BILLINGS — Everyone seems to love free baseball.
And the Billings Royals are no different.
With a berth into the Northwest Region 7 tournament via their second-place finish at the Montana State AA American Legion tournament, the Royals are ready to capitalize.
While there was disappointment with not winning the state title after capturing the regular-season conference crown and winning 22 consecutive games before losing at the state tournament, the Royals (53-12) are ready to start fresh.
“After getting second place, you don’t get too many chances to move on,” said Royals outfielder Kruz Slevira. “We’re grateful for that. We are happy to represent Montana in Gillette and I think we’ll do some work down there.”
Billings will play Yakima Valley, Washington, at 9:30 a.m. on Wednesday in the opening game of the five-day tournament in Gillette, Wyoming.
The Pepsi Pak (42-9) recently won the Washington state title for their fourth state championship since 2014.
The championship game is set for Sunday at 1 p.m. The if-necessary second championship game would be played following the first contest.
The winner of the regional advances to the American Legion baseball World Series Aug. 12-17 in Shelby, North Carolina.
“We are looking forward to playing first and getting the tournament started for everyone else,” said Royals coach David Swecker.
Swecker said the Royals will have “to play our best baseball if we want to get to the last day.”
After receiving a first-round bye at the seven-team state tourney, the Royals won their first two games, 2-0 over the Billings Scarlets and 5-4 in nine innings against the Helena Senators in the undefeated semifinal.
With their win in the undefeated semifinal, Billings earned its spot in the championship round and a regional bid. On the second to last day at state, Kalispell downed the Royals 8-5 to earn a spot in the final field of three. Helena topped the Lakers 4-3 in a semifinal/loser-out before winning the title with a 7-5 victory over the Royals.
Lance Schaaf — a lefty who will start against Yakima Valley — earned the complete-game win versus the Scarlets, only giving up two hits. He said the Royals, who put together one of the best records in the program’s rich history, are looking forward to the challenge.
“It should be fun,” he said. “We appreciate we still get to play some baseball. We’ll go there and play no-pressure baseball and will do well. It should be fun. We’re a really good team.”
Overall, Slevira and Schaaf said the Royals are eager to play some more baseball against other elite teams and hopeful to extend their season into mid-August.
“We will have to do the little things right,” said Slevira, “and keep on having fun and stay loose and believe in ourselves down there.”
“It will be fun,” offered Schaaf. “The atmosphere will be fun. Seeing good teams from different states will be a good challenge.”
Senators also at regional
The other Montana representative in the tournament are the Helena Senators (51-19), who went 5-1 at the state tourney in Great Falls en route to the championship.
The Senators will be matched against Idaho Falls in the first round Wednesday at 11:30 a.m.
The Idaho Falls Post 56 Bandits won the American Legion World Series in 2019. Last year, regionals and the World Series weren’t contested due to the coronavirus pandemic. In fact, Montana was one of only six states that offered Legion baseball.
The other teams at the regional are Eugene (Oregon), Cheyenne (Wyoming), Eagle River (Alaska) and the host team, Gillette (Wyoming).
With Hawaii now back in Region 8, Montana-Alberta American Legion Baseball general chairman Ron Edwards of Bozeman said it opened the door for two Montana teams.
According to Edwards, Montana’s proximity to Wyoming played a factor in the decision, as did the Treasure State completing a successful Legion season last year.
“We played a whole season very successfully,” said Edwards. “That was a part of it, too. They knew we could get two teams there that would be two pretty good baseball teams. That is why national asked us to send two.”
The 1962 Billings Post 4 team was the last Montana team to win the regional and advance to the World Series.
Edwards, who is in California as part of the tourney staff for the Region 8 tourney, believes Montana has two quality teams entered in Gillette.
“We are sending two really good teams,” he said. “Both those guys are deserving to go down there.”