HELENA — This time of year in Montana means American Legion baseball is ramping up. The Helena Senators, fresh off an appearance in the Class AA State Championship game a season ago, sport a 2-2 record heading into the second weekend of non-conference games after splitting back-to-back doubleheaders.
“We did about what I was expecting,” Senators head coach Jon Burnett said of the opening weekend. “We had that early-season type jitters, but I thought we did a lot of good things out there. Definitely saw stuff to work on in practice and improve on. We’re aiming to play our best baseball come June and July, so we’re just slowly building and working towards that.”
Helena’s roster is not yet at full strength as it waits on a couple players to finish seasons at the collegiate level, but what the Senators have right now is more than capable of getting the job done at the plate.
While four games is just a small sample size, the Senators are slashing .259/.450/.370/.820 as a team. As the mercury continues to climb in the thermometer, so will that slugging percentage, but the Senators are finding plenty of other ways to get runners on the base paths, having already racked up 31 walks. That works out to nearly eight free passes per game in this early-going.
“The first couple of weeks out there, [the players] all want to come out and see how far they can hit the ball,” Burnett said. “We had a few early-season practices where we got on their case for that, but they’ve been doing great with understanding their strike zone, understanding when to attack pitches and what they’re looking for in certain counts. Just something we’re stressing and that first weekend, we did do a good job of that.”
The Senators also drew eight hit-by-pitches during the opening weekend and averaged nearly 3.5 pitches per plate appearance as a team while striking out only 19 times. Three times in the first four games Helena walked more than it collectively struck out.
“That was one of our key stats we looked at in the off-season was when we struck out six times or more, our record wasn’t very good,” Burnett said. “That’s kinda been one of our keys in the off-season is to make sure we’re attacking good pitches and not chasing pitches out of the zone. Pitchers will be sharper as the season goes on, but I thought we did a real good job of that.”
Quality trips to the plate, that is an at-bat or plate appearance that ends in a walk, sacrifice bunt, sacrifice fly, extra-base hit, hard-hit ball or if the batter sees three-plus pitches after two strikes or works a six-plus pitch at-bat, is tracked by the Senators. Through four games, the team has logged 72 such at-bats out of 152 total plate appearances, meaning a quality trip to the dish was turned in over 47 percent of the time during the Senators’ opening weekend of play.
Fifteen of those quality at-bats have been credited to outfielder Quinn Belcher who played in his first four Class AA games last weekend. He earned all-state honors with the Class A Reps as an outfielder last season and has already drawn nine walks against just two strikeouts while driving in four runs and scoring another six. Belcher’s on-base percentage currently stands at .611.
“He’s got a small strike zone,” Burnett said. “We had the chat early on, I can’t have my smallest guy on the team being my most aggressive and he kinda took that role real quick. I think he drew nine walks last weekend. But also when they brought the ball over the plate, he had the big walk-off hit for us, had a big RBI to tie the game up. We really liked what we saw the first game and just kinda rolled with him and he’s been doing great for us.”
The nine-hole hitter in game No. 1 on Opening Day, Belcher was bumped up to the lead-off spot for game No. 2 and filled that role in both games last Sunday, too. Belcher said his knack for getting on base has always meant the nine spot in the batting order would be his to fill, but the recent move to lead-off has been nice and given him a boost of confidence.
“It gives me a chance to give the team a little energy,” Belcher said. “Drawing that lead-off walk is always nice and it gives the other team a little down point. It’s good to give our team the energy and their team a little less confidence.”
While Belcher paces the team with quality at-bats and is averaging nearly four pitches per plate appearance to begin the season, that does not mean his aggressiveness has left. His walk-off single against Bozeman on Sunday ensured the Senators would at least split the doubleheader against the reigning state champions.
“I’m still aggressive, I’m still swinging, but I’m only swinging if they give me a strike and I guess I haven’t seen a lot of strikes this year,” Belcher said. “I’m not swinging until I get a strike.”
Belcher already has two plate appearances this season in which he saw three or more pitches after getting two strikes against him, a category Victor Scott currently leads the Senators in with three. As a team, Helena has 11 such plate appearances and 19 instances where the Senators have seen six or more pitches in a single trip to the plate.
“We want to be aggressive up until we get two strikes on us,” Burnett said. “We’re looking to be really aggressive on the fastballs earlier and the mistake breaking balls, and then once we get two strikes, it kinda turns over to a team at-bat and we shorten up and put the ball in play and make the other team make plays.”
Entering this weekend’s matchups with Bozeman and Kalispell, the Senators boast four players who hit .400 or better during the season’s opening week. No doubt a small sample size, it never hurts to get off to a quick start offensively, and after averaging 7.5 runs per game to begin the season, the Senators are looking for more this weekend.
Like it does with most baseball teams, that starts at the top by getting runners on base.
“We’re looking for them to get on base because we got some guys that can really swing it after them,” Burnett said of his lead-off guys. “Whether it’s Quinn or Matt Burton in that lead-off spot, they’re both extremely fast and great baserunners. So just having that extra bit of pressure on the other team, it makes that pitcher think and take an extra look at them and they might leave one over the plate for one of our No. 2 or 3 hitters.”
A third-straight game against the Bozeman Bucks in less than a week awaits Helena on Saturday. Due to the chance of rain showers, the start time has been moved up to 10 a.m. as the Senators still hope to squeeze in a matchup with the Kalispell Lakers in the afternoon.
“We’re interested to see Kalispell, I know they have quite a few guys back from last year’s team and they were a good, solid team last year,” Burnett said. “It’ll be nice to get to see them early in the season. Then Bozeman, we know them pretty well just with how close they are and how much we play them. Really, and I think every coach in the state will tell you, right now it’s just about repetition this early in the year. Getting those at-bats and getting those pitchers innings on the mound and building that arm strength up.”