Steeleville Post 480 and Orient Express Post 1961 didn’t need much pitching last week at the rain-shortened American Legion 25th District tournament, but it will take pitching depth to earn a spot for the state tournament in Alton when they play in Aviston starting Saturday at the 5th Division tournament against teams from the Districts 22, 23 and 24.
“After playing only one game last week, being rested can be a good thing or a bad thing,” said Orient coach Kevin Elko.
Orient (11-3-2) opens the tournament playing the top seed from the 23rd District, Salem Post 128 (14-3) at 3 p.m. The winner will play Sunday at 1 p.m. against the yet-to-be-determined winner of the 22nd District, and the loser won’t play until 5:30 Monday.
“Salem is always a quality team, so we have to show up ready to play,” Elko said. “Our team has been playing together all year at the high school level and now at this level, so they’re really, really pumped up about going to the division and making an impact up there.”
Steeleville (14-2) follows against the second seed from the 23rd — Newton Post 20 (16-3) — at 5:30 p.m. The late game pits Carmi Post 224 against Aviston Express Post 1239 (15-9). On Sunday, the winners will play each other at 3:30 and the losers at 6.
“We haven’t played a game for a week and a half and that’s a tradeoff, but we’re still playing and that’s what matters,” said Steeleville coach John Sutton. “We have our pitching staff rested, but our bats and everything else are rusty.”
Post 480 has advanced to the division round as the second seed three times in the last 10 years. Last year and in 2013, Steeleville exited the division tournament losing its first two games. In 2008, Steeleville bowed out in the third round.
Steeleville went into the district tournament as the top seed of the West Division and won its first two games in dominate fashion beating Murphysboro Post 127, 14-4, in five innings and Carbondale Elks Lodge 1243, 6-0.
The semifinal game against Orient was postponed three times before the tournament was cancelled, leaving Steeleville as the top seed and Orient second.
Steeleville has a deep pitching staff of Ryan Vogt (4-0) and Owen Gross (3-0), Nathan Parkinson (3-1), Jordan Wilson (2-0) and A.J. Stearns (2-1).
“It comes down to pitching and that’s the way it’s been all year,” Sutton said. “We’ve got six guys that have pitched fairly equal all year. We’ve won a lot of games giving up one or two runs. Our last 10 games of the season we won nine, including six by shutout, giving up four runs. Our only loss was 1-0.”
Vogt tossed a no-hitter at the Steeleville Wooden Bat Classic during the season. The right-hander threw a two-hit shutout against Carbondale with 10 strikeouts and one walk at the district tournament.
Gross tossed a three-hit shutout against Herrin Post 645 at the John A. Logan Legion Showcase. The right-hander started the district opener against Murphysboro, giving up one earned run on six hits and three walks with five strikeouts in 4 1/3 innings. Stearns took over with the runners at second and third and ended the rally on a sacrifice fly and a strikeout.
Steeleville batted .282 during the tournament, but its on base percentage was .625, reaching base 35 times out of 56 plate appearances, with 11 hits, 15 walks, two hit by pitches and seven errors, while striking out just three times.
“I don’t think we’ll have the luxury of all those free trips on base this week,” Sutton said. “It’s going to come down to our pitchers throwing strikes, defense making plays and finding a way to score runs.”
The top four batters in the lineup were particularly effective with 12 RBIs and nine runs scored on five hits and eight walks. Leadoff hitter Dusty Sutton reached base four times on one hit and three walks and scored each time, while driving in two runs.
Jacob Sutton reached base six times in eight at-bats on two hits and four walks with three RBIs, while Gross drove in four runs on one hit, one bases loaded walk and two sacrifices while scoring two runs. Vogt had three RBIs on a double, a sacrifice and being hit once.
The bottom two in the lineup were also productive. Outfielder Gavin Conway went 3-for-5 with a RBI and four runs scored. Stearns started at second against Carbondale and had two hits in three at-bats with two runs scored and a RBI.
Orient is making its third trip to the division tournament since the 1990s. Two years ago, Orient advanced as the second seed, but lost its first two games. In 2007 Orient advanced as the top seed from the East Division.
“Before those teams it was 1993 and I was on that team,” Elko said. “I think we may have been the first to come out of the district and go to division.”
The Express’ pitching staff is led by Tyson Broy (3-1), Lucas Wolf (2-0), Brendan Johnson (1-0), Jacob Russell (1-0) and Brogan Rains (1-0).
“We’ve got six to eight kids who can throw quality innings and five quality starters that can throw strikes and work ahead in the count,” Elko said. “Our starters have a tendency to go deep in the game, so that’s a good thing and a bad thing, because they throw a lot of pitches and you have to rest them for three or four days.”
Russell was the starter against Herrin at district, going three innings and giving up one earned run on three hits with five strikeouts. Ryan Hopkins (1-1) pitched the final four innings, giving up one run on two hits with five strikeouts.
Orient batted .315 during the season led by first baseman Logan Elko, infielder Ryley House and Broy. At the district tournament Orient had a .463 on base percentage.
“Against Herrin, the bottom of the lineup picked up some hits,” Elko said. “That’s the thing about us — we’re aggressive at the plate and put the ball in play. If we’re on, we’re going to hit up and down the lineup.”
Infielder Byron Dorris drove in three runs and reached base four times on two hits and twice being hit by a pitch. Centerfielder Blake Engler also reached base four times, going 3-for-3 with a walk, driving in a run and scoring two runs. Right fielder Gabe Campbell and Jacob Russell had two hits to lead the 14-hit attack.