MIDDLEBURY — The Addison County American Legion baseball team concluded its regular season on Tuesday with a 3-2, non-league win over the visiting Outlaws, a talented AAU team based in Chittenden County.
The young AC team enters this weekend’s Legion state championship tournament at Castleton State College with an overall mark of 10-7 after defeating the 20-9 Outlaws.
AC, which returned only six players from last summer’s playoff team, concluded its Northern Division campaign at 9-5 on Saturday with a 5-1 loss to visiting division co-champion Colchester (12-2 league).
The local nine will enter the eight-team, double-elimination Legion tournament as the North’s No. 4 seed. AC will open against South No. 1 Bennington at 9 a.m. on Friday morning.
Legion veteran Marshall Hastings, who came home with Tuesday’s winning run in the bottom of the seventh on Charlie Stapleford’s two-out infield hit, said beating the Outlaws will give AC a lift.
“With playing Colchester on Saturday, a tough loss, any momentum you can get going into the tournament is good, especially a win where we were able to pull it out in the end against a pretty good team,” Hastings said. “That’s probably the best momentum you can get, a clutch win in the end.”
Hastings and AC coach Mike Estey both noted the team’s losses have come only against tough competition — two each to Northern co-champs Colchester and Essex, and one apiece to Bennington, Northern No. 3 S.D. Ireland, and Southern No. 4 Rutland.
“In both games against Essex, they were one- or two-run games, and Colchester, we know we can play with them, and those are the top two teams in the North,” Hastings said. “We’ve played good baseball, and if we just keep playing the way we have been ... we’ll be all right, and that’s just kind of our mindset.”
Estey noted his young team bounced back from an 0-4 start to finish just one game out of third place in the Northern Division.
“We easily could have finished third,” Estey said. “We’re going to go down there (to Castleton) and see what we can accomplish.”
Estey will start Tommy Nelson against Bennington, and Stapleford in the next game on Saturday. Logan Williams is in line for the next start, and Devon Hayes will be used in key late-inning situations. Estey said middle relief will also be vital in games that are all scheduled to last nine innings.
“We’re going to have to pitch. It’s a nine-inning ballgame, so now we need some middle guys. Devon is going to come in, like he has all season, and he’s on the end of it,” Estey said.
Estey said AC will probably also have to add some more offense to what has been steady pitching and defense.
“I think we’ve got to start hitting better as a team. We’ve got to bunch some hits together. We run the bases. We can steal some bases. We can bunt and move guys up. But we’ve still got to get some hits,” he said.
For much of Tuesday’s game, AC struggled to get hits with men on base. In the first two innings, Outlaw starter Kyle Stanley gave up hits to Hastings and Nick Richer and walked two hitters, but AC stranded all the runners.
The Outlaws broke on top against AC starter Mark Dickerson in the third with an unearned run. An error put one runner on, and a double to center — it looked like the sun got in Stapleford’s eyes and stopped him from making the catch and preventing the only hit Dickerson allowed in his three-inning stint — put runners on second and third. A fielder’s choice ground ball — in which AC threw to the wrong base and could have gotten out of the inning — scored the run.
AC tied the score in the bottom of the inning. Left fielder Jackson Alexander drew a leadoff walk and stole second, and shortstop Collin Curler plated him with a two-out single.
David Burt came on to throw two scoreless innings for AC. He worked out of bases-loaded jam in the fourth created by a single, an error and another miscue on a fielder’s choice. In the fifth, Stapleford, now at first base, scooped a bouncing throw to end the inning with runners on second and third.
Burt also scored the go-ahead run in the fourth after doubling to lead off. He moved to third on a Richer single and scored on catcher Wade Steele’s perfectly executed suicide squeeze bunt.
Curler, who made several good plays at short, threw a scoreless sixth inning, thanks in part to solid work at third base by Dylan Bresnick and at second base by Richer.
Stapleford came on to close out the win. Instead, he issued two walks and threw two wild pitches to allow the tying run to score before striking out the final batter with the go-ahead run on third.
Hastings then led off the final half-inning with a ground single to left and stole second. He moved to third on Bresnick’s one-out fly ball to right center, bringing Stapleford to the plate against effective Outlaw reliever Ryan Fleming, who had silenced AC since the fourth.
Stapleford — who had one of only three hits off Fleming to that point — hit a hard shot toward the middle that took a late, high hop off the Outlaw shortstop’s chest, and Hastings scored the winning run easily. Stapleford also earned the pitching win courtesy of the key hit.
Afterward, AC looked back on a fine regular season as well as forward to the tournament.
“For a young team we’re probably outperforming, but we’ll just keep on doing it,” Hastings said. “We’re young, but each young kid has stepped in and played his role and come up with a big hit, and I think we feel pretty good and confident going in.”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected]