haudrich (Althoff), Beine, Saak, Richter, Dozier and Keen.
"I think we're going to be able to hit up and down the lineup," Rakowski said.
The Hilgards will travel to a competitive tournament in Blue Springs, Mo., this weekend and also will play at a tournament in Evansville (Ind.) later this summer.
Belleville also will host a bracket of the annual Firecracker Tournament in early July at Whitey Herzog Field in Belleville.