The semipro Muscatine Flames are one of six teams left vying for the championship in the Iowa Amateur Baseball Association state tournament.
The Flames, who play in the area’s five-team Black Hawk Valley Conference, finished their regular season 10-8. That qualified them for the double-elimination IABA state competition.
The conference also includes the Quad City 76ers, Whiteside County Wildcats, Geneseo Rookies and the Palmer Dragons, a team made up of Palmer University students.
The Flames’ next game will be at noon Saturday at Douglas Park in Rock Island, Illinois, against the Red Top, a team from Solon in the Iowa Valley League. The winner will advance to the tournament’s semifinal and play at the same location at 4 p.m.
Last weekend, the Flames started the opening round of the tournament by losing to Watkins 9-8 in extra innings. That put them on thin ice as the next loss sends them home.
That next loss hasn’t come yet though.
Over the course of last Saturday and Sunday, Muscatine pulled off consecutive wins after that loss in the opener. That advanced the team to play in the six-team second round this weekend.
“(This season) has been a challenge,” said Flames manager Jose Hernandez, “because it’s my first time being a manager here in Iowa. But since day one when we got together with the players, I think we had good chemistry.”
In their second game last Saturday, pitcher Kyle Calvert threw seven strong innings in a 5-1 win over Whiteside County.
On Sunday, Muscatine kept the season alive yet again by defeating Norway 9-3.
As with most semipro teams, the squad is made up of a cross-section of baseball lifers.
“We have a couple of college kids, we’ve got some ex-professional players,” said Hernandez, “so we have a little bit of everything.
“The team is motivated, the college kids are getting ready for their upcoming college season and the ex-professional players are just trying to get the best out of that young talent. That way we can come back next year and play harder.”
Muscatine has had various iterations of semipro teams dating back to 1929.
The Norway Baseball Association website provides a list of IABA winners dating back to 1976 and this would be the Flames' first title in that span.
The Red Top, who the Flames play on Saturday, won back-to-to-back titles in 2015 and 2016.
Including Saturday’s game, the Flames are now four wins away from a championship.
“Now is a win-or-go-home situation,” Hernandez said.