Metro East Bears rally past Smithton in District 22 playoffs

Blake Vandiver belted a three-run triple to highlight an eight-run fifth inning as the Metro East Bears defeated Smithton 9-2 on Wednesday in the American Legion District 22 playoffs.

Held in check by Smithton starting pitcher Jordan Fritz over the first four innings, the top-seeded Bears (30-7) erased a 2-1 deficit in the fifth, sending 12 batters to the plate during an inning that also featured a two-run single by Cole Hansel.

Kade Burns, a key member of the Edwardsville High School team that placed second in the Class 4A state tournament in June, did the rest. Burns, who gave up a pair of unearned runs in the first inning, finished strong, retiring the final nine hitters as the Bears advanced in the winners bracket of the double-elimination tournament.

“I wasn’t really concerned at all when we were down 2-0. We were hitting a lot of pitches off the end of the bat early in the game. We just had to make an adjustment at the plate,” Burns said. “Once we did, we got the momentum, and we were fine. We have a lot of good hitters on this team.”

The win moves the Bears into a showdown with defending Fifth Division champion Highland on Thursday at Hoppe Park in Edwardsville at 7 p.m. Seeded third, Highland defeated second-seed Belleville 7-1 on Tuesday. Belleville will host Smithton at Whitey Herzog Field in Belleville in an elimination game Thursday.

Smithton (8-8-1) took advantage of a pair of Metro East errors to take a 2-0 lead in the first inning.

With one out, Landon Touchette reached on an error, and Burns walked Joe Range. Both runners then moved up a base, and with two outs, George Weaver lined a single to right field. Touchette scored the first run, and Range scored the second run on a throwing error.

Trailing 2-0, the Bears didn’t panic.

“This team has very good team chemistry,” Bears manager Ken Schaake said. “The two errors were ones we probably shouldn’t have made. But nobody was getting down on each other because of the errors. It was more like, we’ll get them (the runs) back. This group of kids pick each other up very well.

“Offensively we have a lot of players who make contact well. We put the ball in play, and in the fifth inning, we were able to get some big hits.”

Fritz was sharp on the mound for Smithton through the first four innings. Giving up four hits, Fritz pitched out of trouble twice before the Bears finally ended his night in the fifth.

The Bears loaded the bases with a pair of singles and a walk with nobody out. Fritz then walked Joel Quirin to force in a run, which tied the score at 2.

Four pitches later on a 1-2 count, Vandiver put the Bears ahead to stay with his three-run triple. Hansel then increased the lead to 7-2 three batters later as the Bears put the game away.