Mark Bradford has a young team this year and most of his players are getting their first taste of American Legion summer baseball.
And their first taste at extended play with wooden bats.
This week, Bradford’s Lee’s Summit Post 189 Auxiliary Outlaws newcomers are getting their first exposure to the American Legion Wood Bat Invitational in Blue Springs. This season marks the tournament’s 30th year, and the Outlaws manager said it’s always been a highlight on the schedule.
“I think we look forward to it every year,” Bradford said. “The new guys coming in don’t really know much about it, but I think the coaches look forward to it every year. It’s good to see different people, do something different. It’s a good break.”
The Outlaws are one of 25 teams from six states in this year’s tournament, which began July 4 and runs through July 8 at Hidden Valley Park and three high school fields. The farthest-flung team, the Post 151 Cobras, hails from Middletown, New York. The teams are divided into five, five-team pools.
And all those teams get to enjoy hearing the crack of a wood bat instead of the ping of the more durable and economical metal bats high school players normally use.
“There’s not as much pop coming off the bat,” Outlaws pitcher Jeremy Root said. “Metal bats (the ball) just flies but off wood bats it feels like it’s dead every time you hit it.”
As a pitcher, Root, one of three players back from last summer’s Outlaws, doesn’t always see that as a bad thing.
“The balls don’t go as far,” Root said. “Pop flies could be home runs on metal bats but they’re not because we’re using wood. It gives us the advantage.”
This worked to the Outlaws’ advantage, and disadvantage, as they split their first two tournament games July 4 at Hidden Valley. They struggled to get timely hits in a 3-2 loss to St. Joseph Post 11 and then rode five shutout innings from Root to a 5-4 victory over the Ada, Okla., Braves.
Bradford said Outlaws came ready to swing the wooden bats after crushing 16 hits with them in an 18-5 win at Oak Park in a nine-inning game July 2. The two games just continued a trend of close wins and losses during the Outlaws’ 14-9 season.
Bradford, though, still thought his team was a little rusty. Before playing Oak Park, the Outlaws hadn’t played for 10 days because of rainouts.
“Wished we could score more than just a couple innings a game,” Bradford said. “The last four games have been like that. Hopefully we’ll have four or five games here in the five days and that’ll help.”
The Outlaws scored both runs against St. Joseph in the sixth inning as they tried to rally from an early 3-0 deficit.
Against Ada, they had a 4-0 lead after the first two innings. Trevor Key led off the game with a double and scored on a Root single in the first, and the Outlaws plated three more in the second with the help of two bases-loaded walks.
Key reached on an error and scored on an RBI single from Justin Hopson for a 5-0 Outlaws lead in the fifth.
Root, meanwhile, held Ada to two hits and a walk before tiring in the sixth inning. Ada touched Root for three runs on four hits in the sixth. The Braves tacked on another one in the seventh and put the tying and go-ahead runners in scoring position with two out before Blake Marnholtz relieved him.
After walking the first batter he faced, Marnholtz coaxed a pop-up to end the game.
“It’s the second straight outing I’ve gone the distance,” said Root, who threw 103 pitches. “The last outing I was cramping and stuff but this game I wasn’t cramping. I was just tired.”
“He was getting up there in pitches,” Bradford said. “It’s hot, so we had a guy warmed up ready to go. He’s had good two outings in row.”
The Outlaws reached the quarterfinals of last year’s Wood Bat Invitational on their way to a 35-10 record and an appearance in the American Legion State Tournament finals. Duplicating that will be difficult for this year’s greener team.
But they will still get a good lesson in what this annual tradition is all about.
“We have a brand-new team. It’s a new deal you know?” Root said. “But we’re doing well and it just prepares us for next year and another deep run.”