Only three teams stand in the Craftsman Union Capahas' way as they attempt to regain the National Baseball Congress Mid-South Regional championship.
The Capahas, who were upset in last year's regional tournament, will host the event for the 13th straight time today through Sunday at Capaha Field. The winner earns an automatic bid to the NBC World Series in Wichita, Kan.
"It would be nice to get the title back," Capahas manager Jess Bolen said.
Craftsman Union had captured three of the last four regionals before losing to the Springfield (Mo.) Slashers last season. Still, the Capahas gained their 17th straight NBC World Series berth as an at-large entrant. But Bolen said that might not happen this time around.
"Those at-large bids are just about a thing of the past, with so many leagues now whose champions automatically qualify," Bolen said. "We found out last year when we got the last one. I don't think we can count on that again."
While the 25-2 Capahas appear to be favorites in the thin field -- six teams competed the past few years -- they aren't tournament locks.
The Tradewater (Ky.) Pirates, who play the Pine Bluff (Ark.) Braves in today's 1 p.m. opener, handed Craftsman Union one of its losses when the squads split two meetings this year.
And the other local entry, the Riverdogs -- despite a 6-11 record and four losses to the Capahas -- played their Cape Girardeau rivals down to the wire twice, dropping 2-1 and 2-0 decisions. The Capahas and Riverdogs play at 4 p.m. today, with an elimination contest to follow at 8 p.m.
"Tradewater has a good team. They have some good talent, and they beat us," Bolen said. "And the Riverdogs, we've had some awful close games with them. They're a very worthy opponent."
Bolen is concerned because one of his top players, shortstop Gary Gilbert, is doubtful for the tournament with a thumb injury. In addition to playing strong defense, Gilbert is second on the team with a .418 batting average and leads the squad with 34 runs batted in.
"I feel good about our chances, but it hurts when you lose your shortstop," Bolen said.
Dave Lawson leads the Capahas with a .446 average and five home runs, while Steve Kress is hitting .413.
Four other regulars are above .300: Josh Eftink (.363, four homers); Lance Seasor (.340); Tom Bolen (.324, 21 RBIs); and Jon Payne (.313). As a team, the Capahas are batting .346.
But pitching has been the Capahas' primary strength, evident by a 2.24 earned-run average.
Among the top hurlers have been Jason Chavez (5-0, 1.24); Justin Simpher (5-0, 1.31); Jon Nourie (5-0, 3.04); Matt Stroup (4-1, 2.00); and Kyle Perry (3-1, 2.85).
"Our pitching has been really good, and the big surprise of the summer for me has been Justin Simpher. He's pitched great," Bolen said.
Chavez will start today's game against the Riverdogs, who plan to go with Steve Fowler (1-2, 3.76).
"We've had a rough year with a lot of rainouts and a few cancellations," Riverdogs co-manager Ray Craft said. "We're not as strong as we were last year, but we've had some good games and we played the Capahas really tough twice.
"We're looking forward to playing the Capahas. They're a very good ballclub, but you never know what might happen."
The Riverdogs' leading hitters are Adam Friga (.349); Mark Silverthorn (.348); Shane Gibson (.337); and Andrew DePeder (.316).
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