A year ago, Wayne Newton Post 346 was one good swing of the bat away from going 2-0 at the start of the Great Lakes Regional tournament for American Legion baseball at Toledo, Ohio.
Unable to score a run in the bottom of the seventh inning of that second game against Danville, Ill., Post 210, however, the Terre Haute team lost in extra innings and fell into the losers' bracket, then dropped another one-run decision the next day to come home with a 1-2 record.
On Wednesday, a short drive away at Charleston, Ill., manager Tim Hayes and his team start the journey that they hope and expect will last a little longer.
Currently 26-8 for the season after getting through state-championship play last weekend at Rockport without a loss, Post 346 plays the host team at 6 p.m. EDT.
It appears to be a good draw for the Terre Haute team, which has lost only to Sullivan Post 139 in postseason play so far. Charleston appears to have a 12-11 record, didn't win its regional tournament and went 1-2 in the John Hayes Best of the Midwest Tournament earlier this summer at Don Jennings Field (losses to Kokomo and Shelbyville, Ky., but with a win over a strong team from Festus, Mo.).
Post 346 has also seen Danville earlier this summer and won 5-4 in a game at the Festus tournament, but the other five teams — two from Pennsylvania and one each from Ohio, Kentucky and Michigan — are mysteries to Hayes and his staff.
But where Terre Haute had many question marks going into regional play two weeks ago there now seem to be exclamation points. Evan Newman and Brayton Reed give Hayes an enviable one-two punch on the mound, with seven other arms available among the 13 players on the roster, and the Post 346 offense has included different heroes throughout the season. Also, as Hayes said, "We're pretty healthy, and that gives us tons of flexibility defensively now."
The recent hot bat has been swung by Caleb Gonser, who won the A.D. Phillips Award at the state tournament for sportsmanship and for his performance during the weekend. The recent returns of Ryan Brown and Dillon Kinnett have beefed up the infield possibilities, so Gonser has seen some outfield time to keep his bat in the lineup.
"I've just been seeing the ball pretty well," Gonser said earlier this week. "No matter who it is [on the mound], I feel I can get a hit off him."
All Evan Newman did at the state tournament was pitch two shutouts, getting Post 346 off to a good start in the first game and then, after a rain day gave him sufficient rest to get another start, putting up more zeroes in the championship game. He allowed just five hits in the two games.
"It's important to get a first-round win," Hayes said, so Newman will start Wednesday even though Charleston might not be the toughest foe Post 346 will have to face.
Good as Newman has been, however, he still takes a back seat to Reed in a couple of statistics. Reed has allowed opposing hitters to bat just .128 against him for the summer and has a 1.55 earned-run average. He'll go in Thursday's game against either Michigan or Ohio.
"I've just been playing baseball, having fun and winning games," Reed said this week. "My curveball has been working really well."
Because Charleston and Terre Haute are so close together, Post 346 is considered a commuter team for this tournament: no hotel accommodations, in other words.
"It's pretty fun staying with all the teams," Gonser said, looking back to last year's regional, "but it's not a bad drive [for Terre Haute fans]."
Both players are optimistic about this week's outcomes.
"Winning the state's a pretty good feeling, and it was a good feeling to go back to back," Gonser said. "If we play the way we've been playing, we'll get things done."
"I think we have a pretty good chance," Reed agreed. "We've been playing good baseball; we just have to keep it up."
Four members of the team — Pierson Barnes, Garrett Loyed, Cade Moore and Ethan Newman — will have to miss a few hours of school this week. But Wednesday's game will allow them to get to at least most of their classes and a win Wednesday would mean they'd also have the 6 p.m. game Thursday.
As long as the weather cooperates, the tournament will end Sunday afternoon. The winning team will then be transported almost immediately to Shelby, N.C., now the permanent home of the American Legion World Series.