The downpour began around 3:30 p.m. Monday afternoon, drenching Dehler Park without apology, seeming not the least bit interested in the Mustangs and the hoopla surrounding opening night.
But the rain eventually tapered off, and grounds crew workers jostled to get the field in shape for the scheduled 7:05 start time. For the 3,824 fans that came to the park, the Pioneer League baseball season had arrived.
The Mustangs, though, couldn’t deliver a win. Billings was undone by a critical error in the eighth and couldn’t hold on to a late lead, falling 7-4 to North division rival Great Falls.
“It just comes down to making plays,” said second baseman Ty Washington, who is back for his
second season with the Mustangs. “But it’s the first game. (The Voyagers) put themselves in some good situations and they got it done. Hats off to them.”
The eighth inning was the killer. Up by a run with two outs and a man on, Mustangs third baseman Kevin Franklin threw wide of first base on a routine grounder by Patrick Palmeiro and Great Falls had life.
Ryan Leonards, Chevy Clarke and Toby Thomas followed with consecutive run-scoring hits to give the Voyagers a three-run lead. Clarke’s was an opposite-field two-run double that banged off the wall in left.
A one-run lead turned into a three-run deficit and the Mustangs couldn’t climb back. It was a hard-luck loss for reliever Fabian Roman, a Mustangs veteran who wasn’t charged with any of those runs.
“Up to that point I think we played well,” said Dick Schofield, who was managing in his first game as Billings’ new skipper. “It was a two-hopper and Frank … the ball just sailed on him up the line. It won’t be the last time. On a nightly basis things like that will happen.”
The loss dampened a firebrand performance by Mustangs outfielder Argenis Aquino. The 20-year-old Dominican, who spent time in Billings last season, went 3 for 4 and fell a triple short of the cycle. His two-run homer in the sixth put the Mustangs up 4-3.
“To be really good in this game you’ve got to be consistent,” Schofield said. “Not taking anything away from a great game, but it’s over. Hopefully (Aquino) comes back tomorrow. He had some really good at-bats late in extended spring and has made a lot of improvements.”
Starting pitcher Tyler Mahle, a seventh-round draft pick of the Cincinnati Reds in 2013, met his 70-75 pitch count and went five innings. Mahle allowed three earned runs on five hits while striking out four and walking three.
Mahle served up a first-pitch home run to Palmeiro in the third, and later gave up a two-strike, two-run single to Palmeiro in the fourth. Palmeiro, by the way, is the son of former big league star Rafael Palmeiro.
Schofield said right-handed pitcher Jeremy Kivel will start Tuesday for the Mustangs against Great Falls. The 6-foot-1, 205-pound Kivel was a 10th-round pick in the 2012 draft.
“Firm fastball, a good slider. He’s just kind of a power pitcher,” Schofield said of Kivel. “He’s not a real big kid but he’s got a great arm. Like anybody, when guys like that throw strikes they do well.”