The hitting was better. So was the pitching.
That still didn't make the win any easier.
The Jefferson City American Legion Post 5 Seniors survived yet another late rally to defeat Fulton 6-5 in Game 2 of the District Tournament on Thursday night at the American Legion Sports Complex. The win completed a 2-0 sweep to give Post 5 the district championship, and the Seniors now advance to Thursday's Zone Tournament in Moberly.
"We're just excited for the kids to pick up this district championship," Post 5 manager Dane Hughes said. "It's something they'll remember. Hopefully we can keep it going in the zone."
Post 5 had secured a 9-8 victory in Game 1 on Wednesday night, but struggled to string together quality at-bats and labored on the mound. It was the exact opposite Thursday night.
Seth Lehmen delivered a strong pitching performance Post 5 desperately needed. The right-handed Fatima graduate went 71â„3 innings and allowed four runs on seven hits with four strikeouts and three walks. Lehmen exited after 101 pitches with a 6-2 lead and two runners on in the bottom of the eighth, and both came around to score off reliever Collin Brinker.
"We needed that big," Hughes said of Lehmen's start. "Not only how well he threw, but he was really efficient. He was able to get deep in the game. That was huge, with some of our pitchers being out. Being able to eat up some innings was good. It was one of his better performances of the summer."
Brinker picked up the save, tossing the final 12â„3 innings and allowing one run on three hits.
"We put Brinker in a tough spot again," Hughes said. "We've thrown that kid in the toughest situations all summer. He has time-in, time-out gotten us out of it. They were able to get a couple hits off of him, but in the end he was able to shut the door."
Fulton, playing as the home team Thursday, took a 1-0 lead on an RBI single from Jake Nickelson in the bottom of the first inning.
Post 5 quickly tied it up in the top of the second, using a leadoff double from Patrick Schnieders, a wild pitch and a sacrifice fly from Daniel Castillo.
Post 5 made it 3-1 in the fourth. Schnieders again got things started with a double and he came around to score when Logan Bax reached second on a Fulton throwing error. Kyler Maxey drove in Bax with a single to center.
The Seniors showed a little muscle in the sixth inning, using three extra-base hits to plate three runs to grab a 6-1 advantage.
Castillo crushed a solo home run to left field to make it 4-1. Later, with Nolan Bax on first base, Corey Beard laced a triple to the gap in left. Dylan Brauner followed with an RBI triple to the gap in right to stretch the lead to 6-1.
"We hit the ball a lot better today," Hughes said. "We were able to square up on a lot of balls, and we were able to drive them. The one inning we had a home run and two triples, which is nice to see us stringing those together."
Hughes was particularly impressed with Castillo, due to his work on offense and defense.
"Daniel's been hitting the ball well," he said. "Give him a lot of credit. That's the first time he's played center all year (these past two games). He's made a couple big plays for us. He saved a couple runs on multiple occasions. For a guy that's normally a catcher and then we converted him to a right fielder because we needed him to, and now he's playing center, it speaks volumes of how athletic he is and how quick of a learner he is."
Just like Wednesday night, when Fulton rallied from down 6-0 to tie the game at 8 before capitulating, Post 5's big advantage was far from safe.
Fulton scratched a run across in the bottom of the sixth on a double from Jake Cowan, a groundout and a sacrifice fly from Joel Matthews.
Things really got interesting in the eighth.
The first two runners reached on a hit and a walk, and following a strikeout, Lehmen was pulled in favor of Brinker. Three straight singles from Matthews, Miller Bowles and Randall Cole, and a sacrifice fly from Riley Brant, made it 6-5.
"It happened (Wednesday) night, too," Hughes said of Fulton's rally. "It was to be expected. They weren't going to give up any at-bats. They have a good team. They are able to put up runs in a hurry."
Brinker kept Post 5 in front by retiring Smith Kemper on a grounder to end the inning.
After Post 5 went 1-2-3 in the top of the ninth, Fulton brought its Nos. 3, 4 and 5 hitters to the plate in the bottom of the frame with its season on the line.
Brinker wasted no time, retiring the side in order on eight pitches.
Post 5 (35-4) advances to the Zone Tournament against an opponent to be determined.
"We had our eyes on winning the district, because that gets us to the Zone Tournament," Hughes said. "That's our next goal."