On average, around 3,100 fans show up to Dehler Park each night to cheer the Mustangs, making them the premier sports attraction in the city.
But — like everything else these days — the local professional baseball team has been upstaged by a band of 11- and 12-year-olds who are making history at the Little League World Series.
The Big Sky All-Stars of Billings are the first team from Montana ever to advance to the LLWS in Williamsport, Pa.
They’re also the first squad to win the first two games of their first-ever LLWS appearance since a team from Georgia did it way back in 1983.
And the Mustangs, who’ve been an institution in this town since 1948, have taken notice.
“It’s really great to see them winning,” Mustangs slugger Robert Maddox said Monday, prior to a 5-3 loss to Idaho Falls. “If I ever get to meet them, I’ll just tell them congratulations.
“They’re representing the whole city and the state of Montana really well.”
It’s been (very) well documented, but to recap, the boys from Billings defeated Rapid City, S.D., 6-4 in their Series opener on Thursday, and then beat Lafayette, La., 3-1 on Sunday to advance the semifinal round of the U.S. pool.
Maddox grew up playing Little League baseball in Cleveland, but said he never came close to playing in the World Series.
Neither did third baseman Sean Buckley, who grew up in Tampa, Fla.
Buckley, a sixth-round pick by the Cincinnati Reds in the 2011 draft, said the Big Sky All-Stars are living one of his childhood dreams.
“My host mom told me about them making it to the Little League World Series, and I was kind of surprised,” Buckley said. “But I hear they’re 2-0 right now, so it’s great for them and great for the city. I’m excited for them.
“That’s what I always wanted to do every year when Little League started, to try and make it there. That was the ultimate goal.”
Though he’s busy with the grind of managing his own club, first-year Mustangs skipper Pat Kelly has been able to catch a few innings of the Big Sky All-Stars on TV.
Kelly, a veteran of 22 seasons as a minor league manager, likes what he’s seen.
“Fundamentally, they play the game really well,” said the 55-year-old Kelly, who played Little League in Santa Maria, Calif. “Obviously they’re very well coached because they know what to do. There’s no panic. And at that age, to play with that kind of maturity, it’s fun to see.
“It’s something every Little Leaguer dreams of, and for them to get to go to Williamsport is terrific.”
The dream continues for the Big Sky All-Stars Wednesday night as they take on Huntington Beach, Calif., in the semis at 6 p.m. local time. The game will be broadcast on ESPN.
Juan Perez, a recent call-up, made his Dehler Park debut Monday night. The shortstop went 1 for 5 with a double in the fifth that caromed off the top of the right field wall.
Perez joined the Mustangs on August 17 after a 33-game stint with the AZL Reds, where he hit .346. Through five games in Billings, Perez is hitting .292 with three doubles, two triples, four runs and four RBIs.
The strong-armed Perez, a non-drafted free agent signing in 2009, has also played errorless defense.
“He gives us a leadoff man and another left-handed hitter in the lineup,” Kelly said. “He’s got a real good feel for the game. I’ve been impressed the first week we’ve had him.”
Inside the game
HIGHLIGHTS: Mustangs starter Tony Cingrani had eight strikeouts and one walk in five innings — his longest outing of the season. He completed an “Immaculate Inning” in the first, striking out the side on nine pitches. The Mustangs took the lead in the sixth when Juan Silva beat out a two-out grounder that scored Sean Buckley with the go-ahead run. Silva later left with an apparent knee injury and is listed as day-to-day.
GAME CHANGER: With the score tied 3-3 in the eighth inning, Nick DelGuidice hit an RBI single and Gonzaga product Tyler Chism followed with a sacrifice fly to provide the winning margin.
QUOTABLE: “I left the ball over the middle (of the plate) a little too much. I gave up seven hits. My changeup was working, my slider would randomly work, but I just tried to throw strikes.” — Mustangs P Tony Cingrani
UP NEXT: Billings and Idaho Falls play the second game of their current three-game series Tuesday at 7 p.m. at Dehler Park. The Mustangs’ Ismael Guillon (1-5, 7.20 ERA) is expected to take the hill against Chukars starter and former University of Oregon standout Kellen Moen.
Inside the series
Ballots for the Pioneer League all-star team were turned in league-wide on Monday. The all-star team won’t be announced until the end of the season, but several players from both Billings and Idaho Falls likely drew consideration, including Cingrani, Buckley, Maddox and reliever James Allen from the Mustangs, and third baseman Daniel Mateo, outfielder Runey Davis and starter Aaron Brooks from the Chukars. ... Mustangs CF Kurtis Muller was called up to Single-A Dayton during Billings’ most recent road trip. Muller was leading the Pioneer League with 24 stolen bases at the time of his promotion. ... An errant throw from an Idaho Falls player during the warm-up prior to the bottom of the ninth inning Monday night struck a female fan seated in the stands behind first base. Paramedics were called, and the fan was carried out of the stadium on a backboard stretcher.