Don't expect anything resembling last year's cakewalk when the National Baseball Congress Mid-South Regional begins today at Capaha Field.
The host Capahas rolled through the six-team field in 2001, going 3-0 and outscoring their opponents 33-3. It was their third regional title in four years.
"I think it's going to be a lot tougher this year," Craftsman Union Capahas manager Jess Bolen said. "If you go into it thinking you're the best team, you can get knocked off."
Bolen cites head-to-head meetings against his squad as evidence of this year's improved field. The Riverdogs, Cape Girardeau's four-year-old team, took the Capahas to the wire in a doubleheader, losing 2-1 and 4-3. The Southern Illinois Merchants split two games with the Capahas, including a lopsided victory.
The Springfield (Mo.) Thrashers dropped a doubleheader to the Capahas but were competitive, the Fulton (Mo.) Bandits often field a solid team and the Pine Bluff (Ark.) Braves are unpredictable.
"The Riverdogs played us to the hilt and the Merchants thumped us pretty good once. I think they're really a team to watch," Bolen said. "Springfield had some good players, Fulton is usually pretty good and you never know about Pine Bluff."
Riverdogs co-manager Robin Minner agrees with Bolen that the tournament is fairly wide open.
"I think probably five teams have a chance to win it," Minner said. "I think we have as good a shot as anybody."
Although the Riverdogs are 10-14, they have lost several close games. Minner said playing the Capahas tough, along with going 2-2 in the tournament last year after being winless in their regional debut in 2000, should give the Riverdogs confidence.
"We've been playing pretty well," Minner said. "We could easily be above .500 but we've had a lot of one-run losses. I think we're peaking at the right time."
The 22-6 Capahas also appear to be coming on after they won a big Fourth of July tournament in Evansville, Ind.
"I like the way we're playing right now," Bolen said. "We were kind of hit and miss for a while, but I think we jelled at Evansville."
The Capahas have a .308 team batting average, led by Brad Simmons (.441), Tristen McDonald (.402), Tom Bolen (.361), Chris Sledge (.358) and Denver Stuckey (.324). McDonald has a team-high five home runs.
The Capahas pitching staff has an impressive 2.46 earned-run average. Top hurlers have been Jason Chavez (6-0, 2.06), Richie Phillips (4-0, 1.35), Ricky Pecaut (3-0, 1.00), Aaron Gurley (2-0, 1.47), Craig Ringwald (2-0, 2.63) and Jake Alley (2-1, 2.23).
Phillips, one of the Capahas' aces for a number of years, will start against Fulton tonight. Chavez, a rookie, will likely get the nod in the Capahas' second game of the tournament.
The Riverdogs, who bat .306 as a team, are led by Josh West (.429, five homers, 29 RBIs), Mark Silverthorn (.395), Todd Friend (.393), Billy Puckett (.383), Chris Bradshaw (.333) and D-Ray Ivie (.319).
Pacing the pitching staff, which has a 4.00 ERA, are Matt Stroup (2-2, 1.50), Chris Reeves (3-2, 2.92), Tatum Kitchen (2-3, 3.04) and Brent Self (1-2, 1.79). Minner said he did not know who would start against Pine Bluff today.
The tournament champion earns an automatic berth in next month's NBC World Series in Wichita, Kan.
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