Coming into Thursday night’s game with the Belleville Post 58 Hilgards at Glik Park, Highland Post 439 Senior Legion baseball team was in the unenviable position where a win alone would not be enough to clinch the District 22 regular-season title.
Belleville entered the game with a 2-1 district record. A win would give them the title at 3-1 and the No. 1 seed in the double-elimination District 22 Playoff Tournament.
But if Highland won, all three teams would tie at 2-2, and the deciding tiebreaker would be the total runs allowed in each of the team’s four league games. If the Belleville Hilgards lost, they could not be the district champion, because they had already allowed 12 runs in their previous three games, while the Metro East Bears only surrendered 11 through all four games, and Highland had only given up 10 in three contests.
So, Highland had to shut out Belleville to clinch the district title. However, if Post 439 allowed even just one run, then Highland and Metro East would tie at 11 runs allowed and then a ridiculous 50/50 coin flip would decide the champion and the ensuing No. 1 seed for the postseason tournament.
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Highland coach Harry Painter said he and assistant coach Trace Schuepbach mulled over whether to tell the team that the only way to guarantee the league title was to shut out Belleville, therefore putting a lot of pressure on the young men.
In the end, they decided to have complete transparency and let the chips fall where they may.
The players responded to the adverse situation with aplomb, using a seven-run first inning while getting a shutdown performance from hurler Griffin Welz, along with a couple of sparkling defensive plays en route to thrashing the Hilgards 10-0 in five innings.
The postseason tournament is scheduled to begin on Tuesday, July 12 with the Metro East Bears and Belleville Hilgards facing off first.
After Welz sat down Belleville quickly 1-2-3 to open the game, Highland’s offense could not have greeted Post 58 starter Jake Frazier any ruder, knocking him out of the game after only retiring one batter, but not before he was roughed up for seven runs.
The first six hitters reached safely. Cody Bentlage singled. Austin Gusewelle singled. Dillon Hallemann was hit by a pitch. Jordan Smith hit an RBI single. Matt Augustin sliced a two-run single to right field, and Mike McGill reached on an infield single.
Chris Dickman and Blaine Ray also each added a single before the inning mercifully came to a close for the Hilgards.
Post 439 ended up sending 11 hitters to the plate, with seven of them crossing home plate to leave the outcome of the game in little doubt.
“The biggest part of the whole thing was that they came out and for the first time batted around and got seven runs in the first inning and set Griffin up unbelievably — for the win anyway,” Painter said. “The point about the runs was about the momentum, because once you got the seven, you start thinking that maybe we do this in five, and what an advantage that would be for our pitching to try to get a shutout in five instead of seven, and it worked. That momentum caused them to start booting the ball around. Baseball is a funny game.”
Welz took over from there on the hill. He blanked Belleville on three hits and two walks while working around three errors in his five innings to lift his record to 2-1.
“It would have been awful to lose (the league title on) those errors,” Painter said. “Those guys were down, but I told them that it doesn’t matter. The only thing that matters is that they don’t score right now. Who cares? They didn’t score, so we’re good to go.”
Highland also made a couple of dazzling defensive plays in the fourth frame to preserve the shutout and the District 22 regular-season crown.
First, with a runner on second base, Smith leaped and knocked the ball down at first base and flipped to Welz covering just in the nick of time to get the out. The runner advanced to third, but he would not score, as right fielder Will Greenwald darted in and dove to his right coming to snare a sinking liner mere inches before it would have hit the ground.
“That is the catch of the year right there, because that saves it right there,” Painter said of Greenwald’s sprawling snag. “And Jordan jumping up and knocking that ball down and Griffin covering first on that play to get that out was just as big.”
Belleville ended up committing five errors, one in the first followed by four more that helped Post 439 tack on a run in the second and two more tallies in the third to end the game early.
Highland’s single run in the second came on three consecutive errors by Post 58.
In Post 439’s two-run third, Bentlage led off with an infield single and went to second on an errant throw. Gusewelle then lined a double to center to bring Bentlage around to score the ninth run. After an infield single from Hallemann, Gusewelle touched home plate with the 10th and final run on a RBI ground out to second off the bat of Smith.