Legion Cubbies trending upward with the heat

M.P. Regan
Wednesday, July 22, 2020

A ‘maybe next year’ team for the first half of their 2020 season, the young Dillon Cubs this past week and a half progressed and impressed enough to raise the possibility that maybe ‘next year’ could be this year.

During that six-day interim in the hottest stretch of the year so far, the rapidly improving Cubs rose along with the temperatures, recording their biggest win of the season at home and then the next day delivering their finest all-around performance of 2020 during a doubleheader sweep at Bozeman, about 20 miles west of where they started their 4-2 run in the sun six days earlier, on July 13, with a sweep of the Livingston Braves.

“Things are really coming together for us,” said Cubs Head Coach Greg Fitzgerald, whose team put together a seven-game winning streak that culminated with a thrilling 12-11 win over Belgrade on Saturday at Cubs Field in Dillon.

“It’s always good to knock off the best team in the conference,” said Cole Pulliam of his Cubs hanging just the second league defeat of the Southern A Conference season on Belgrade (19-2) in a thrilling back-and-forth game ultimately decided by Pulliam’s sacrifice fly to right field in the seventh and final inning.

“I feel like it was a big confidence booster. We’ve proven we can lose to anybody in the conference,” said Pulliam, whose Cubs (12-14) have indeed dropped at least one game to each of their Southern A stablemates in a season they began with six straight league loses.

“Now, we know we can beat anybody in the conference.”

The Cubs proved that under trying circumstances Saturday, falling behind early, 6-0 to a Belgrade team rolling on its patented small-ball tactics that keys off getting runners on base any way possible and then advancing them in any manner available.

Down on the scoreboard, the Cubs didn’t get down psychologically. They stiffened on defense, continued to get solid pitching from starter Tyler Lagunas, and borrowed some Bandit offensive tactics to climb back within a run of Belgrade by scoring five runs in the bottom of the third inning on three singles, three walks, a wild pitch and a sacrifice fly.

“I noticed we weren’t really getting down on ourselves. We just kept grinding. And we eventually got in position for an opportunity to win,” said Pulliam, who put the Cubs ahead, 7-6, with a double into rightcenterfield in the bottom of the fourth.

Pete Gibson put the Cubbies ahead again, 11-10, in the bottom of the sixth with a two-out, solo home run to the opposite field.

“Pete does a really good job of extending his arms and hitting the ball deep,” said Fitzgerald of the powerful senior, who hit the blast off a fastball on the outside corner of the plate.

“You could tell he hit it well, but you couldn’t tell how well, until it went over the fence,” said Fitzgerald.

Belgrade small-balled their way from behind for the third time to tie the game in the top of the seventh and final inning.

Then the Cubs took the game in the bottom half of the seventh led off by their no. 3 and no. 4 hitters, Jace Fitzgerald and Connor Curnow, working fullcount walks.

“Our guys did a nice job of being patient and getting free passes and capitalized on them,” said the Cubs head coach of a virtue his team has quietly employed all season.

Kalen Konen grounded a ball deep into the hole between the shortstop and third baseman for an infield hit to load the bases and set up Pulliam’s sacrifice fly, hit just far enough out to right field to bring Fitzgerald home with the winning run.

“It was a fastball outside that I got under just a little,” recalled Pulliam of the pivotal pitch.

“I was just looking for an opportunity to get the runner home—whether it was with a base hit or sac fly didn’t matter.”

After a letdown in Game Two, which Belgrade won, 14-2, the Cubs travelled on Sunday to Bozeman, where they suffered their second straight loss, going down to the Bozeman Bucks A team by the same score they’d bettered Belgrade by the day before.

Then the Cubs rebounded with their most impressive performance of the season in a 10-1 shellacking of the Bucks (12-12).

“If I could pick one game this year, that was our most complete game—offensively, defensively, pitching,” said the Cubs skipper of the Cubs victory in the second game on Sunday in Bozeman.

“Pete Gibson and Connor Curnow hit the cover off the ball, and Cole Pulliam did doing an excellent job of calling pitches and keeping the ball in front of him. He threw out a couple of guys again today,” said Fitzgerald of the Cubs third-year starter at catcher, who threw out five baserunners from behind the plate the day before in the doubleheader against Belgrade.

”The thing that is helping me the most to throw harder is lifting, bulking up and getting stronger,” said Pulliam, who is throwing the ball with noticeably more zip from behind the plate this season and also puts plenty of mustard on the ball when throwing from the mound as one of the members of the Cubs regular starting pitching rotation.

The leader of that rotation, Jace Fitzgerald, pitched his second straight stellar game on Sunday, when he yielded just one run and four hits while walking only one and striking out seven in a complete-game performance.

“Jace was phenomenal,” said the Cubs manager of the staff ace who continues to stifle enemy bats with his blazing fastball and tight curve.

“And our defense played really well behind them with no errors. Defensively, that was our best game we have played all year.”

Offensively, the Cubs exploded in the seventh, scoring eight runs to climax a performance at the plate that included 12 hits—with multi-hit efforts by Johnny Reiser, Curnow, Konen and Cole Johnston.

The previous week, the Cubs proved even more potent with their bats, scoring 30 runs in 15-8 and 15-9 wins in a July 13 doubleheader sweep at Livingston.

“Honestly, in that first game, we would have put up 20 runs, but the wind was blowing in at about 20 miles per hour,” said Coach Fitzgerald of the Braves pitchers best friend that day.

“We barreled up a lot of balls that would have been home runs on any other day,” said the Dillon skipper of his increasingly dangerous batting lineup.

“Our bats really came out for those games. After we got a few runs, we got a few more, and then everybody started hitting. It was kind of a chain reaction,” said Pulliam, who saw his teammates slump at the plate during the early stages of the 2020 season that began with six straight conference losses for Dillon.

“We’ve really turned around our hitting. At the beginning of the season, we were not hitting very well. But we’ve won a lot of games lately and our hitting in those games has been very, very good,” said Pulliam, one of the elders on the Cub roster who just finished his junior year in high school.

“It’s just been a matter of time, working out the kinks and learning how to hit, especially for our younger kids. They are figuring out what kind of pitches to expect in certain counts,” said Pulliam, whose seen his team’s fortunes rise with its team batting average.

“I feel like we’re peaking at the right time. If we keep improving and don’t have any letdowns, I feel like we have a really good chance at the district tourney.”

Next up for the Cubs, a home doubleheader against the Gallatin Valley Outlaws on Saturday, July 25, starting at 1 p.m. on Cubs Field in Ray Lynch Park, followed by a Sunday doubleheader on the road against the Missoula Mavericks (whom the Cubs played in a doubleheader yesterday that started after the Dillon Tribune went to press (see next week’s Tribune for a recap of all six games).

After all that, the Cubs will travel back to GVO for the Southern A District Tournament, set for July 30 to Aug. 2 in Three Forks, with berths at the state tournament in Lewistown the following week on the line.