Things might finally be falling into place for the Spokane Blue Devils AAA American Legion baseball team.
With a third place finish two weeks ago in Missoula’s tournament – including a victory over champion Casper, Wyo. – and ending 2-1-1 in the rain-ravaged Best of the Northwest Tournament, the Blue Devils’ coach Tony Byrne likes what he’s seeing.
“All in all we’re starting to play a lot better,” Byrne said. “Maybe even better than I thought we’d be.”
When the Blue Devils broke from Spokane league play June 12, Byrne had a message for his players. “I knew when we left Pullman after our last league game, I told the guys the next two or three weeks are going to be a make or break portion of our season,” he said. “Are we going to get better or stay the same?”
He called the two-week break a time to “just get better and not have to worry about winning games.” They did both. “When you get out of league it’s a good time for development,” he explained.
The bottom line, Byrne said was “We’re trying to get better so we can make a run in the playoffs and eventually, hopefully, a state tournament.”
The effort in the Best of the Northwest showed Byrne’s club had made strides, and did so with the help of Cheney players on the roster.
“We had trouble with the leadoff guy so I put Drew Henry back in,” Byrne said. “He’s been scoring a lot of runs, getting on base and just putting together quality at bats.”
Henry settled into that spot and that’s probably where he’s going to be the rest of the season Byrne said. He had a pair of singles in a 6-1 loss to the tournament champion Spokane Dodgers.
He tripled and singled Saturday in a 9-3 victory over the Spokane Grinders, got a single and double in his team’s 9-5 win over the Twin City Titans and had a pair of singles in an 11-11 tie Sunday versus the Redmond/Woodinville-based Fellowship of Christian Athletes.
Austin Harding has moved up to the No. 2 spot in the order. He didn’t bat against the Dodgers but singled twice in the Grinder win and had three base hits versus both Twin Cities and FCA.
And while Harding’s contributed with the bat, “He’s probably been our most consistent guy on the mound,” Byrne said.
Even in the loss to the Dodgers in the opening game of the Best of the Northwest, while Harding didn’t win, “He gave us a chance to win,” Byrne said. “He beats (Missoula champ) Casper, he beats Pullman down there.”
“Those two guys have really carried us,” Byrne said. “(Tyler) Gustafson’s been in and out; he was gone for a week so it was kind of hard for him to get back into it.” Gustafson had a couple of big catches and some key at bats.
Tristan Flippo’s been injured, his coach said. “Hopefully he gets healthy within the next week or two.”
The Blue Devils mix league and some exhibition games in the run-up to the July Fourth Wood Bat Classic. One of those will be Thursday, June 27 at 5:30 p.m. at the Ballpark in Cheney when they face Cheney’s AA team.
“For me it’s hopefully an opportunity to connect with the future of the Blue Devils,” Byrne said. “Coach (Randy) Elam and their whole program has been so good to our program.”
Byrne hopes to make this a yearly event. It’s important, he said, for the Cheney members of the Blue Devils to get to play at home. “It’s going to be a fun time to play those guys.”
“It’s a good opportunity for more reasons than just playing a game,” Byrne said. “It’s about building a program, something that’s going to last.”
There will be both bragging rights, and some risk, Byrne said. “As a coach it’s not a great situation to be in because you’re supposed to win and if you lose you’re in trouble.”
Paul Delaney can be reached at email@example.com.