Jake Lufft, the slugging, do-it-all third baseman/outfielder and starting pitcher for the Blue Springs Rod’s Sports A’s, was three outs away from claiming the MVP award from the 29th annual American Legion Wood Bat Invitational Sunday afternoon at Hidden Valley Park.
He had thrown seven shutout innings and slammed a game-winning homer in a chaotic 12-inning, 4-3 victory over Washington Post 218 in a heart-stopping semifinal and driven home what manager Mike Rooney hoped would be the game-winning run in the title game against Jefferson City Post 5.
The championship game was another contest dominated by pitching as A’s starter Aaron Bennefeld allowed just one run over seven innings. Lufft doubled home C.J. July, who had singled in the top of the eighth inning, to give the A’s a slim 2-1 lead.
But the baseball gods were not smiling on the A’s in the bottom of the eighth – and 20th inning they had played on a scalding Sunday in July.
Jefferson City used an error and an RBI single by tourney MVP Gaven Stroble to knot the score at 2-all off Bennefeld. Ryan McMahan, who had been so effective for the A’s as a starter all season, entered the game and allowed a single to Johnathon Backes.
The A’s second infield error of the inning loaded the bases with one out and Jeff City’s Ryan Paschal hit a high hopper to second, allowing Strobel to score the winning run from third base.
It was an emotional win for Jefferson City as the veteran American Legion team dedicated the tournament to longtime coach and benefactor George Baker, who passed away recently after a long bout with cancer.
“George always wanted to win two tournaments,” Jefferson City Post 5 manager Curtis Vaughan said, “this one and the state tournament. It’s pretty emotional right now, as we dedicated this tournament to George. We were all thinking about him.”
Before the game was played, Baker was honored with a moment of silence that preceded the national anthem.
“This is a huge win,” said Strobel, who had two RBI singles for Post 5 in the championship game. “I just wish George could have been here to celebrate with us.”
While the A’s failed to defend their 2016 Wood Bat Invitational championship, Rooney had nothing but praise for his team and Post 5.
“We lost to a class team, and I can handle that,” Rooney said of Jefferson City, which beat Longmont (Colo.) BOCO 5-3 in the quarterfinals and then topped Bellevue (Neb.) Post 339 East/DJ’s Dugout 5-1 in the semifinals. “We played 20 innings of baseball today and Ty Simshauser caught every one of them – you’d think I was trying to kill the kid!
“But we were missing some players and he said he could catch both games and I just want him to know how much that meant to me and his teammates.”
When asked about Lufft, Rooney just grinned.
“I heard some people say I should have had him bunt in the 12th inning of the semifinal game,” Rooney said, as the game was played from the 10th inning on by international rules in which each inning begins with a runner on second base and no outs.
“I guess they saw why I didn’t bunt him. We wanted to get the game over and Jake could do what with one swing – which he did.”
Lufft and his teammates were just looking for some shade or air conditioning after the tough championship loss.
“Physically and emotionally, I’m drained,” Lufft said. “That Jefferson City team is class – they play the game the right way. We really wanted to defend our championship, but at least we lost to a great team.”
One of the overlooked heroes in the first game was July, who tied the game at 1-all with a two-out single in the eighth inning and then pitched four innings of relief, allowing two runs under the international rules format.
“I’m tired,” July said, “but we’re all tired. We’re proud of how we played today and made it back to the championship game.”
The A’s advanced to the semifinals with a 10-1 rout of the Omaha (Neb.) Northwest Huskies in Saturday’s quarterfinals.
Washington Post 218 defeated the Lee’s Summit Outlaws 9-1 before falling to the Blue Springs A’s in 12 innings.