The Cranbrook Bandits Senior ‘A’ team are now well into their regular season, despite having just played their opening weekend.
The team did not have gradual start to their American Legion Montana League campaign, playing three doubleheaders in a row from Friday to Sunday which also included some travel. The Bandits started their conference play in Kalispell, splitting a pair of games with the Lakers, before coming home and losing two games to the Mission Valley Mariners, then splitting with the Bitterroot Bucs.
After a month of exhibition and tournament action leading up to the weekend, in which Cranbrook had a 4-5 record, Friday’s action started with a heartbreaker. Tied at seven after the fourth inning, the Bandits gave up five runs in the fifth and ultimately fell 16-8 to the Kalispell Lakers ‘A’ team.
Senior player Dan Mercandelli was on the mound for all six innings, allowing 14 hits and striking out two batters, while taking the loss. Hayden Mastel led the Bandits offensively with two hits in four at bats.
In the second of the doubleheader, the team managed to come out on top of a similarly tight affair. Down 4-1 after the first inning, the Bandits narrowed the gap to only being down 8-7 after the fifth and then had a huge seventh and final inning.
Led by Nevada Joseph’s double which scored three runs to not only tie the game, but take a lead, Cranbrook racked up the runs and finished the game with a 12-8 win. Brandon Thorn, Carson Meggison, Quinn Grist and Tanner McLean all shared the mound, while Mastel, Thorn, Mercandelli, Robert Nickell and Ryley Ducharme each collected multiple hits.
“We came out [and] hit the ball even better in game two and we battled back in the last inning,” said Bandits head coach Paul Mrazek. “We played much better defensively [too] and Kalispell is a solid team so to beat them in conference play is big for us.”
The Bandits then returned home for a doubleheader against a difficult Mission Valley Mariners squad. In two previous games during the preseason, Cranbrook struggled against Mission Valley and those woes continued on Saturday.
In the first game of the afternoon, the Mariners took an early 5-2 lead after the first and didn’t look back. Falling 16-4, the Bandits struggled to put runs on the board and also had a poor defensive outing.
Alex Smith started the game at the mound, lasting two and two-thirds innings, allowing four hits and seven runs. Tanner McLean and Quinn Grist entered the game from the bullpen, throwing one and two-thirds innings and two-thirds of an inning respectively. The team totaled ten hits with Nickell, Meggison, Mastel and Parker Thomson each managing two each.
In the second game of the day, the Mariners once again got the better of the Bandits but just barely. Despite not committing a single defensive error, the team lost 4-3 after going into the final inning tied 1-1.
In the seventh, Mission Valley scored three runs while Cranbrook only had two and their comeback fell just short after Ducharme grounded out with Mastel in scoring position.
Greg Rebagliati led things off on the hill and lasted six and two-thirds innings, allowing six hits and four runs while striking out five batters. Grist then threw one-third of an inning out of the bullpen.
“We definitely can play better [than we did] and need to play better to compete with them,” Mrazek said of the games against the Mariners.
With a tired and short bench on Sunday, the finale to the weekend was a wild pair of matches with the Bitterroot Bucs. In the first game, the Bandits went through six pitches in just three innings as they were blasted by 21 runs against.
Meggison, Thomson, Grist, Joseph, Smith and Ducharme all tried their luck at the mound but couldn’t find an answer for the Bucs dynamic hitting. The game was eventually called early, as a medical emergency for the umpire caused a delay before the two teams reset for a rematch.
Despite the ugly score of the first game, the Bandits found new life during the reset and took a commanding 3-0 lead after the first inning. Mastel delivered the team’s first runs of the afternoon with a single that brought home two of his teammates.
Pulling away for good with four runs in the third, Cranbrook’s success ultimately came down to the steady pitching of Nickell who threw for the first six innings and had 13 first pitch strikes and four strikeouts while earning the win in a 8-5 game.
Carson Meggison threw one inning in relief out of the bullpen, while on offence McLean led the team with two hits in three at bats.
“The Bucs are a very good hitting team,” Mrazek said. “They’re very good at the plate, very patient, have efficient swings, hit the ball very hard, and are a very good solid defensive team. It was nice to compete with them in the second game and get a W out of that. Robert Nickel pitched a helluva game there.”
While Mrazek admitted that playing six games in three days was difficult, he said that it’s nothing too unusual for the program and is ultimately helpful for their long term goals.
“We need to play lots of baseball,” he explained. “We need to experience how things happen in games. That’s when you really learn.”
The Bandits will travel to Libby next weekend for the annual Big Bucks tournament, before continuing their conference play which has 12 games remaining. The Montana League West ‘A’ Conference includes eight teams, who will all qualify for the year-end District tournament at the end of July.