MARQUETTE - Marquette County's two American Legion baseball teams kick off the Zone 5 baseball tournament by playing in the event's first two games this afternoon at a pair of adjacent fields in Menominee.
And those games should prove to be vitally important to their success in this nine-team, double-elimination, all-Upper Peninsula tourney that concludes on Saturday or Sunday.
Currently, Legion officials say the top three teams out of this tourney will advance to the Legion Class A state finals to be held in downstate Adrian starting next Wednesday. In the past, even more U.P. teams have been invited when other slots weren't filled by Lower Peninsula squads.
Marquette Blues base runner Trevor Bratonia, right, leads off from third base as Blues manager and third-base coach Derek Swajanen keeps an eye on the Ishpeming pitcher during the teams’ Fourth of July game at Haley Memorial Field in Marquette. (Journal file photo by Matt Wellens)
Ishpeming shortstop Dan Brown, right, readies to catch a pop-up as left fielder Jacob Finegan runs in to back up the play during the Blue Storm's game against the Marquette Blues at Haley Memorial Field in Marquette on the Fourth of July. (Journal file photo by Matt Wellens)
The Ishpeming Blue Storm opens action at 1 p.m. EDT against the Escanaba Cubs (8-15) as the only game of that round. In a quirk of the schedule, the winner of that game will then face an easier opponent, record-wise, than the loser.
That's because Menominee (12-14) awaits the victor at 7 p.m. today, while the loser will have to go up against either Kingsford (15-13) or the Marquette Blues (29-19) in an elimination game on Thursday.
In addition, a quick entry into the elimination bracket would force either area team to play doubleheaders on three consecutive days and another game Sunday - and win all seven of those games - in order to capture the zone title.
Today at Zone 5 Legion tournament in Menominee: Escanaba vs. Ishpeming, 1 p.m. EDT; Marquette vs. Kingsford, 2 p.m. EDT; Ishpeming-Escanaba winner vs. Menominee, 6 p.m. EDT
Except for Ishpeming's afternoon-evening doubleheader today, a trip through the winner's bracket means just one game a day all the way through the weekend.
Motivation shouldn't be a problem for the Blues or Kingsford when they play each other at 2 p.m. EDT today - while the Blues nabbed the Mid-Peninsula League regular-season title, Kingsford captured the league's playoff championship less than two weeks ago in addition to winning the state Class A title when the tourney was held in Marquette last summer.
"Hopefully, we're peaking at the right time," Blues manager Derek Swajanen said after his team lost three of four games against some of the best Wisconsin could offer at the Plover Tournament last weekend.
"We have a little bit of everything," Swajanen said when asked about his team's strengths. "We're awfully young - we only have one player who'll age out next year.
"Our defense at times has been exceptional and at other times let us down. If we have good, timely hitting, if we pitch to contact and if we avoid the base on balls, we have a very athletic team. I'll stack our guys up with anybody."
Now in his 15th year with the Blues as a manager or base coach, Swajanen said this Marquette team is rather unique in how he's able to employ an aggressive attack on the bases.
"Lately, we've been working on moving runners from first to third," he said.
That doesn't just include base hits, but also less obvious plays such as bunts. Swajanen said catcher Levi Underwood executed the strategy perfectly to set up the winning run in a 9-8 victory on Saturday over Madison, Wis., at Plover, moving two bases on a sacrifice bunt when the defending third baseman vacated the bag to field the ball.
"Underwood is probably the one person on our team who's underrated," Swajanen said. "He's caught almost every game for us, even when the temperatures have been close to 90 degrees for awhile.
"Mac (McKinley) Larson as a first-year player has been playing great, while (Trevor) Bratonia and Luke (Swajanen) give us a lot of pitching depth.
"Hunter Larson and (Riley) Lynch have led us in batting average all season."
While the Blues and Ishpeming are in opposite brackets in the main draw, if both lose their openers, they would meet at 1 p.m. EDT Thursday in an elimination game.
A Marquette win today against Kingsford gets them to a 5 p.m. EDT Thursday game against the winner of today's Channing-Hancock matchup.
For Ishpeming, an opening-game win over Escanaba will set up a Thursday meeting with Gladstone or the Sault Ste. Marie-based Eastern U.P. Travelers whether they remain in the winner's bracket or fall into the elimination side. The elimination game would be at 2 p.m. EDT, while the winner's bracket game goes at 7 p.m. EDT
Steve Brownlee can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 246.