American Legion baseball’s triumphant return to Tooele County has been a smashing success this season, both on and off the field.
The hometown Tooele County Bears wrapped up a stellar regular season Wednesday night at Dow James Memorial Park, beating Highland 5-2 in their final tune-up ahead of next week’s state tournament in Salt Lake City. The combination of stars from Stansbury and Tooele high schools earned second place in its division and an automatic berth into the state tournament, giving the Bears a well-deserved week off while other teams battle it out in play-in games later this week.
Tooele County came into Wednesday night’s game having already clinched the No. 2 seed, while Highland was still jockeying for position in the play-in bracket. The Rams were short-handed coming into the game, so Bridger Shields, fresh off wrapping up his season with Stansbury’s 17-and-under squad on Saturday, filled in at second base for the Rams.
However, it probably didn’t matter much who Highland had in its lineup, as the Bears got a stellar pitching performance from starter Kaden Nicholes and reliever Clay Freeman. Nicholes struck out 10 batters in just four innings, and allowed just two runs on two hits with four walks. Freeman pitched the final three innings and didn’t allow a baserunner, striking out six.
The Bears took the lead by manufacturing a run with two outs in the bottom of the first inning. Griffen Bate reached base on an error, and advanced to second on a passed ball. Brett Porthan then hit a ground ball to shortstop, but the Rams opted to throw to third base to try to get Bate. The throw was off-target and sailed into the Tooele County dugout, allowing Bate to walk home for the game’s first run.
Tooele County extended the lead in the second, taking advantage of a leadoff single by Payton Shields and a walk by Connor Spindler. With Freeman up to bat, Spindler took off for second base. He got caught in a brief rundown, allowing Shields to race home from third on a double-steal. After a base hit to right by Logan Soderborg, Spindler came home on a passed ball to give the Bears a 3-0 lead.
A two-out, two-run single in the top of the third inning by Highland cut the Bears’ lead to 3-2, but the Rams had just one baserunner the rest of the game. Meanwhile, Tooele County kept chipping away at Highland pitcher Matthew Thomas. Jaxson Miner walked with one out in the fifth inning, moved over to third on a single by Bate and a passed ball, and came into score on a sacrifice fly by Porthan. In the sixth, Spindler reached base on a comebacker that ricocheted off Thomas’ glove, and after a double by Brandon Vorwaller moved him to third, he scored on a balk to provide the final margin.
Thomas had a solid outing for Highland in a losing effort, allowing three earned runs on four hits with six strikeouts and three walks in six innings.
Tooele County coach Nolan Stouder marveled at how quickly the team has bonded, as well as the improvement the Bears have shown on the field. Each of their five losses has come down to the final at-bat of the game, including a walk-off loss to Taylorsville and one-run losses to Herriman (twice), Snow Canyon and Desert Hills.
The American Legion state tournament will begin July 26 in Salt Lake City, and will continue through Aug. 3.