BOZEMAN — Three will enter, one will emerge.
The Billings Royals and Bozeman Bucks worked fast Saturday at Heroes Park, setting up a three-team, winner-take-all scenario to decide the State AA Legion baseball championship.
Both the No. 2-seeded Royals and the top-seeded Bucks prevailed by big margins behind timely hits and solid pitching. Billings, led by starter Cameron Maciel, upended Missoula 12-3. Bozeman, behind pitcher Andrew Purpura, eliminated Helena with a 15-5, mercy-rule decision in seven innings.
No. 3 seed and undefeated game winner Missoula, which lost for the first time in the tournament, will await the Royals/Bozeman winner in the championship game on Sunday.
By virtue of their hosting rights for the upcoming Northwest regional tournament, the Mavericks are already guaranteed to keep playing whether they win the deciding game Sunday or not. The Royals and Bucks, meanwhile, are trying to keep their seasons alive.
Both teams believe they have momentum.
“I just kept on throwing strikes and I gave my team a chance to win, which is what you have to do as a pitcher,” said a confident Maciel after pitching Billings on to the title round. “We are a championship team, and I know we can do it.”
“We’re just determined,” said Bozeman’s Purpura. “I would just say there’s a lot of energy right now. Everyone seems dialed in all at the same time.”
Royals 12, Missoula 3
Maciel threw 125 pitches while scattering 13 hits. He was able to limit his damage with 10 strikeouts and two walks while using a series of breaking pitches, in particular a curve and a slider. The Mavericks finished the game by stranding 11 runners on base.
Maciel gave up two runs in the first inning but then strung together seven consecutive scoreless frames. Complementing that was the Royals’ offense.
Billings had 15 hits, including six combined from Tyler Frieders and Jarrett Leinwand. Sam Evenson drove in four runs for the Royals. His two-out, two-run double in the gap in the eighth produced a double-digit lead.
“We’ve been kind of doing it the whole tournament,” said Royals coach Bryan Benjamin. “We’ve been having 12, 15 hits every game, we’re scoring multiple runs ... it’s just been great to see.
“The last half of the season, probably the last 20 games and into this tournament, we really started clicking, really started hitting the ball well, and it’s just kind of carried on through this tournament.”
The Mavericks got a 4-for-5 performance at the plate from leadoff hitter James Martin, and Dan Fraser collected three hits.
But things fell off with runners on base. That was due to Maciel, whose timely strikeouts stymied Missoula.
Longtime Mavericks coach Brent Hathaway declined to comment after the game.
Bozeman 15, Helena 5
After a first-round stumble, Bozeman is showing why it is the No. 1 seed.
Jake Murfitt had two hits and three RBIs, and Purpura was strong through six innings as the Bucks toppled Helena.
Purpura limited the Senators to five hits and was not charged with an earned run. He struck out four and walked three. Each team committed four errors.
The Bucks collected 15 hits. Ryan Evenson went 3 for 5 with two doubles and two RBIs as Bozeman won its third consecutive game since an 11-5 loss to the Billings Scarlets in the opening round on Wednesday.
“We were obviously disappointed when we lost that first game, but we just tried to focus on working our way back,” Purpura said.
Helena was eliminated a day after losing in the undefeated semifinal game on Friday
“There was probably some emotional toll that took on us,” Helena coach Dave Thennis said of his team losing 6-4 to Missoula in the undefeated game on Friday. “To Bozeman’s credit, everything they put the barrel on they got a hit.
“Things rolled for them and we just couldn’t stop that momentum. Best of luck to them. We just didn’t quite have our best game today.”