Want a reason for optimism heading into the Montana/Alberta American Legion Class AA state baseball tournament that begins at Griffin Field on July 28?
The Kalispell Lakers AA have yet to lose a conference game on their home diamond all summer.
“I wasn’t going to say that,” Lakers Coach Ryan Malmin said with a smirk. “I didn’t want to jinx it.”
But leading a team that’s won 10 of its last 11 conference games might just mean the Lakers are jinx-proof, capable of overcoming bad baseball juju and the other seven teams in the field on their quest to claim a state title for the first time since 1978.
The Lakers (37-14, 15-7 in conference) are one of the state’s hottest teams and are seeded second in the July 28-Aug. 1 tournament, which will be played entirely at Griffin Field on Kalispell’s south side. The strong finish to the regular season is not just the culmination of a long, arduous campaign, it’s something the Lakers’ core players have been eyeing for years, ever since they first found out the team would be hosting the 2018 state tourney.
“It’s a comfort level,” Malmin said of playing at home. “We’ve been there everyday so kids know how the ball travels, they know how to handle ground balls on our infield; repetition and routine.”
The Lakers begin tournament play July 28 at 7 p.m. against the seventh-seeded Helena Senators, a team that swept two one-run games from Kalispell during a six-game Lakers losing streak in June. In fact, seven of Kalispell’s 14 losses have come by one run but they’ve found themselves on the other side of those tight contests more often of late, going 7-1 in games decided by three or fewer runs down the stretch.
“The key for us is we’ve been better in the later innings and we’ve been able to execute in those tough situations,” Malmin said. “That execution in the late part of the game, that’s the difference between those close losses and wins.”
The Lakers figure to see more close games in the postseason when runs are typically at a premium, especially for opponents facing a talented Kalispell pitching staff that has posted a 2.55 cumulative ERA. The Lakers have not announced their rotation for the state tournament, but starters Sam Elliott, Drew Scherrer, Dawson Smith and Logan Siblerud have been fantastic all season and the Lakers have a number of weapons out of the bullpen, including recent Lakers A call-up Wes Palmer and veterans Johan Freudenburg and Taylor Morton. Elliott (9-2, 2.25 ERA) leads the staff with 68 strikeouts in 80.1 innings, while Scherrer’s team-leading 2.18 ERA and 1.04 WHIP have led to 11 wins.
“Our pitching staff, we thought that it was always going to be the main cog in the machine this year and we’ve got seven guys on the staff and they’ve all done a tremendous job and given us opportunities to win,” Malmin said.
Scherrer, however, is a question mark heading into the tournament after suffering a leg injury against the Billings Royals in the Lakers’ lone loss in July — 3-2 in extra innings on July 19 — and he’s not the only medical concern on the roster. Starting catcher Keadan Morisaki’s season was cut short after just 14 games and his replacement, Jonathan Craver, filled in admirably before going down himself in the season’s final week. Those injuries have moved shortstop Randy Stultz behind the plate and forced the Lakers to shuffle their infield accordingly.
“Randy hasn’t put in a whole lot of time in behind the plate this year … (but) he’s an athlete and he’ll compete for us back there,” Malmin said. “As far as the infield we’re just going to have to figure out who’s the next best option there.”
Regardless of where he’s playing in field, having Stultz’s bat in the lineup is a good start. The Bigfork product is hitting .357 with a dynamic combination of patience and power, racking up 33 extra-base hits (including five home runs) and drawing 38 walks in barely more than 200 plate appearances. His .512 on-base percentage is tops on the team and he’s a menace on the basepaths once he gets there, posting 25 stolen bases. Three other Lakers are also hitting above .340 — Morton (.365), Eric Seaman (.345) and Smith (.344).
The Bozeman Bucks (16-6 in conference) are the top seed in the tournament for the second straight year. Last year, the Bucks hosted the event and reached the championship game before falling to the Missoula Mavericks. A team from Missoula or Billings has won the last 10 consecutive Class AA tournaments.
This year’s winner will advance to the Northwest Regional American Legion tournament in Missoula, where a trip to the American Legion World Series will be on the line.
Tickets to the double-elimination state tournament are on sale now, with daily and all-tournament passes available. For more information, visit www.kalispelllakers.org.
The Glacier Twins A hosted the Class A Western District tournament in 2017 and, unfortunately, it was an experience they would rather forget.
The memory of bowing out in the consolation bracket is one Scott Murray’s team will be taking to this year’s Western District tourney, July 26-30 in Hamilton, where the Twins are the top seed for the first time since joining Class A in 2013.
“We haven’t talked about it but it’s like the elephant in the room,” Murray said of last year’s disappointment. “It’s some of the same kids, some different kids and of course we’ve got high hopes again this year.”
As hot as the Lakers AA are, Whitefish’s Twins have been even better, winning 13 games in a row and 17 straight in district. The Twins unseated the district’s longtime bully, the Bitterroot Red Sox, with a pair of wins in Whitefish on July 19. The Red Sox have won three straight Class A state championships.
“(Being the top seed) doesn’t mean anything until you go out there but it’s a confidence booster,” Murray said. “I’m proud of what the boys did to get there.”
The Twins (30-15, 17-3) squared off with a number of Class AA teams early in the year, and that experience has helped Glacier’s offense hit its groove during the conference slate. The Twins are batting an incredible .362 as a team, averaging 8.7 runs per game and boast eight regulars hitting .326 or better. The lineup is balanced and experienced, paced by Coby Clark-Dickenson (.465 average/.577 on-base percentage/.667 slugging), Terek Bistodeau (.444/.491/.542), Ryan Veneman (.394/.430/.487) and Jack Schwaiger (.387/.445/.481).
The top two finishers in the district tournament will reach the state tourney, Aug. 1-5 in Miles City, and last year the Red Sox were joined at state by the upstart Kalispell Lakers A, who reached the district title game as the No. 6 seed. This year’s Lakers (25-23, 9-11) are seeded fourth and despite being swept to end the regular season by the Twins they will take some confidence from last year’s showing.
“We have five guys that came on that trip with us last year so we have a few guys who are certainly familiar with how the tournament works and know what it takes to keep advancing,” Lakers A Coach Jesse McFarland said. “I think that experience will definitely help us out.”
The Lakers A begin the tournament July 26 at 10 a.m. against the Mission Valley Mariners. The Twins A take on the Libby Loggers that same day at 1 p.m. with the winners advancing to square off on Friday.
To follow all of the action in the West District tournament and Class AA state tournament, visit www.montanalegionbaseball.org.