ALTON – Connor Melton said the Metro East Bears are poised to make a deep run in the American Senior Legion baseball playoffs.
They clearly showed why Tuesday night.
The Bears battered Highland, 10-1 in their District 22 playoff opener at Lloyd Hopkins Field in Gordon F. Moore Park. Metro East, which improved to 19-6, defeated Highland for the third time this season.
The top-seeded Bears will be back at The Hop tonight for a 7:30 p.m. game against Fairview Heights. The double-elimination district playoffs will continue nightly through Friday or Saturday and the Bears will play all of their games at home. Fairview Heights upended second-seeded Belleville, 4-2, in 13 innings Tuesday.
“We came into the district playoffs as the No. 1 seed and we wanted to make a statement,” said Melton, a Civic Memorial graduate. “We have to take care of business in the playoffs.”
Metro East will play host to the Great Lakes Regional, starting Aug. 5, but the Bears don’t want to use their automatic berth as the method for getting into it. They want to earn their way into the eight-team regional.
“We want to keep playing all the way through the Fifth Division and state tournament,” Melton said.
The seven-team Fifth Division starts Monday, July 20, in Carmi, though the District 22 winner has a bye and won’t play until Tuesday, July 21.
Pitcher Aaron Jackson joined Melton in helping the Bears bop Highland. He tossed a four-hitter, needing 111 pitches for his complete game.
“It’s huge to win the first game when you are in a double-elimination tournament,” said Jackson, 7-0 for the Edwardsville Tigers this past spring. “Now, we need to take care of business tomorrow.”
Bears’ manager Ken Schaake said Jackson took care of business in a tidy effort against Highland.
“He was super and he kept them under control,” Schaake said. “He mixed up his pitches and kept throwing strikes in keeping their hitters off-balance. He really did a fantastic job.”
Melton noted, "Aaron took the all the stress off of us with the way he pitched."
Jackson struck out three, walked two and pitched around an unearned run in the second inning. He aided his cause by going 3-for-5 with a pair of triples. Melton was 2-for-3, reached base three times and drove in two runs. Jordan Hovey also had two hits and two RBIs. Drake Hampton pitched in with two hits as Metro East made the most of 11 hits. The Bears also took advantage of seven Highland errors.
“That was just ugly baseball,” Highland manager Harry Painter said of his team’s performance. “You can’t make those kinds of errors against a team like them. They’ve got a good club, but our defense let us down tonight and their pitcher did an outstanding job in going nine innings.”
Metro East built a 3-1 lead by the second inning and stretched it to 6-1 after four innings. The Bears tacked on two more runs in the sixth and added two eighth-inning runs when Highland made a wild throw into center field following an out via the infield fly rule.
“It was just one of those nights for us,” Painter said. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen two runs score after an out on the infield fly rule.”
Schaake added, “I’ve never seen two runs score after an out on the infield fly rule. We took advantage of every mistake that they made.”
Fairview Heights and Metro East just split a pair of games Sunday at SIUE. Highland, which dropped to 5-6, plays at Belleville in a 7:30 elimination game Wednesday. The loser will be ousted.
The Metro East-Fairview winner advances to Friday’s championship game and will be the only undefeated team in the four-team playoffs. If two teams are still alive after Friday night, a final game will be played Saturday.
Melton said the best is yet to come for the Bears.
“We’re still not clicking on every single cylinder,” he said. “We still have another gear.”
DISTRICT 22 PLAYOFFS
METRO EAST 10, HIGHLAND 1
Highland 010 000 000 – 1 4 7
Metro East 120 302 02X – 10 11 2
Highland (5-6) – Andrew Winning 2-3, Blaine Ray 1-4, Matt Augustine 1-4 2B. LP – Jordan Smith IP-5.2 H-7 R-8 ER-4 BB-2 K-4; Jimmy Smith IP-.1 H-0 R-0 BB-0 K-1; Chris Dickman IP-2 H-4 R-2 ER-0 BB-0 K-3
Metro East (19-6) – Drake Hampton 2-5 RBI, Jordan Hovey 2-5 RBI-2, Aaron Jackson 3-5 3B-2 Caleb Buhs 1-3 3B, Connor Melton 2-3 RBI-2, Jacob Skrabacz 1-1. WP – Aaron Jackson IP-9 H-4 R-1 ER-0 BB-2 K-4