Call it new life, renewed hope or a reboot. By any name, the Pioneer League’s split-season format means a second chance for 75 percent of the teams.
The Mustangs closed the first half of the season with a 6-3 win over the Great Falls Voyagers at Dehler Park, providing Billings with the perfect springboard into the second half, which begins on Saturday night.
“We came out and wanted to make sure we were in a good spot for the second half,” Mustangs outfielder Jimmy Pickens said. “I think now that the first half is over, it’s kind of like a re-start. You get a re-start button.”
Great Falls, which won the North Division, and Orem, which won the South, don’t need a second chance. By winning their first-half titles, those teams are in the postseason. Now it’s up to the league’s other six teams to chase the second-half titles and the playoff spots that go with those pennants.
If there is a repeat winner in either division, the team with the second-best overall record in the division claims the playoff spot.
“Basically, it’s new life,” Mustangs manager Dick Schofield said. “It’s fun to play in the playoffs at any level. Even though (the Pioneer League) is about development, you want to win every time you go out there. The players know tomorrow is the first day of the second half, so it’s a clean slate. Let’s see how it goes.”
The Mustangs finished the first half with a 17-21 record, six games behind the Voyagers. Despite ranking third in the eight-team league in runs scored and second in home runs, the Mustangs have yet to win more than three games in a row.
That’s something that both the players and Schofield want to change.
“We just need to be more consistent,” said Pickens, who had a bases-loaded running catch to end the fourth inning. “These are kind of the dog days, so if you can come to the ballpark with a happy attitude and are happy to be here … if we can keep coming here and grinding those things out and get those four, five wins in a row, that’s really going to make a difference in the long haul.”
KEY MOMENT: Pickens, playing left field, chased down Jackson Laumann’s long, based-loaded fly ball to end the fourth that helped preserve a 3-0 lead for the Mustangs after they had scored all three runs in the bottom of the third. Pickens had to immediately turn and run toward left-center, tracking the ball much like a football receiver and making the catch on the run. “Any time you get a shut-down inning it’s really big,” he said. “But in the course of the game, it was still pretty early so you never know what can happen. But it got us some momentum and we could come out and go from there.’
AT THE PLATE: Stay hot, Aristides Aquino. The Mustangs’ lanky right fielder connected on a two-run double and a two-run homer, driving in four runs. In his last nine games, Aquino has hit five home runs and driven in 17 while batting .395. “He’s had a week-and-a-half stretch where it’s just man amongst boys,” Schofield said. “If he keeps doing this, maybe he might not be here by the end of the year. Good for him, bad for us.”
ON THE MOUND: Fabian Roman, the third Mustangs pitcher, picked up the win with 11/3 shutout innings to improve to 2-2. Soid Marquez, making a spot start for the Mustangs, had some wildness, but didn’t allow a run in 31/3 innings. Great Falls starter Matt Ball (2-2) gave up all six Mustangs run in 41/3 innings.
ON DECK: The Mustangs and Voyagers play game two of their three-game series on Saturday night at Dehler Park.