BILLINGS — The Billings Royals came up clutch left and right during the American Legion Baseball State AA tournament over the weekend in Kalispell, and they walked away as state champions.
Billings defeated the Lethbridge Elks 6-5 on Wednesday on a walk-off single from Jarret Leinwand that sent the Royals into a fit of celebration after earning their first state championship since they went back-to-back in 2012 and 2013.
"It was great. It was a battle all tournament and everyone of our games was tough games," Royals manager Bryan Benjamin told 406mtsports.com on Thursday. "To end it that way was definitely a thrill for sure."
Ironically, the Royals opened the tournament with a comeback 6-5 victory over the Elks. After trailing 5-0 and not getting their first hit until the sixth inning, the Royals scored four runs in the seventh inning to walk-off against the Elks to get the wild weekend started.
Close games and clutch plays were the name of the game for the Royals with each outing needing some sort of heroics to get the job done. In their second game, the Royals trailed the Kalispell Lakers 1-0 all the way to the seventh inning before tying it late and eventually winning 3-1 in nine innings.
The Royals would have to fend off the rival Billings Scarlets 5-4 in the third game to secure a spot in the state championship. On the fourth night they finally cracked, losing 12-7 to Lethbridge in another nine-inning game, but awaited the winner of the Elks and Scarlets for Wednesday night's finale.
"We had to fight for every single win," Benjamin said.
They then drew the Elks, and the rest is history.
The Royals trailed 5-0 after a first inning explosion from Lethbridge. The Royals scored four in the bottom-half of the inning to keep within striking distance.
North Dakota State commit Jayden Kay hit a solo shot to even it up 5-5 in the bottom of the fourth.
In the bottom of the seventh, the Royals started with a strikeout. Carson Klompien, who will play college ball at the University of Jamestown in North Dakota, was walked followed by Brooks Zimmer getting hit by a pitch to get two on. Kay then hit a sac-fly to right field that moved Klompien to third.
Then, on the first pitch of his at-bat, Leinwand, who will play college baseball at Yakima Valley Community College, hit a single up the middle to become the walk-off hero, scoring Klompien.
"As soon as he hit the ball, we were really excited," Benjamin said with a laugh. "Just kind of jumped up and was just really happy for the boys."
Benjamin said he knew it was game over as soon as Leinwand made contact.
"Lethbridge was playing us pretty deep all game long because we hit some pretty good shots out there," Benjamin explained. "Jarret kind of hit it off the end of the bat and I knew it was going to drop in right away.
"It was a dream moment and the right guy up at bat. That's kind of the guy we want up there at the bat at that time. He's our No. 3 hitter and he's been there all year long for us, so kind of the right guy came up at the right time."
On a team with 10 seniors and eight future college athletes next season, the Royals relied on every ounce of that experience and veteran leadership to walk away as the champs. Zimmer, a future Montana State Billings baseball player, was named the tournament MVP while Kay was the tournament's hitting champion.
"I think that the veteran team that we had helped out a ton," Benjamin said. "We have six or seven of these guys that it's their third year on the Royals. Having that mature group that, even if they're down by four of five runs, they never think they're out of the game. They know that they have the ability and that they've been there before and can do it again. So that was huge and hopefully it rubs off on some of the younger guys."
The Royals now turn their attention to regionals, which will begin on Wednesday in Missoula.
"I told the boys to enjoy this now through the weekend," Benjamin said. "Come Monday, we need to get back to work and worry about winning another championship if we can."