BOZEMAN — Back spasms began bothering Missoula baseball standout Nick Yovetich toward the end of the regular season. But winning has a way of healing certain ills.
When it came down to it, Yovetich answered his coach’s call and pitched the Mavericks to a 4-3 victory over Bozeman to win the State AA Legion baseball championship Sunday at Heroes Park.
The left-handed Yovetich scattered six hits, struck out three and walked three in the complete-game win, which was his first appearance on the mound during the five-day tournament. Yovetich had a solid tournament at the plate — he had 10 hits, a home run and four RBIs — but he saved his signature performance for the title game, after which he was named MVP.
“That’s the way it should be,” longtime Missoula coach Brent Hathaway said of Yovetich. “You have an outgoing senior who’s the heartbeat of our program, and I’ve said from the beginning, as ‘Yovie’ goes we go.
“He got on the hill for us today and at about the sixth inning I told him, ‘You’ve got to put us on your shoulders. You’ve got to finish this thing.’ And he did.”
It was the Mavericks’ eighth Class AA state championship. Missoula already had an automatic berth to the Northwest Regional tournament as the host team, but didn’t settle for less than the state title.
“Our goal from Day 1, we knew we were hosting regionals and we knew that we were going to be there, but we didn’t want to be the team that was just there because we were hosting,” said Yovetich, who will play collegiate baseball at the University of San Francisco. “We wanted to prove that we deserve to be there.”
Despite the loss, the Bucks advanced to the regional tournament as the No. 2 team from the host state. Bozeman eliminated the Billings Royals with a 10-8 victory earlier Sunday, which in effect clinched its regional bid.
The Northwest Regional tournament begins Wednesday at Ogren Park at Allegiance Field in Missoula.
As the tournament progressed, and as the Mavericks kept winning, Yovetich’s troublesome back kept feeling better. That paved the way for Sunday’s performance, during which he threw three scoreless innings to end the game.
“I was just playing it safe, knowing we had the regional tournament next week. But we started winning, the back started feeling better, and there was just no way I could hold myself out.”
American Legion baseball rules mandate pitchers be allowed a maximum of 120 pitches per day. In the ninth inning Sunday, as Bozeman’s Tyler Dobie strode to the plate with two outs, Yovetich’s pitch count was, officially, at 119, a fact that was confirmed by Class AA chairman Carl Hennell after the game.
Per the rules, Yovetich was allowed to pitch to Dobie because he was below the threshold at the outset of what was a seven-pitch at bat. Yovetich got Dobie to ground out to second base to end the game. Had Dobie reached base, Hathaway would have been forced to bring in a relief pitcher.
It didn’t get that far, which proved bad news for Bozeman.
“We only had six hits, and that’s indicative of what (Yovetich) is capable of,” said Bozeman coach Rich Poliquin, whose team won four in a row after losing in the first round to the Billings Scarlets. “We came up a little short. All season we’ve kind of been lucky in those games where we found a way, but they held us off.”
Bozeman’s Morgan Hostetler had the game’s only home run, a solo shot that tied the game 3-3 in the sixth. But Missoula took the lead for good in the seventh when Beau King came through with an RBI double.
From there, Yovetich shut the Bucks down.
“It doesn’t get old, it just seems like it gets harder,” Hathaway said of Missoula’s latest state title. “This wasn’t easy. But the kids got it done. And Bozeman, what a resilient bunch. They spent the better part of eight hours out here in this heat, and they were still working to get that state title.”
Bucks oust Royals
Andy Purpura hit a solo home run and Bozeman capitalized on three Royals' errors in its win earlier Sunday. Bucks reliever Payton Price emerged from two one-out, bases-loaded scenarios unscathed to earn the win.
In the fourth, Price initiated a 1-3-2 double play to end one such threat, then negated the damage in the same situation in the sixth. The Royals also failed to push any runs across with two on and one out in the seventh.
“That was the main thing. We had a lot of base hits but we couldn’t get the clutch hit. It just wasn't there today," second-year Royals coach Bryan Benjamin said.
Brooks Zimmer closed the deficit to four runs in the eighth with a two-RBI single. He added a two-run triple with two outs in the ninth to make it a two-run game. Billings scored four runs in the ninth, but that’s as close as the Royals got.
“They battled hard all year," Benjamin said. "Even in that last inning, we were down six runs and we scored four. That’s just the way this team was. We never gave in and we never rolled over for anybody.”