As the State AA Legion baseball tournament begins Tuesday, Tanner Leenknecht’s career with the Billings Royals is nearing its conclusion. But … wow. What a way to go out.
Leenknecht, a seasoned, power-hitting catcher, is in the midst of a monster year, and is a catalyst of the Royals’ drive for a third consecutive championship. A fixture in the middle of the lineup, Leenknecht is hitting .406 with 10 home runs and a lofty 86 RBIs.
He has 16 doubles, nine triples and -- perhaps most impressive -- has struck out just 13 times in 221 plate appearances. Leenknecht’s performance helped the Royals (44-14) win nine of their final 10 regular season games and pushed them to the No. 1 seed in the conference.
“It’s awesome that I can do this in my last year,” Leenknecht said. “I just try to hit the first good pitch that I like, usually a fastball early in the count and see what I can do with it.
“Not thinking too much is the biggest thing for me. Once I start thinking about my swing, that’s when it all goes downhill. I’m just keeping it simple, going out and having fun playing the game.”
On July 7, Leenknecht hit for the cycle and had six RBIs as the Royals won the championship at the Cody Legg Memorial tournament in Bozeman. Twelve days later he slugged three home runs in the second game of a doubleheader sweep over Medicine Hat at Dehler Park.
Leenknecht’s got hot at the perfect time. He attributes this to an unconventional pregame habit.
“I’m not really taking things too seriously before games,” Leenknecht said. “I don’t take batting practice on the field; I just hit off the tee. I started doing that in Bozeman and it was working good, so I just decided to stay with that routine. Fifteen hacks off the tee and call it good.”
As a catcher, Leenknecht has nurtured a young pitching staff to solid results. For example, Beau Thomas and Austin Vogel, relative unknowns when the season began, are a combined 14-1 with a 3.14 ERA.
Off the field, Leenknecht has overcome perilous adversity. He was diagnosed with a heart murmur when he was just 24 days old, and has undergone two open heart surgeries to repair an aortic valve, first as a seventh grader and again in high school.
“My mom hounds me about my medicine every night,” Leenknecht said, grinning. “She’s keeping me on track.”
He has been given a clean bill of health.
“Tanner brings a lot to our club,” Royals coach Matt Kimmet said. “Not just on the field, but the way he carries himself and with the leadership he brings. The other kids respond well to that and look up to him.
“We’re going to need him to be big for us this week. It seems like when he’s rolling the team is rolling also.”
Around the bases
• The state tournament will be played north of the border at Spitz Stadium in Lethbridge, Alberta, with the Lethbridge Elks serving as the host team. Tournament information, including a link to live scoring, is available at www.lethbridgeamericanlegionbaseball.org.
• The top-seeded Royals open the tournament against No. 8 seed Helena at 3:30 p.m. The Royals swept the Senators in four games this season, but Kimmet remains cautious: “They played us tough all four times. They were all close games. So we know we’re going to have our hands full.”
• The Scarlets (35-19-1) enter the tournament as the No. 4 seed and will face No. 5 Bozeman in Tuesday’s first game at 9:30 a.m. The Scarlets have won seven of their past nine games, and have gotten a big offensive boost from both Jalen Garcia (who hit a walk-off home run to beat the Royals on July 18) and leadoff hitter Cole Jones, who was injured previously.
• Under coach Adam Hust, the Scarlets seek their first state championship since 2011. The Scarlets won three titles in a four-year stretch between 2008-11, and have captured 12 in all. A Billings team has won the championship in seven of the past nine seasons.