After claiming the Montana State B Championship last season, the Cranbrook Bandits picked up right where they left off, claiming tournament victory in Libby, Mont., this past weekend.
The Bandits went 3-0 with three resounding victories to start their American Legion Baseball season.
Cranbrook’s boys of summer opened the campaign with a 14-2 victory over Noxon, before clobbering Missoula by a final margin of 9-2. In the final game of the weekend, the Bandits cruised to an 11-1 win over the Kootenai Valley Rangers.
“It was great to start, not from square one, but pretty much where we left off and start with three wins,” said Paul Mrazek, Bandits head coach, Monday morning. “I haven’t seen that before with the Bandits in my eight years. I’m into my ninth season now.
“This is the first year the team has gone down [to Libby], swept and won three [games]. Last year, eight wins in a row was a record for the Bandits and we’re starting off the same [this season].”
Saturday morning against Noxon, the Bandits sent rookie right-hander Shayne Walker to the mound.
The Creston native responded with four innings of stellar pitching, striking out seven batters, while allowing three hits and walking two others. Walker, 14, threw 87 pitches and registered a 0.00 ERA and 1.250 WHIP to claim the win in his first outing.
Walker (1-0) got all the run support he needed, with the Bandits jumping out to a 7-0 lead before Noxon found a way on to the scoreboard.
Steven Palmer was shackled with the loss for Noxon, striking out three while allowing four hits and issuing nine walks.
Catcher Brandon Ouilette knocked in four runs to lead the Bandits offense, while both Noxon runs came on fielding errors.
“[Walker] has some good basic mechanics,” Mrazek said of his rookie pitcher. “He’s got good velocity. He’s only 14 years old and he’s a big kid. He wants to be on the mound and he wants the ball. He’s only going to get better.
“He’s a great addition to the team.”
Playing a double-header Saturday, the Bandits took on Missoula in the afternoon outing.
Another quick start fuelled the Bandits victory as the Cranbrook squad grabbed a 5-0 lead in the bottom of the first inning.
Right-hander Devon Marra (1-0) took to the mound. Through six innings of work, Marra fanned 13 batters en route to the win.
Carter Baughman started the game for Missoula, taking the loss after only one inning of work.
Marra and second baseman Noah Renette each chipped in two RBIs for Cranbrook.
Playing their final game of the weekend Sunday morning, the Bandits went three-for-three in jumping out to quick leads, amassing a 10-1 advantage after the top of the third inning, en route to defeating the Kootenai Valley Rangers 11-1.
“I want [our players] to have the same approach and the same intensity for every single inning out there, offensively and defensively,” Mrazek said. “I don’t want anything to change. I want them to stay focused every pitch and every inning.
“Our approach as a team doesn’t change. I don’t want them sitting back on their heels thinking, ‘We’ve got a three-run lead, everything’s fine.'”
Right-hander Connor Armstrong earned the victory against the Rangers, going three innings with one earned run and one hit. Armstrong (1-0) walked two and struck out two others before giving way to left-hander Tyler Thorn.
For Kootenai Valley, Garret McNeil was tagged with the loss as he was knocked around for eight earned runs in three innings of work.
Brendan Bird, Marra and Cedar Kemp took care of the bulk of the offense for the Bandits, with each knocking in two runs.
“We put the ball in play a lot and we had a lot of extra base hits,” Mrazek said of his offense. “We ran the bases well.
“The kids are really implementing [the small ball] well and getting used to our sense of strategy.”
Bird knocked three doubles over the weekend.
Next up, the Bandits head to Kalispell, Mont., for a trio of games beginning Friday, May 15. Cranbrook opens the weekend against Edmonton, before facing Calgary ‘A’ Saturday morning.
Heading into the second weekend of the season, Bird leads the team with a .727 on-base percentage (OBP). After three games, the infielder has registered a batting line of .500/.727/1.000.
Each of Armstrong, Marra and Walker carry 1-0 records on the mound into the Bandits’ Kalispell trip.
The Bandits home-opener at Confederation Park in Cranbrook is slated for Saturday, May 23 against the Kootenai Valley Rangers.