Wes Mugarian was a fresh-faced 19-year-old when he was the opening-night pitcher for the Billings Mustangs last June. He gets the call again Monday night as the Mustangs open the 2012 Pioneer League season against the Missoula Osprey, and he has a little different perspective now.
“You kind of feel like a veteran 20-year-old,” Mugarian said with a chuckle. “It’s good to be back and be the opening-day starter again. I’m definitely excited about it.”
The Mustangs arrived in Billings on Saturday night, took in a glimpse of Dehler Park and got their media pictures taken. Then it was back in the vans, heading to the team hotel to await Sunday evening’s first workout on their home turf and Monday's game, the first of 76 to come.
Eight players who saw some playing time with the Mustangs last season are back for a second go-round. It was a successful season in all but one regard: Though the team built the league’s second-best record overall (44-32), it did not make the postseason by failing to win either the first or second half in the split-season format.
It was a disappointing ending, to say the least.
“It was tough,” said returning first baseman Robert Maddox, who batted .282 with 16 home runs and 51 RBIs last season. “The focus is always winning, and the fact that we couldn’t extend our season was somewhat painful, at least for me. We work hard all season and to come up short, it hurts a little bit more. Hopefully we’re going to change that up this year.”
The Mustangs appear to have the pedigree, at least on paper, to make a run for their first postseason appearance in three years.
The roster boasts four players taken in the first three rounds of the last two drafts: Pitcher Robert Stephenson was the Cincinnati Reds’ No. 1 pick and 27th overall last season; infielder Gabe Rosa was the Reds’ second selection in 2011; outfielder Jesse Winker was a first-round supplemental pick (47th overall) earlier this month; and pitcher Dan Langfield was taken in the third round shortly after Winker.
In all, the Reds have stocked the Mustangs with eight top-10 picks taken from the past three drafts.
One of the most anticipated outings will come from Stephenson, who’s expected to start Tuesday’s game. The Reds selected the 6-foot-2, 180-pound right-hander out of Alhambra High School in Martinez, Calif., but Stephenson didn’t sign with Cincinnati until just before the mid-August deadline last year and wound up sitting out the season.
So when he takes the hill Tuesday against the Osprey, Stephenson will finally be making his professional debut.
“It was a little frustrating, just that I couldn’t play for a really long time,” said the 19-year-old, who was rated as the 25th-best prospect in the 2011 draft by Baseball America. “Last summer I wasn’t allowed to play at all. I finally got to get started this year in spring training. I’m really excited to get started now, I just wish I could have started a little bit sooner.”
Manager Pat Kelly returns for his second season. He’s as eager as his young players to get another campaign started.
“I think we have a good bunch,” Kelly said. “They played really well in extended (spring training). They’re very competitive. We have good chemistry and camaraderie. They come across as the type of club that just finds a way to win every night.”
NOTES: Kelly said close to 60 games were played during extended spring training. “It was good, because we had a lot of players. Everybody got at-bats, everbody got innings. I think it’ll show this summer in Billings," he said. … Joining Mugarian and Stephenson in the early-season rotation are right-hander Lucas O’Rear (13th round, 2010), righty Sal Romano (23rd round, ’11) and righty Drew Cisco (6th round, ’10). … Catcher Joe Hudson, selected in the sixth round out of Notre Dame this season, was originally slated to come to Billings, but he suffered a broken wrist after getting hit by a pitch in his first intra-squad game. He’s expected to be out 4-6 weeks. … First-year pitching coach Tony Fossas and first-year hitting coach Ray Martinez round out the Mustangs’ staff. … Headlining the Osprey roster is sixth-round pick Jake Lamb, an outfielder from the University of Washington. … The ’12 PL season begins with one new franchise. The Colorado Rockies have moved their affiliate from Casper, Wyo., to Grand Junction, Colo. ... Ryan Schuiling will again handle the broadcast duties for the Mustangs. All games can be heard on KYSX (105.1 FM).