Cubs complete Legion season in Cub style

M.P. Regan
Wednesday, August 5, 2020
On the home stretch

Cub senior Pete Gibson slides across home plate as teammate Jace Fitzgerald watches during the Cubs’ 13-6 win over Anaconda on Friday at the Southern A District Tournament in Three Forks. M.P. Regan photo

The Dillon Cubs concluded and aptly summarized their 2020 baseball season at last week, battling to the bittersweet end of the Southern A District Tournament in Three Forks.

“We had a lot of peaks and valleys this season, but at the end we were peaking,” said Cubs Head Coach Greg Fitzgerald, whose team revived from an 0-6 start this spring to go on a lengthy winning streak over the summer and beat every team in the Southern A Conference at least once—including district regular-season and tourney champs Belgrade.

Last weekend, the Cubs rebounded from a slow start to play some terrific baseball and win a game at their district tourney.

“Credit to our players—they stuck through it,” said Fitzgerald, whose Cubs triumphed Friday over Anaconda via the mercy rule at the district tourney after getting shut out in their tourney opener on Thursday by the Bozeman Bucks, and then battled bravely against one of the state’s finest Legion baseball pitchers in their season finale Saturday against the second-seeded Butte Miners.

“Saturday was a really good baseball game,” said the Cubs skipper of the Butte Miners’ 3-1 victory over the Cubs in a do-or-die game for both teams in the double-elimination district tourney.

“Ryan Wahl is one of the three or four top pitchers in the state,” said Fitzgerald of the Miners’ staff ace, whom the Cubs pushed to his pitch limit Saturday.

The Cubs ace, Jace Fitzgerald, proved every bit as good as Wahl—though far less fortunate—in the pitcher’s duel.

“Jace had a really good outing. Bute had five hits—maybe one on a hard-hit ball. The others were what you call seeing-eye singles,” said Fitzgerald of a quartet of Miner holy rollers that squibbed just out of reach of Cub fielders.

Butte grabbed a run and a 2-1 lead in the bottom of the fifth inning with a pair of singles and some heady base running.

Dillon’s Johnny Reiser kept Dillon close with what may well have been the defensive play of the district tourney when he dove to catch a fly ball in foul territory and then rose to nail the runner trying to score by tagging up from third, ending the Miners’ rally and keeping his Cubs just a run behind

The Cubs, who scored their run in the fourth inning when Jace Fitzgerald tagged on a sacrifice fly hit by Kale Konen, loaded the bases in the top of the sixth. But Wahl bore down to notch one of his six strikeouts on the day to end the threat.

Butte netted another run in the bottom of the frame in a rally that included a bunt single, and Dillon proved unable to respond in the top half of the final inning, the last of their season.

The Cubs responded with vigor the previous day after falling behind, 3-0, in the first inning against Anaconda in a knockout game on Friday at the district tourney.

One of the Southern A Conference’s most gifted base runners, Konen scored on a pitch that got away from the Anaconda catcher and then teammate Cole Johnston continued his hot hitting streak by lining an RBI single into left field to get Dillon within a run in the second frame.

The Cubbies seized control of the game with a big rally in the bottom of the fourth begun by a line single to left field off the bat of Colin Herman, who scored two batters later on a double to the left-field fence by Johnston.

Patient at the plate all season, the Cubs then scored three more runs off bases-loaded free passes to take a 7-4 lead before Pete Gibson singled to center field to bring home two teammates to give Dillon a 9-4 lead.

An infield single by Johnston later in the inning added another run to the Cub total and gave Dillon a commanding six-run lead that the A’s would not seriously threaten the rest of the way, thanks in large part to pitcher Cole Pulliam.

Continuing his late-season emergence as one of his team’s top pitchers as well as its regular catcher, Pulliam seemed to gain strength and velocity as the game went on, going the distance on the mound as others wilted in the sweltering heat.

Jace Fitzgerald singled home Herman for the game clincher in the bottom of the sixth inning to secure the 13-6 win by the Cubs over Anaconda via the tourney’s seven-run mercy rule.

The Cubbies got no mercy the previous day from Bozeman Buck starting pitcher Jackson Burke, who no-hit Dillon across the abbreviated game’s five innings which ended with a 10-0 Bozeman victory.

The bad luck of their draw for the district tourney put the fifth-seeded Cubs up against Bozeman’s ace Burke in their first game of the tourney, and second-seeded Butte’s top hurler Wahl in their finale.

But, as always, the Cubs persevered, without complaint.

“Our kids stayed committed through the whole season. You didn’t’ have to tell them what to do,” said Cubs Head Coach Fitzgerald.

“I was just proud of the way they conducted themselves. They did things the right way and conducted themselves as good stewards of the community,” said Fitzgerald, whose team faced uncertainty about their season from before it started, right up until the end of it.

“This season was different because we never knew if it would continue,” said Fitzgerald, pointing out that many youth baseball programs around the country cancelled or short-circuited their 2020 seasons due to the coronavirus pandemic—and then noting that the Bitterroot Red Sox decided to forego playing the rest of their season the day before the Cubs opened their district tourney last Thursday due to a positive coronavirus test for a family member of one of the Red Sox players.

“We knew we had to do things the right way, and our board did an excellent job of coming up with a plan,” said Fitzgerald of the Cubs boards efforts to keep the team playing and safe.

“The kids really enjoyed playing this season and being around each other, and getting to participate in America’s Game. I hope they will regard it as special memory.”

The special memory of getting to play a baseball season amidst an ongoing pandemic will join a whole host of other great memories of playing for the Cubs for the program’s two seniors this season—Cole Johnston and Pete Gibson.

“You make great memories and friendships with these guys that last for years,” said Cub senior Pete Gibson of the highlight of his six years in the Cubs program.

“The first things that come to mind are all the good memories I’ve made with my teammates, from the first year when I was just a seventh grader playing for the B team to a freshman starting for the A team,” said Gibson’s fellow Cub senior Cole Johnston of looking back at his six years with Dillon’s Legion baseball team.

“I wouldn’t even consider them my teammates—these guys are my brothers. It’s been a great opportunity to play with these guys,” said Johnston, who Fitzgerald credited, along with Gibson, with helping tutor the new players on a young Cubs team that got even younger early this season when two of its starters went down to seasonending injuries in June.

“I enjoyed helping these younger guys develop like the older guys did with me when I was young—so they can go on to help develop the next generation and keep the tradition going,” said Johnston.

“I learned so much from those guys,” recalled Gibson of older Cubs like Logan Wilson and Nate Simkins, an assistant coach for the Cubs this season Gibson will join this fall as a member of the University of Montana Western football team.

“They really taught me a lot, and a lot of what I try to pass on to these younger guys, I got from them.”

Even the Cubs head coach said he has benefitted personally from the efforts of Gibson and Johnston as Cubs.

“I feel like I’m a better person,” said Fitzgerald, “for having coached these guys.”