BILLINGS — Cold, wet weather has ruined several games for the Billings Royals and Scarlets in this young season. Saturday's skies posed no such threat, and both American Legion Class AA baseball teams hosted a pair of opponents making 300-plus mile treks.
Rapid City (South Dakota) Post 22 handled the Royals 5-0 in their first game of the day, but the Royals rebounded with a 4-2 win over Missoula, which crushed the Scarlets 8-0. The final game of the day, between the Scarlets and Post 22, was not completed by press time.
Both head coaches for the Royals and Scarlets expected some ups and downs to begin this season, given the weather delays, injury recoveries and general rust that comes with May baseball in Montana. They’re optimistic that their squads can improve over the summer and contend for a state title.
Royals less than flush
No team wants to graduate more players than it returns, and the Royals are in that less-than-desirable position.
The defending AA state champions graduated 10 players from their 2018 squad while returning six. Among those now-departed seniors was all-state second baseman Jayden Kay, all-state outfielder/pitcher Brooks Zimmer and all-state pitcher Tyler Frieders.
Royals coach Bryan Benjamin, the 2018 Class AA coach of the year, admits that last year’s team was stacked, and this year’s roster has not been perfect. He’s been pleased with the pitching and defense, but he’s seen a “lackadaisical attitude” at times, especially in two-out situations, and the hitters’ two-strike approaches can improve.
Those flaws have only been exacerbated by a dearth of live action. The Royals have seen four games, two each against Helena and Laurel, postponed due to poor weather.
“The timing at the plate, that’s where it affects us the most,” Benjamin said of the canceled games. “We can do a lot of things out here in practice to simulate ground balls, things like that, but it’s tough to always get that guy wanting to get you out on the mound type thing.”
One bright spot in this young season has been Dann Blanchard. The right-hander had a solid performance on the mound against Post 22 (two earned runs in five innings) and went 3-for-4 with two doubles against Missoula.
The 10 seniors on last year’s Royals will be hard to replace, but Benjamin is confident the new guys will also fill up the all-state and all-conference teams.
“They work hard in practice, so we’ll get better as the season goes on. We’re just a little young right now,” he said. “They want another state title, and we’re working towards it.”
While the Royals graduated 10 players, the Scarlets returned 10 this season. But as Saturday’s shutout loss to Missoula illustrated, the Scarlets have room to improve.
The Scarlets saw last season end at the state tournament and lost some key players, including all-state catcher Ben Tallman and all-state utility infielder Dylan Johnson.
Among the 10 returners are Koby Croft (shortstop/pitcher) and Michael Zaske (outfielder/pitcher), who both signed to play baseball for MSUB. Both seniors have been invigorated by the Yellowjackets’ GNAC-title winning season.
“I’m super excited to be able to get down there,” Croft said. “Going into a program with a great coaching staff, a bunch of great players, they’re all really fun to be around, and they know how to work their butts off.”
The Scarlets had a 3-1 record going into Saturday, so they can’t totally identify with MSUB’s 0-11 start to this season. But the Yellowjackets’ turnaround can be instructive after a loss like Saturday’s — there’s plenty of season left.
“It’s early,” said Scarlets coach Adam Hust. “You’re just trying to figure out who you’ve got and what your team is and how they all fit together. Right now, that’s what we use May for. We’re gonna figure out how they fit together, and hopefully by the end of July, we have all the pieces in the right places.”