HELENA — Year 1 for Jon Burnett coaching the Helena Senators has gone as he expected, mixed in with some challenges.
Burnett took over a young roster with only two college freshmen, so results have been predictably inconsistent.
He hopes playing younger players now pays off in the coming years for the America Legion Class AA team, but he still believes there's opportunity this season with at least 37 more regular-season games.
“We see the talent is there and we think we have the chance to iron some things out and play some pretty good baseball,” Burnett said. “We just have to be patient and watch them develop.”
The Senators (10-12) are coming off a 2-2 showing in the Mavericks Memorial Day tournament and return home for the next game at 7 p.m. at Kindrick Legion Field against the Bozeman Bucks.
The Senators were dealt their first setback when their returning ace pitcher Keaton Ralston couldn’t play due to a fall arm injury. Ralston was someone Burnett expected to anchor the starting rotation.
“When you have that ace, you can pencil him in to throw every fifth day and you know you are going to get a good effort and be in every game,” Burnett said. “That obviously hurt us, but the team has been resilient. We have three or four guys we are confident who can start for us.”
Brett Jacobs (2-1), Ryan Barrett (2-2) and Tayler Carlson (3-1) have emerged as the main starting pitchers. Depth, however, is crucial with up to four or five games a week.
Hunter Sickerson (2-1, 2 saves) and Hunter Kirkpatrick (1-1, 1 save) have been logging key relief innings. Cy Miller, Dylan Steinmentz and Ethan Keintz have been coming up from the Helena Reps, the Class A team in the program, to fill out innings when the Senators have run out of arms during a busy week.
“You want to be deep with the pitching staff,” Burnett said. “We’ve had injuries that hurt our depth. More guys are expecting to fill those roles need to step up, and some of the guys from the Reps are going to get a chance to pitch at the AA level.”
Teams can go only as far as their pitching, so the Senators want to develop that this season and during the offseason.
All the pitchers can return next year. Jacobs, however, signed to play at Williston State College in North Dakota next season. And Ralston is headed to Columbia Basin College in Washington.
“We have a good nucleus of talent in the program with some strong arms,” Burnett said. “We are going to have to accelerate a couple guys earlier than we hoped with the injuries but it will benefit them in the future as they get older, getting that experience.”
The offense has been sluggish at times with a team batting average of .289. The lineup took a hit soon after first baseman Andrew Rosston returned from college to join the team.
He was hitting .500 before he was injured away from the field. Burnett expects him to return, but doesn’t have a timetable.
Hard-hitting catcher Kadyn Craigle has been sidelined with a lingering sore arm recently. That forced Kirkpatrick, normally an infielder, to catch the bulk of the innings.
An ankle sprain during the tournament to third baseman Riley Chisholm was another setback. He had been hitting .328 with 10 RBIs and 16 runs scored.
Craigle and Chisholm are expected back soon. Their time missed was more precautionary.
“We’ve had to get creative with the lineups,” Burnett said.
Colin Sassano, the only regular in college, leads the team at the plate at .406 with 17 RBIs and 20 runs scored. He’s been leading by more than production.
Sassano called the players into a meeting at their hotel during the Memorial Day tournament to urge them to play together. Immediate results showed with wins over Butte and Missoula the next day.
“I just said don’t worry about the stats and play for the team,” Sassano said. “We would have liked to have won more games, but we’ve been in many of them. We have to finish some games. We then have to play our best at the end of the year.”
The Senators are playing catch-up offensively. Many of the teams in the league have indoor hitting centers where players can train during the winter, while Helena does not.
Opponents started the season ready to hit, while the Senators were working on mechanics and timing.
Now that the players can be outside and practice, they’ve steadily improved. They hope that can continue at a faster pace.
“The more good consistent reps we get early in the season will help our program,” Burnett said. “We always have our eyes open and looking for something. Hopefully, something can work out. Hopefully, we can find a facility where they can work out in.”
For now, the Senators look to continue their development for this season. They are only 0-2 in league play with two losses to Billings.
The postseason is possible if they can hit their stride in time.
“We are competitive in every game we are in,” Burnett said. “We just have to make those big plays in the field to get out of some innings. I think we are developmentally where we need to be. We just need to catch a few breaks here and there, and keep competing. I think we have a good shot to turn some heads and be a competitive team this year.”