Rookie right-hander Shayne Walker couldn’t wipe the smile off his face.
The 15-year-old native of Creston pitched a complete game in the Cranbrook Bandits home-opener at Confederation Park, helping guide his squad to a 5-1 victory over the Kootenai Valley Rangers in American Legion Baseball action Saturday afternoon.
“It feels pretty good,” Walker (3-0) said. “Had the boys backing me up all the way. Just have to go with the flow, I guess.
“Keeping the ball down, picking at the knees and having my boys back me up [helped me go the distance].”
With the Bandits playing their first home game of the 2015 American Legion Baseball season, head coach Paul Mrazek chose to hand the ball to his rookie ace in the first game of a doubleheader.
It didn’t take long for Walker to show why his coach has so much faith in him.
Walker went the distance, throwing seven innings off the mound, whiffing three Rangers batters, while only giving up six hits and two walks.
The only run against the Bandits on the day came on a passed ball during the fifth inning. With no earned runs allowed, Walker improved his ERA to 1.07 through five appearances this season.
“He keeps his pitch count down,” Mrazek said of Walker. “He struggled a little bit, but after that he got in his groove and was able to, for the most part, get ahead of the hitters. That way, he’s not going deep into the count and they’re not going to see a lot of pitches.”
The rookie right-hander got through seven innings of work having only thrown 91 pitches Saturday afternoon.
The run support was there for Walker, as the Bandits jumped out to a 2-0 lead in the bottom of the first inning.
Centre fielder Connor Armstrong got the bats going with a run-scoring triple that brought third baseman Robert Nickell home for a 1-0 lead.
Armstrong finished the game 2-for-4, with an RBI and a run.
“It’s nice to play at home in front of people you know,” Armstrong said Saturday. “Having one win is nice.
“Picking our pitches and being on time, hitting gaps [gave us success at the plate].”
With the next at-bat, first baseman Brendan Bird grounded in a fielder’s choice, but brought Armstrong in from third for a 2-0 advantage.
Like Armstrong, Bird wrapped the opening game of the doubleheader with a 2-for-4 performance at the plate. He added two RBIs and one run for good measure, while walking twice.
That was really all the Bandits needed with solid team defense limiting the visiting Rangers to one run in the opening game.
If his contributions from the mound weren’t enough, Walker got into the action offensively as well, going 2-for-3 at the plate and scoring one run on a balk to put his team ahead 3-0 in the bottom of the second inning.
“Making the pitcher work, putting balls in play and having a sharp eye,” Walker said. “That’s what gave us success [at the plate].”
The Bandits padded the lead by adding a run in the bottom of the fifth inning and two more in the bottom of the sixth.
After cruising to victory in the opening game of Saturday’s doubleheader, things didn’t go quite as smoothly for the Bandits in the back half against the Rangers.
Building a 1-0 lead in the bottom of the second inning, the Bandits then fell behind as the Rangers rolled to a four-run third inning, before extending the lead to 6-1 in the top of the fifth.
A spirited rally made the final score close, but it wasn’t enough as the Bandits fell 6-4 to split Saturday’s doubleheader with the Rangers.
“We got down on ourselves,” Armstrong said, “We got back into the game too late to comeback for a win.
“[You have to] keep positive and not get down on yourself. [When you’re down] you’re not going to want to be in the game and you’re going to make more errors and less hits because you’re not focused.
“We have to work together as a team, not get down on ourselves and we’ll be able to pull out some more wins.”
Bird (0-1) started the game on the mound for the Bandits, lasting 2.2 innings before giving way to Daniel Mercandelli.
Bird was tagged with the loss, but wasn’t the only Bandits pitcher to have a tough go as Mercandelli only lasted 0.2 innings before Noah Rennette came on in relief for 0.2 innings.
Jake Bromley finished the day on the bump, lasting three innings.
A three-run sixth inning made the game interesting as shortstop Carson Meggison laid down a bunt, which paired with a Rangers’ fielding error to bring two runs across.
On the following at-bat, second baseman Rylan D’Etcheverry slapped a single to centre field, brining Meggison home to make it 6-4. That’s as close as the Bandits got.
“It was great to win the first game. We played pretty solid,” Mrazek said. “We need to tidy a couple things up, but that was a good start.
“But we can’t go into the second game and go in flat like that. We can’t go from playing so well to that flat, making errors and not hitting the ball.”
The doubleheader split with the Rangers leaves the Bandits 6-3 in the early stages of their American Legion Baseball season.
Sunday afternoon, the Bandits travelled to Pincher Creek for a doubleheader against Fort Macleod. Results were unavailable by print deadline Sunday evening.
“We’re progressing well,” Mrazek said. “Offensively, we’ve got to hit the ball on the ground. Fly balls don’t take bad hops.
“When you hit a fly ball, he catches it and the play is over. When you hit a ground ball, he catches it and then he has to throw it. It’s a much more difficult game and we’re not making it difficult on the other team by hitting the ball in the air.”
Next weekend the Bandits travel to Whitefish to face Glacier ‘B’ Twins on Saturday, May 30, before visiting the Libby Loggers on Sunday, May 31.
Next home action for the Bandits comes Saturday, June 6, when the Mission Valley Mariners visit Confederation Park.