When Anthony Aldridge came in to close out the final three innings of Saturday's game for the St. Louis Gamers, he had a double-edged game plan.
Aldridge understood the strike zone was trending in the low side; that was no big deal, just part of the reality of their Omaha SlumpBuster 13u D1 contest against the Texas Marshals in La Vista. So as he worked in that direction, he also noticed that the Marshals were tempted to swing at pitches up in the zone as well.
Able to control his pitches, and his nerves, Aldridge struck out seven batters in those last three frames, helping the Gamers post a 3-2 victory that advances them to Sunday's semifinals against the Utah Yard Dawgs. Max Eastman hit a solo home run for the Gamers, and Andrew Willis drove home two runs with a two-out single in the fourth that pushed the Gamers ahead for good.
"I was preparing myself - those guys are good hitters, and I was preparing to throw low. Just trying to keep them from hitting the ball," said Aldridge, who notched two strikeouts in a row to end the game and moved the ball around with precision. "I throw as hard as I can, and if I miss, I miss. It wasn't easy.
"We've really been hitting - we're never like this. We either hit the ball and don't field, or field it well and can't hit. We got everything together this weekend and want to go deep in the tournament."
The Marshals got two runs from leadoff hitter Mark Spangler; he came across in the third on an error. In the fourth, the Gamers had runners on first and second, but two strikeouts threatened to douse the rally. After a walk loaded the bases, Willis fought through a tough at-bat and dumped a single near the right field line.
"I like to try and picture myself doing it; that gives me confidence. And I try not to think about all the things I need to do in my swing too much, because that gets in my head," Willis said. "You have to have fun and relax. If you get too tense, you start to make errors. Play through it and pick yourself up if you do make an error. Our pitchers did great; they threw strikes and threw hard, and did what they needed to do."
Gamers starter Trenton Cookerly pitched extremely well, stranding a runner on third in his final inning of work. The St. Louis offense left many runners on base, struck out 11 times and ran themselves into a double play in the fifth on a bunt play, but it never seemed to create any friction or irritation.
"You play enough, you go through so much adversity that you get used to it. If he puts the bunt down, we're in great shape there ... they've been in tough spots before and it's not the end of the world if it messes up," said Gamers coach Dan Bishop. "Good games don't come without several that didn't go that way. They've gone through the struggles, and we've had to rebuild them so they understand how to not make one error turn into two. I'm proud of all of them - we develop 14 kids, they've all played about the same amount of time, and I've got four good pitchers to go."