Belgrade 1 (copy)

Belgrade’s Cooper VanLuchene is tagged out by Gallatin Valley third baseman Isaac Richardson earlier this season at Medina Field.

Hunter Johnson thinks he’s found his pitch.

He grew up thinking his curveball would be his favorite and best weapon. Back then, he couldn’t throw a slider for a strike. But the more he threw and worked on it, the more he fell in love with that slider.

And that’s the pitch Helena batters grew to loathe Friday. Johnson threw five scoreless innings for No. 2-seeded Gallatin Valley as the Outlaws defeated No. 3 Helena in a Southern District A Tournament second-round game at Heroes Park.

While Gallatin Valley faced bases-loaded situations and dealt with errors, Johnson’s slider prevailed. That pitch helped him find a rhythm and in turn kept Helena from converting those chances into runs.

“The whole thing was to not let them score a lot of runs and score a lot of runs for ourselves, to get us that good cushion and lead so we didn’t really have to have a lot of pressure on us,” Johnson said. “We could play with a lead and just go out there and ball out.”

Johnson earned the victory as he struck out five batters while giving up seven hits and four walks. Of his 100 pitches, 54 were strikes. He also helped his cause by cranking out a triple and a double and scoring a run.

He threw 45 pitches in a win against Helena earlier this season, and he left that game thinking he should rely on his slider. He wishes he would’ve established his fastball earlier, but his recipe worked nonetheless.

If Outlaws manager Duwayne Scott had any critique, he wishes Johnson would’ve attacked the strike zone more so he could’ve limited his pitch count. Maybe that way he could’ve lasted the entire game instead of exiting after five frames.

But Johnson felt comforted by his team’s offense. Johnson, Connor Johnson, Michael Nehring and Michael Jones all totaled two hits apiece. Connor Johnson and Nehring drove in two runs each.

“That gives you a lot of momentum,” Hunter Johnson said. “If you go out there to pitch and you already have a lot of runs on the board, you can’t really complain about it. If you pitch with a lead and you know if you get runners on, you’re not too worried about it. You just go after the batter.”

Gallatin Valley (36-16) put pressure on Helena (28-24) early when Nehring and Jones hit back-to-back one-run doubles in the first inning. Gabriel Delgatty added to the lead with an RBI in the third.

But the Outlaws put the game out of reach, considering how Hunter Johnson was pitching, with a four-run fifth. Isaac Richardson and Dalton Mitchell both drove in a run, then Connor Johnson added a couple more on a single to center field.

After Helena and the Outlaws split a doubleheader last week, Connor Johnson was ready for a close game. Gallatin Valley simply came up with timely hits.

“It’s my job to come out and score runs right off the bat,” Connor Johnson said. “It’s big for me to move around and get some runs for our team.”

Helena’s only scoring of the game came when Quinn Belcher and Trysten Mooney scored off the bat of Joel Anderson in the sixth. Mooney finished with two hits while Forrest Suero was 2 for 3 for Helena.

Scott was happy that Patrick Dietz, who pitched the 1 1/3 innings after Hunter Johnson, could minimize Helena’s chances to save Nehring’s and Jones’ arms for the rest of the tournament. While Helena will play No. 4-seeded Dillon in a loser-out game at 1 p.m. Saturday, Gallatin Valley advanced to play fifth-seeded Butte in the third round at 4 p.m.

If they continue to excel from the mound and score like they’re capable of, Scott thinks the Outlaws will be just fine.

“We’re right where we want to be,” Scott said. “This is right where this group should be.”

Colton Pool can be reached at cpool@dailychronicle.com or 406-582-2690. Follow him on Twitter @CPoolReporter.