TILTON — Looking back at last summer compared to this one would be akin to comparing apples to oranges for Garry Smith.
Rantoul’s Post 287 baseball team of the American Senior Legion and its manager were coming off a dismal 2017 campaign, but in 2018, Smith was more than happy with what he saw on the field and in the dugout.
"This season, I wish we were playing another month," said Smith, whose team’s season came to an end last Tuesday. "The kids had a lot of camaraderie and had a lot of fun with each other, and that’s half the battle when the kids want to be around each other and play with each other and pick each other up. It just makes the game so much fun.
"We had a lot more players this year that really wanted to be on the field and play baseball. I think some of the guys last year, their heart wasn’t really in it. They were out there playing, but they really didn’t care whether we won or lost. Most of the kids this year wanted to be on the ball field and did care whether we won or lost, and that’s half the battle right there."
Rantoul’s year ended with a 13-14 record (much better than the 9-22 mark last summer) at the hands of Mattoon in a 5-0 loss in the Fourth Division District Tournament last Tuesday. Post 287 defeated Moultrie-Douglas 3-2 last Friday before losing to Danville Gold (the eventual tourney champion) 7-0 last Saturday, defeating Cumberland County 6-5 last Sunday and taking out Charleston 10-7 last Monday.
Against Mattoon, Rantoul was short on pitchers and started Ethan Smith, who only threw 12 innings all summer. Smith threw strikes, had a good curveball working and "did a very respectable job," Garry Smith said.
Rantoul, though, couldn’t get much offense going, hitting several balls right on the nose, but right at people — either right at the shortstop, second baseman, left fielder or center fielder. Post 287 only struck out twice in the defeat, but Smith said it was just one of those nights.
"We just kind of thought it wasn’t meant to be last (Tuesday). When you only have two strikeouts and put the ball in play like that, that’s all you can ask," Smith said. "We played well and can’t be disappointed because we played hard and played well. Unfortunately, we didn’t win, but we had a really good tournament. The kids really came together, and it was a lot of fun. We always hate to lose at the end, but we’ve made it to the final four of the division tournament the last four years, and we’ve had a couple lower seeds because we started out slow at the beginning of the season.
"We didn’t start off too slow this year, but we lost some games we could’ve won if we had all our guys there. Overall, it was a good season."
Mattoon would go on to lose to Danville Gold in the tournament championship later that night. Danville was the top overall seed of the tournament, and Mattoon was seeded second, meaning Rantoul’s two tourney losses were to the top competition.
Despite the loss, Smith said, it was an opportunity for him to see what his team is capable of in the future — a future he believes is bright.
"We pitched seven pitchers in this tournament this week, and we have all seven pitchers back. We have the potential to be a very good team next year if everybody comes back. I’ll just put it out there, we expect to be in the conversation for the division championship next year. I think we’re going to be a very good ball team," Smith said. "Yes, they are (high expectations). If we get everyone back and work hard in the offseason and everyone takes care of themselves and continues to grow and get better as a baseball player, we could have a real good year. I personally think we will."
Rantoul loses catcher J.T. Jones, first baseman Eli Place, pitcher Dan Wachtel and, perhaps most notably, right fielder Collin Klein.
"Collin Klein was tremendously improved this year. He worked hard and hit a lot. You could really tell his production on the field (improved). He’s a great ball player," Smith said. "He hit five or six days a week (this summer), and you could see how much he improved by hitting every day. We tell these kids you don’t realize how much you improve. You don’t have to hit every day, but if you hit five or six days a week to work on your weaknesses, that ball starts becoming a lot bigger coming in because you’re so used to seeing it. Collin was a perfect example. He improved tremendously. He’s going to walk on at Parkland, and I think he’s got a chance at making it."
Smith also had glowing words about Wachtel, who "was always there. He never complained about anything. He took his playing time and was a great teammate.
And Place was a player "had some big games and will be missed."
Also, Jones "really had a good summer. I think he enjoyed baseball more this summer than he did last year. He worked hard and had a really good summer. He’ll be missed."
Rantoul returns those seven pitchers, which could potentially make the pitch count rules a little less of a headache to work around.
The American Legion’s pitch count rules are always something the coaches have to be cognizant of throughout the season, but even more so during a compact tournament such as the district tourney. That was something the Rantoul coaching staff had to pay extra attention to last week.
"You really have to watch it. We try to be on top of that every game. We’re always thinking about, if we’re pitching our No. 1 or 2 pitcher, if we happen to get a seven- or eight-run lead in the middle of the game, we may pull him to save him," Smith said. "The pitch-count rule, if you’re under 30, there’s no rest. If you’re under 45, it’s one day. If you’re under 60, it’s two days. We’re always thinking about that because the pitching rule, once you get above 80, you have to rest for four days.
"In a five- or six-day tournament, you can only pitch one time and then you’re done if you go above the pitch limit. It’s taken a little bit of getting used to, but I think we’ve managed it pretty well. But you’re always thinking about the pitch count. You have to be."
Pitch counts will typically be difficult to navigate, and that will most likely hold true for next summer — a summer Smith is awaiting with bated breath.
"It’s always hard when the season ends," Smith said. "We tell the kids, I think about American Legion baseball about 365 days a year. It doesn’t go away. I’m always thinking about this and that, and I think that’s why we enjoy it so much. We just love baseball and love being around the kids. It was really a great group of kids this year. They were a lot of fun to be around. It was a fun summer."
Contact Zack Carpenter at email@example.com and on Twitter @ZackCarpenter11.