BILLINGS — Two years ago, the Bozeman Bucks put a stuffed buck head in their locker room. This season, they decided to bring the lifeless, antlered deer into their dugout, according to outgoing senior Michael Freund.
Bozeman won its next handful of games with the buck head in its new environment, and it finished tied with the Missoula Mavericks for the best Class AA record. The Bucks, ever the superstitious baseball team, decided to keep the buck in their dugout for the long haul. It’s still working its magic.
Bozeman beat the Billings Scarlets 11-4 Saturday at Dehler Park in the first round of the State AA American Legion baseball tournament. After two straight years with first-round losses and zero state titles as the No. 1 seed, the Bucks are one game closer to breaking through as No. 2.
“Everybody’s fired up,” Freund said.
Saturday’s game could be distilled into one inning. The seventh-seeded Scarlets put runners on first and second base with one out in the top of the first inning, but outgoing senior Brooks Rohrer was thrown out at third trying to advance on a ball in the dirt, and the rally ended there.
In the bottom half, Bozeman senior and leadoff hitter Kelher Murfitt hit a soft bouncer to first baseman Andy Larsen, who couldn’t get the ball to pitcher and fellow outgoing senior Michael Zaske in time.
Murfitt’s infield single was only hit of the inning, but the Bucks scored three runs thanks largely to three errors from senior shortstop Koby Croft.
“It’s the same thing we’ve been seeing all season,” said Scarlets coach Adam Hust. “We’ve put in plenty of work. We’ve put in plenty of repetition. How you fix it, that’s the million-dollar question right now.”
Bozeman scored two more runs in the second inning, increasing its lead to 5-0, and the game looked like it might play out like the teams’ last matchup — a 7-1 Bucks win on Tuesday.
But in the fourth, previously dominant starter Hunter Williams looked more than mortal. The Scarlets tagged the senior-to-be with four runs, sparked by a leadoff double from incoming senior Jarron Wilcox and fueled by a two-run double from Billings West classmate Logan Meyer.
The one-run deficit didn’t survive the inning. Bozeman plated three in the bottom half.
The final three runs came in the sixth, another rough defensive inning for the Scarlets. For the game, they tallied eight errors in the field and nine hits at the plate.
“If we come back after that fourth inning and we play good the rest of the game, at least I have something positive to talk about. But we throw up a four spot and come out and do the same thing we did in the first, second and third,” Hust said. “When you have as many errors as you do hits, obviously, that’s a tough one to swallow.
“Frankly, guys gotta make plays. If they don’t, you’re never going to win.”
Billings Scarlets play the Bozeman Bucks in the first round of the Class AA state Legion tournament at Dehler Park on Saturday.
Freund was 2 for 3 with a walk and three RBIs, and he pitched the final three innings scoreless, allowing two hits and two walks with a strikeout. Murfitt went 3 for 3 with a walk and three runs scored, and senior-to-be Sage McMinn went 1 for 3 with an RBI double and a walk.
Meyer was 2 for 3, Larsen was 2 for 4 with a double and Croft finished 1 for 2 with a walk and drove in his team’s first run.
After Saturday’s win, a Bozeman player yelled, “Fear the deer,” and another carried the taxidermy buck above his head and out of the dugout. It will be back Sunday at 4 p.m., when the Bucks face Helena in the second round. The Scarlets will take on No. 3 Kalispell at 10 a.m. in a loser-out game.
“I definitely want to end my career with a state championship,” Freund said, “and hopefully more.”
Billings Royals 3, Lethbridge Elks 1
The Royals were almost no-hit on Saturday night at Dehler Park, and it didn’t matter.
Errors, walks and another strong pitching performance from Dann Blanchard helped the fifth-seeded Royals beat the No. 4 Elks in the first round of the state tournament.
“We’ve done it all year,” Blanchard said. “Hopefully, we can keep this energy up this whole tournament.”
The Royals also opened last year’s state tournament against Lethbridge, and they won 6-5. Those six runs scored in the final two innings. Before the sixth, Elks pitcher Levi Abbott was tossing a perfect game.
Lethbridge beat the Royals 12-7 in nine innings later in that tournament, and the two met in the title game. Blanchard was on the mound, and after allowing five runs in the first inning, he dominated the final six. The Royals won 6-5 on a walkoff single.
A walk and a hit-batsman put runners on with two outs for the Royals in the top of the second inning. A wild pitch quickly bounced back to Lethbridge catcher Ty Wevers, who fired to third base attempting to gun down Royals runner Brenden Concepcion. The throw sailed into left field and gave the Royals a 1-0 win.
The Royals got another runners on first and second with two outs situation in the top of the third, thanks to two errors. They attempted a double steal, and the runner at first, Connor Hunter, got caught in a rundown. As Lethbridge was about to tag Hunter out, the other runner, Jaeden Jordahl, broke toward home. The fielder could have tagged Hunter before Jordahl reached home, but he chose instead to throw to the catcher. It was off target, and the Royals were up 2-0.
“They were always up on the bench. They always had confidence when they were facing me,” said Lethbridge starting pitcher Thomas Little. “I guess they wanted it more than us.”
Little was selected by the Philadelphia Phillies in the 33rd round of last month’s MLB draft, and he’s headed to Northern Oklahoma College-Enid on a baseball scholarship. On Saturday, he allowed two unearned runs thanks to four errors (not including the failed rundown). He was also wild, walking seven batters and hitting another in 5 1/3 innings.
Little joined the rare group of pitchers who suffered a loss without allowing a hit.
“I felt lost, almost,” he said. “When you lose your mindset on the mound, you start throwing wild or you start throwing balls everywhere.”
Nick Eliason broke up the no-hitter with two hits in the seventh. The next hitter, Chase Hinckley, also hit a single, which scored the Royals’ third run.
Royals coach Bryan Benjamin was happy to avoid the no-hitter and add an insurance run, but all he truly cared about was the number to the left of the hit column.
“One of the boys said something to me like, ‘Hey, in the third inning, I think we had a bunt hit, and we should have a hit on the board,’” Benjamin said. “I said, ‘Who cares? We’re up 2-1. We’re ahead in the scoreboard, where it counts.’”
Of all the gems Blanchard has tossed in his career, Benjamin ranked the 2018 state title game as his best. No. 2 on that list was Saturday’s performance.
Blanchard, who plans to play baseball at Yakima Valley CC, allowed one earned run on six hits and two walks with four strikeouts.
He also threw 107 pitches in his seven innings. Per the state’s pitch count rule, Blanchard would have been forced to exit the game if he didn’t get through the final at-bat of the game. The last batter, Kalem Haney, nearly hit a double down the right-field line, but it was ruled foul. Two pitches later, Haney hit a check-swing grounder back to Blanchard, who tossed the ball to first to end the game.
“Every time I pitch, it seems like I can’t get the last three outs,” Blanchard said. “It was really tense.”
The Royals will face top-seeded Missoula in the second round at 7 p.m. Sunday back at Dehler Park, while Lethbridge will meet No. 8 Great Falls at 1 p.m. in a loser-out game.
Benjamin said it’s “very possible” his team will see the Elks at least one more time this tournament. Does he want to face them?
“Not really,” he said with a laugh.