By Eric Ingles Democrat Sports Editor
July 30, 2014
Four teams remain in AAA American Legion baseball in Missouri and those four are coming to Sedalia.
The American Legion state tournament begins this afternoon at Dey Field at Liberty Park. Jefferson City will face the Lee’s Summit Outlaws at 4 p.m. today and Festus will take on Joplin at 7 p.m.
Friday, the winners will face each other at noon with losers bracket games at 3 p.m. and 6 p.m.
For Joplin and Jefferson City, it is a return to Sedalia as both teams reached the state tournament in 2013. The Outlaws are also back on familiar turf, having won the zone tournament on Dey Field earlier this week.
“It’s a great old stadium,” said Outlaws manager Mike Gailey. “Our players just love it. It’s a neat atmosphere. It’s a great place to be. The excitement of playing there is great.”
The Outlaws are 35-18 and Gailey said he thinks they are playing their best baseball of the season right now.
“We’re pretty comfortable with ourselves,” he said. “We started the season with a lot of returning players and felt our strength was our defense. “
At the plate, Gailey said his team’s hitting is focused.
“We hit extremely well for average,” he said. “We’ve got a lot of returning ball players from last year. We were 41-10 and we returned all but a couple players and we returned with a focus to get back to this point.”
Dane Hughes’ Jefferson City team comes into the tournament 20-8 with four players returning from last season’s tournament team. Even the players new to the team this summer have tournament experience from successful high school teams.
“The guys who were here last year wanted to get back,” Hughes said. “They know what to expect. The atmosphere is a bit different in Sedalia than it is in a regular tournament. There’s a little bit more of a buzz around the stadium.”
Jefferson City played at Liberty Park early in the season during the Jimmy Glenn Tournament, but Hughes said his team has progressed a lot since then.
“To get to this point, we’ve had to play our best baseball of the summer,” he said. “What we’ve done well all summer is our ability to hit well up and down the lineup. These past few weeks, we’ve played good, clean defense and our pitchers have stepped up.”
On the mound, Hughes said he has a staff of pitchers who can pitch to contact and change speeds.
“We do have a couple of guys with strikeout ability but as the season went to nine innings, we’ve changed some roles,” Hughes said. “Guys who were starting early in the season have moved to the bullpen.”
Joplin enters the tournament having not lost in 25 games.
“Pitchers have been throwing strikes and we’ve been playing defense behind our pitchers and putting the ball in play at the plate,” said manager Todd Lee.
Joplin was in the state tournament last year, finding itself on the wrong end of a 28-run outburst by Blue Springs. They return this season with an experienced roster which includes four players who recently graduated from high school and several others who will be seniors this coming year. That experience has helped the Joplin hitters.
“They usually know the strike zone fairly well,” Lee said. “They understand what helps them out as hitters at the plate and what pitches to look for.”
Not only do they have experience, they have experience playing alongside each other. Every member of the team played for Joplin High School.
“It does help just having that familiarity between each other,” Lee said.
That familiarity includes the double-play combination of Chris Leonardi and Johnny Maturino, who have been playing alongside each other for years.
“They’re solid up the middle,” Lee said. “They just work well together and can cover a little bit of ground.”
Festus is back in the state tournament for the first time since 2011 following a 20-10 season.
“We’re playing with a lot more consistently, especially offensively,” said manager Zac Bone.
On offense, Festus will rely on team speed to turn singles into doubles and put pressure on opposing defenses.
“We’ve got seven guys who are pretty good runners in the lineup,” Bone said. “That allows us to play faster on the bases. That’s the way we have to play is play fast on the bases. That’s what we do well. “
On the mound, Bone said he has a staff that will find the strike zone.
“Our guys give us a chance each and every time out,” he said. “That’s what it takes is quality pitched ballgames.”