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The real fun begins this weekend.
That’s when the seven-team Eastern Illinois Baseball League will start its annual season-ending tournament. And for Gifford-Flatville, the Gif-Flats have to like their chances at possibly winning their first tournament title since 1990.
The Gif-Flats swept the short-handed Royal Giants 14-0 and 15-1 in two home games Sunday at Franzen Field to run their winning streak to nine games.
“There’s no better way to go into the playoffs,” Gif-Flats head coach Lindy Loschen said. “It was nice picking up the sweep and missing four starters, yet still putting up 29 runs on the day.”
Those two wins — which came without Gif-Flats regulars David Peters, Wade Hoey, Dane Krone and Clayton Meyer not in the lineup — locked up the second seed for the Gif-Flats (18-6), who will open up tournament play at 1 p.m. on Saturday at home against the seventh-seeded Colfax Outlaws (0-24). Loschen said he’ll probably go with Mack Meyer (1-0 with a 1.46 earned run average in 12 1/3 innings) on the mound to start against the Outlaws.
“Confidence is high right now,” Loschen said. “The goal all year long was simply to get back to the championship and win it this year. I think we’re peaking right now at the right time. The pitching is there for us, and the bats are coming around. I’m as confident as you possibly could be going into it.”
The Gif-Flats have pounded the Outlaws, much like the rest of the league has, in four games this season, outscoring Colfax 61-2, all Gifford-Flatville wins. In fact, Colfax, in its first year having a league entry, has been outscored 325-11 this season.
If the Gif-Flats can stave off the unlikely upset from the Outlaws, the Gif-Flats would then host either third-seeded Watseka Angels (15-9) or the No. 6 Central Illinois Robins (5-19) at 2 p.m. on Sunday in the semifinals.
Loschen said he’ll most likely use either Joel Barickman (6-2 with an 0.98 ERA in 46 innings with 56 strikeouts to only eight walks and five complete games) or Dane Krone (2-1 with a 0.43 ERA in 21 innings pitched, three complete games) to start in the Sunday semifinal, with Tyler Stefan — who hasn’t played with the Gif-Flats for some time — a possibility in relief.
Loschen did say Monday morning that Michael Laird, one of the Gif-Flats’ most reliable starters this season (7-1 with a 1.17 ERA in 54 innings with 56 strikeouts and eight walks, along with two complete games) might not pitch in the tournament because of arm problems.
“I don’t know what his status going into the tournament’s going to be,” Loschen said. “But I got three good pitchers to run out there if Laird’s not able to get back.”
Gifford-Flatville has split its four games with Watseka this season, and all four games were decided by two runs or less. The Gif-Flats have beaten the Robins all four times they’ve met this season, with Gifford-Flatville outscoring the Robins 32-4 in their four meetings.
In the other quarterfinal game at 2 p.m. on Saturday, the fourth-seeded Paxton Swedes (14-10) will host No. 5 Royal (12-12) in Paxton, with the winner of that game squaring off Sunday at 2 p.m. at top-seeded Buckley.
The Dutchmasters (20-4) are the only team to have flummoxed the Gif-Flats this summer, with the Dutchmasters winning three of four in the two teams’ series at the beginning of June.
The Dutchmasters — much like the Gif-Flats — are rolling, having won eight in a row heading into this weekend.
The two semifinal winners on Sunday will play in the league’s best-of-three series championship that will take place Saturday, Aug. 13 and Sunday, Aug. 14.
The Gif-Flats played for the tournament championship last year, but the Lexington Snipes — who won the last two tournaments but are no longer part of the E.I. League — swept the Gif-Flats in two games.
The motivation to reach the tournament championship series is palpable, Loschen said, especially after last year’s tough losses to the Snipes, and the death of Ralph Loschen in September, Lindy’s grandfather whose name is most associated with the Gif-Flats throughout the team’s history.
“Just talking to the guys after they got beat by Lexington ..., that’s all they talked about all offseason and the beginning of the year,” Lindy Loschen said. “The whole thing was let’s do this — they always called my grandpa Ralphie — let’s do this for Ralphie and get the championship for him.”