Blue Devils hope to bounce back after 2012's fall
Cheney’s Flippo, Gustafson, Harding and Henry will play key roles, coach says
The Spokane Blue Devils AAA American Legion baseball team hopes to rebound from their struggles in 2012 and if coach Tony Byrne has his way a group of Cheney players will play big parts.
Coming off a disappointing 4-15 finish, but still just a game away from a trip to the regional tournament, Byrne will have four former Blackhawks – Austin Harding, Tristan Flippo, Drew Henry and Tyler Gustafson – filling key roles.
In addition to Cheney, the Blue Devils feature players from Shadle Park, North Central, Lewis and Clark, Davenport and Lakeside.
“We lost a lot of guys from the previous season (2011), for one, so we were kind of starting over,” Byrne said of the 2012 team. Those 2011 Blue Devils finished 30-20 and were a state tournament participant. In 2010 they qualified for the Legion regionals held in Spokane.
Byrne said, “We played good in the end and lost that extra-inning game in the playoffs,” referring to a wild 11-10 setback to the Spokane Northstars. “We win that game we’re going to a regional for a fifth year in a row.”
“You can’t always be good,” he said.
Byrne likes the personality of the team so far, especially from a work-ethic standpoint. But that’s about it as he has just four players returning from 2012. “Were better defensively and a little bit more athletic than we were last year,” he said.
“I think the front end of our pitching is better, the top two or three guys are a little bit better and Austin Harding will be one of those guys,” Byrne said. “We haven’t had a chance to start him.” But he did throw five innings in relief recently, more by accident than by design.
Henry is back and Byrne likes that. “He’s kind of a steadying influence on the group.” Harding, Flippo and Gustafson are new to the Blue Devils.
“I really like that core because they know how to play,” Byrne said. “Some of them are still adjusting to the speed of the game.”
One of the biggest speed issues new players will deal with is pitching, Byrne said. “As hitters they’re facing the best pitcher in the league; the runners are a little bit faster, the guys are more athletic,” Byrne explained. “It typically takes about two weeks for the smaller school guys (to adjust),” he said.
The Cheney group will be called upon to play a key role – no make those roles – with the Blue Devils. “Our numbers are down a little bit so they’re going to do everything,” Byrne said. “The guys who don’t (already) pitch are going to pitch at some time.”
“Austin, I think he’s played third one game, he’s played short one game, first one game, outfield and even maybe second,” Byrne said. “He’s going to kind of be our super-utility guy, he has really good instincts for the game.”
Henry will play mainly outfield, but a little infield too. “He stole a lot of bases, he hit leadoff for us last year; I’m not sure if that’s where he’s going to be this year,” Byrne said.
Byrne said he likes Henry deeper in the batting order because of his ability to drive in runs. “I think he can hit for more power than some guys.”
“I want the leadoff guy to establish the personality of the game and kind of how we’re going to play,” Byrne said. After that it’s have as many players as possible get on base, he added.
“Gustafson’s hit leadoff quite a few games so far,” Byrne said. However, Byrne said he planned to move him down in the line-up to take a little pressure off. “He’s struggled a little.”
Gustafson will likely play center field. “He’s a really good defender,” Byrne said.
Flippo will also be seeing duty at a number of positions,
“Flippo is going to catch some and he’s going to play the infield a lot,” Byrne said. “He’s a really good defender at third but he’s also a really good catcher.”
Once again the Blue Devils will play a rugged schedule, both competition and calendar-wise.
“We go to Walla Walla (July 11-14) which will be a good tournament,” Byrne said. “We play on the Dodger Tournament, the Fourth of July Tournament, not as much travel as we’ve done in the past, but it’s a challenging schedule, we play quality opponents.” They also play in the highly regarded Missoula Tournament (June 13-16) and Best of the Northwest at Central Valley (June 20-23).
There’s even a bye built into the schedule and that, Byrne said, will come in handy to give players a little rest heading into the stretch.
Paul Delaney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.