HELENA — Two more wins and a doubleheader sweep of the Billings Scarlets on Saturday night kept the Helena Senators rolling. Wins of 8-3 and 9-3 pushed Helena’s win streak to six games, all in conference play, and ran its record to 12-1 in the last 13 games.
On a perfect night for baseball in the Capital City, the Senators strung together back-to-back complete games in all three aspects: pitching, hitting and defense.
“Three great pitching performances [tonight],” Senators head coach Jon Burnett said. “Lots of strikes thrown, forcing the other team to put it in play, then allowing them to play defense behind them. Our pitchers kinda set the tone and we played good defense for them and found a way to score enough runs.”
Staring down dual doubleheaders this weekend, Ethan Keintz set the tone for the home team on the mound in game No. 1. Save for a two-run Billings rally in the fifth, Keintz was solid in his first start of the 2021 season.
He retired the first four batters he faced, striking one out looking. Over the next three innings, the right-hander struck out three more Scarlets, yielding just one unearned run in the second frame.
As the afternoon wore on, Keintz’s slider came to life. Despite running into trouble in the fifth, the two-way standout retired the final seven batters he faced — often going to his slider to do so. The result was a quick one-two-three seventh inning and a sub-100 pitch complete game for Keintz.
“I was locating my fastball away really well, which meant that when I threw the slider down and away they had to respect that,” Keintz said. “Got a lot of weak contact and a lot of swing-and-misses. It was just locating well and mixing my pitches.”
Pumping in over 62 percent strikes, Keintz scattered five hits and four walks while giving up just three runs (two earned) and striking out five.
In support of the righty, Helena’s offense continued to churn out runs. A Gavin Thennis RBI single tied the game at 1-1 in the third and the Senators vaulted in front with a four-run fourth inning. Helena responded to a two-run fifth from the Scarlets with three runs in the next frame, giving Keintz an 8-3 cushion to seal the game.
“Going back out there, I felt like it was a whole new game,” Keintz said. “In that sixth inning, I felt like I was throwing the hardest I had all game because I knew we had some runs and I felt confident on the mound. Really just attacked the zone and hitters.”
Cade Coate nearly replicated Keintz’s complete game in the night cap. It was not until the fourth inning of game No. 2 that Coate allowed a base runner, and after the Senators broke a 2-2 tie with a crooked number in the fourth inning, the right-hander pitched into the sixth without allowing a walk.
Coate’s performance — three runs (two earned) on five hits over six innings — allowed Helena to use just one bullpen arm, setting the staff up nicely for Sunday.
“We had a few more guys that could’ve gone today if needed...We’re going to Cy [Miller] and Eamon [Burke] tomorrow, but we do have some more arms to close if we get into trouble,” Burnett said. “We’re excited about how we pitched today.”
For an offense that has been rolling of late, the Senators relied on big innings to break games open on Saturday. A four-run fourth and three more in the six inning did the trick in game No. 1. A seven-run fourth put the game No. 2 out of reach for Billings after the Scarlets tied the game a half-inning prior.
“It’s kinda been our MO, we kinda start slow and then it seems like eventually we’re gonna put up a crooked number,” Burnett said. “I’d like us to start earlier, but I think that just goes with logging good approaches at the plate and seeing more pitches. When we get later in the game, you know what that pitcher has and you’re able to sit on a certain pitch and drive it somewhere. Guys are taking good at-bats.”
Two Senators amassed multi-hit games in the front-end and five did so in the second contest. Matt Burton was the only player to accomplish that feat in both games, finishing a combined 4-for-6 with five RBI, a walk and four runs scored from his position atop the lineup.
“I kept the same approach that I’ve kept all year,” Burton said. “Just staying calm in the box. Waiting for a good fastball to hit and taking a nice, hard swing at it.”
Burton broke a 1-1 tie in game No. 1 with a two-RBI single in the fourth inning. He followed that up with another run-scoring base knock in the fourth inning of game No. 2, one that put Helena up 5-2 and helped start the offensive outburst.
“He’s just a scrappy hitter,” Burnett said. “He’s the ultimate lead-off guy. He can get down 0-2 by watching some pitches that are pretty close and then just battling, battling, battling...He’s our table-setter. We like to be aggressive on the bases and that gets us started.”
Hunter Bratcher stayed hot in the first game, collecting three hits and driving in two runs. Thennis added two RBI in game No. 1 and another later in the night with two walks. Both Keintz and Forrest Suero also chipped in two RBI in the back-end of the doubleheader as Helena pounded out a combined 20 hits on Saturday night.
“I like having the confidence in my teammates knowing that when I’m rounding the bases that I’m going to be able to score when they hit it because they’re hitting it hard,” Burton said. “I hope we keep it rolling.”
The Senators will look to do just that on Sunday with two more contests against Billings. First pitches are scheduled for noon and 2:30 p.m.