The Missoula Osprey pushed home six runs in the fourth inning Thursday night en route to beating the Billings Mustangs 6-4 in Pioneer League baseball at Dehler Park.
Missoula, 30-42 on the season, used four hits and three walks in erasing a 3-0 Billings lead in the fourth.
The big blow was a two-run double by Justin Bianco. Teammates Anderso Bolivar and Grant Nelson stroked RBI singles.
Billings, 28-45, got an RBI single from Carlos Sanchez in the first inning. The Mustangs' second-inning runs came on a double by Kevin Garcia and a sacrifice fly by Aristides Aquino.
Avain Rachal knocked in Billings' other run in the seventh with a sacrifice fly.
For week of Aug. 24-30
Mustangs in review: The Mustangs continued to play respectable ball, finishing the week 3-3. The last two games of the week, both losses to the Great Falls Voyagers, did the team in, however, officially eliminating the Mustangs from playoff contention. That means the Mustangs have missed out on the postseason for the fifth straight year, and finished the season series 3-13 against the Voyagers.
Team of the week: The checkmark this week goes to the Helena Brewers, mostly because we’re tired of giving it to the Voyagers. Actually, Helena and Great Falls both finished 4-2 in a week that saw a lot of parity. But because the Brewers closed the week on a four-game winning streak, they’re getting the honor.
Linescore of the week: This was a tough call because there were a lot of unique performances and for different reasons. But you have to feel for Grand Junction’s Zach Jemiola. The 6-foot-3 right-hander accomplished the rarity of throwing a complete game, but the Rockies couldn’t provide him any support and he took the 1-0 loss. His line: 8 IP, 3H 1R, 1ER, 0 BB, 3 SO. Idaho Falls scored the winning run in the bottom of the eighth, and three Chukars pitchers tossed a four-hit shutout to beat Jemiola.
Mustang of the week: Pitchers rarely make more than one appearance in a week, so it’s tough for them to stand out against the hitters. That said, we’ll give the tip of the cap to Luke Moran, who led the Mustangs to a 4-2 win over Ogden on Monday. The 6-2 right-hander had his best outing of the season, throwing six shutout innings of two-hit ball against the Raptors. He also struck out seven and walked just two. Carlos Sanchez should get an honorable mention here. The first baseman, who was last week’s POTW in this space, continued his torrid pace by going 8 for 19 this week, a .421 clip. In addition, he hit two home runs and drove in six.
For week of Aug. 17-23
Mustangs in review: It all looked so promising. The Mustangs swept a three-game series in Ogden and returned home with a season-high four-game winning streak in hand. But after a day off on Tuesday, the Dehler Park blues struck again, and the Mustangs dropped three straight to Idaho Falls to finish the week 3-3. With a 6-22 record at Dehler going into Saturday’s home game, the Mustangs needed to win their final 10 home games just to match the previous low home mark (16-22), set in 2009. Even with the poor performance this season, the Mustangs are 199-98 (.548) at Dehler since it opened in 2008.
Team of the week: Hey, we have a new winner. The Orem Owlz won their first five games of the week to finally unseat Great Falls, which had been on a two-week run as the TOTW. The Owlz' 5-1 week moved them into first place in the South Division, overtaking Idaho Falls and leading the Chukars by two games. Even in a “down” week, the Voyagers went 4-2, losing two straight for the first time in 27 games.
Linescore of the week: In another big week offensively by the league (more on that later), we’ll throw the pitchers a bone and acknowledge Luis Santos of Idaho Falls. Not that his performance Wednesday wasn’t noteworthy; it certainly was. The Chukars’ starter was perfect for 5 2/3 innings and wound up allowing just one hit in seven shutout innings in a 10-1 win to send the Mustangs on their downward spiral. Sanchez struck out seven and walked none.
Mustang of the week: Adam Matthews did most of his damage early in the week, but it was still a pretty good five games for the outfielder. He drove in 11 runs with the help of two home runs and batted .381 (8 for 21). He also scored five runs.
The Billings Mustangs put their season-high four-game winning streak on the line when they play host to Idaho Falls on Wednesday night at Dehler Park.
The game marks the beginning of a seven-game homestand for the Mustangs, who are 9-11 in the second half and trail the Great Falls Voyagers by eight games in the North Division.
Idaho Falls comes to Billings 10-9 and in second place in the South Division. The Chukars trail Orem by two games.
The Chukars, losers of their last four, lead the Pioneer League in hitting (.296) and runs scored (383). They average 6.71 runs per game.
Zane Evans is hitting .340, second in the league, while Patrick Conroy is 5-1 and has a league-best 2.95 ERA.
Week in review: Mustangs on winning end
For week of Aug. 10-16
Mustangs in review: A rare win of a home series got the week started off on the right track, and the Mustangs finished the week 4-3. Taking two of three from the Helena Brewers before the start of a seven-game road trip seemed like an opportunity for momentum and true to their season-long form, the Mustangs continued to hold their own on the road. Billings ended the week with a win on Friday, giving them a split in the first four games of the seven-game roady.
Team of the week: Great Falls takes the prize for the second week in a row. The Voyagers continued to play well deep into the second half, winning five of the week’s seven games. It’s going to take quite a run from any of the other three North Division teams to keep the Voyagers from claiming the second-half title. Great Falls finished the week 14-3 for the half, holding a five-game lead over Helena, a seven-game lead over Missoula and an eight-game lead over Billings.
Linescore of the week: Lots and lots of runs were scored this week, so plenty of offensive players had games to remember. On Wednesday, Grand Junction’s Miguel Dilone and Great Falls’ Corey Thompson had nearly identical lines: Dilone went 4 for 6, scored three runs, hit two homers and drove in six runs in a 16-12 win over Missoula, while Thompson went 3 for 6, also scored three runs, and matched Dilone’s two homers and six RBIs in a 16-11 win over Ogden.
For week of Aug. 3-9
Mustangs in review
It started out to be a good week for the Mustangs when they took two of three from the Osprey in Missoula. But the Mustangs dropped the final game of that series and returned home to be dominated by Great Falls pitching. Starting with the fourth game in Missoula, the Mustangs had games of two runs, one run, two runs and one run to close the week with a 2-5 record.
Team of the week
Great Falls finished four games out of first place at the end of the first half, but Pete Rose Jr.’s club has left little doubt that they are the leaders of the pack in the second half. The Voyagers won nine of their first 10 games of the second half, including six in a row this week and took a four-game lead into Saturday’s games. The Mustangs trail the Voyagers by eight games, and with just three head-to-head games remaining, it’s going to take quite a charge for Billings to catch the division leaders.
For week July 20-July 26 ...
Mustangs in review
It was a good week for Phillip Ervin (more on him later), but not so much for the Mustangs. A win Saturday was followed by four straight losses before they got back in the win column on Thursday. The pitching staff gave up either runs per game, a big reason the Mustangs went 2-5.
Team of the week
Not only did the Helena Brewers go 5-2, they became the first team to clinch a postseason berth. Though they clinched on the night they lost 12-11 to Billings, the Brewers won the North Division’s first-half title and will get homefield advantage in the first round of the divisional playoffs in September.
For the week July 13-19 ...
The week started well, with Billings closing its long road trip by winning two of three against Orem. But Tuesday’s off day – and maybe Grand Junction, too – interrupted any momentum the Mustangs might have had in their return home. The Mustangs dropped three straight to the Rockies to close the week at 2-4.
Team of the week
Grand Junction started the week with two straight losses, but rebounded nicely to win its last four games, including that just-completed three-game sweep of the Mustangs at Dehler Park. The 4-2 week allowed the Rockies, who are 7-3 in their last 10 games, to build a three-game lead over second-place Ogden in the South Division.
Mo Wiley, a popular pitcher last year for the Billings Mustangs, quietly announced his retirement from professional baseball last week just before the team left on a five-game road trip to Great Falls and Missoula.
A closer who threw in the low to mid-90’s a year ago, Wiley was trying to remake himself as a knuckleballer this season, since he was in need of a second surgery on his pitching elbow. Doctors had told Wiley the odds of the operation being a success this time around were 50/50 at best.
Wiley chose not to have the surgery and instead decided to focus on the knuckleball, a pitch that was in his repertoire, but one he rarely used in games. Unfortunately, it just didn’t work out. In six total appearances for Single-A Dayton (Ohio) and Billings, Wiley had an 18.00 ERA. In the final outing of his career, Wiley allowed four runs and got just one out in taking the loss June 26 against Helena.
“That was a tough one, just a good kid,” Mustangs manager Pat Kelly said about Wiley’s decision to retire. “We knew going in that he wasn’t going to have the elbow surgery a second time. He wanted to experiment with the knuckleball, and I think he had a chance with it.
“What he found out was it hurt to throw to the bases, it hurt to throw that 84 mile-an-hour fastball when he needed one, and he just felt like he’s got his degree, he’s got a chance to make a good living at home, as much as he wanted to stay in baseball.”
So the Mustangs are mired in a five-game losing streak. Why? Let’s allow the statistics to do the talking.
A lot has to change if the Mustangs are to get back in the win column tonight. It starts with right-hander Pedro Diaz (0-1, 5.14 ERA), who gets the start for Billings tonight in the last game of a three-game set at Great Falls. Fist pitch is at 7 p.m., about 90 minutes from now.
Despite their struggles at the dish, a few Mustangs hitters are still swinging the bats well. Outfielder Phillip Ervin is one. Ervin is hitting .294 with a homer a two RBIs in the last five games. He is the only player to appear in all five games of the streak. Catcher Jose Ortiz is at .364 with a homer and two driven in, while shortstop Humberto Valor is hitting at a .375 clip.
This first chart focuses cumulative pitching performance in the last five games, while the second chart focuses on the overall team hitting:
|Pitching - last 5||Total|
|Hits per 9||9.4|
Pioneer League fans -- those in Grand Junction in particular -- have patiently waited to see No. 3 overall draft pick Jonathan Gray pitch this season. But the Rockies have taken their time with Gray, and have held him out of live action since the season began June 20. Gray signed with the Rockies out of the University of Oklahoma on June 12.
But KJCT-TV in Grand Junction reported Friday that Gray, a 6-foot-4, 240-pound right-handed power pitcher, will make his pro debut July 10 when the Mustangs visit. It will be Gray’s first action since he last appeared with the Sooners earlier in June.
Why have the Rockies been so slow with Gray? It’s mostly because he’s coming off a collegiate season in which he threw 126 1/3 innings, a heavy workload for a college hurler. The 21-year-old Gray went 10-2 with a 1.59 ERA and 138 strikeouts for OU in 2013.
Grand Junction pitching coach Ryan Kibler explained the process this way to KJCT:
“He had a long season. We want to go nice and slow and make sure he’s just right and ready to go. We didn’t want to rush him along at all. He’s everything that he’s cracked up to be, especially watching him yesterday with some hitters standing in there throwing his fastball down in the strike zone and by some guys. It was fun to watch. He’s for real.”
As the Billings Mustangs get ready to begin a 6-game, 5-day road trip tonight with a game in Great Falls, they are probably happy to be away from Dehler Park.
Following a three-game sweep at the hands of the Helena Brewers, the Mustangs are 1-4 at home. Conversely, the team is 3-0 so far on the road.
But the Mustangs aren’t alone: Only Grand Junction (3-0) and Ogden (5-1) are off to significantly better starts playing in their own stadiums.
Mustangs manager Pat Kelly said there is a reason teams like the Mustangs have their troubles at home early in the season.
“I think it’s the work load,” he said following Friday night’s 3-0 loss to the Brewers. “We work extremely hard at home. We’re on the field for 2 ½ hours before the game. That pays off eventually. Physically, it may be a little demanding, but eventually that does pay off. You can see when the work load goes down a little bit on the road, obviously we perform better.
Though the middle innings were a struggle for Mustangs pitching Thursday night, the first three innings thrown by starter Lucas Moran and the last three thrown by relievers Werleen Taveras, Nick Fleece and Austin Salter were gems.
Moran started the game, which ended up an 8-5 loss to the Helena, with three scoreless innings. After the Brewers scored eight total runs in the fourth and sixth innings, Taveras, Fleece and Salter each put up a scoreless inning of their own.
Manager Pat Kelly was particularly impressed with Fleece and Salter, who set the Brewers down in easy order in the eight and ninth innings.
Fleece is making a nice comeback from shoulder surgery that forced him to miss all of last season. In three appearances he’s given up just two hits and struck out four in three innings.
“It’s nice to get Nick out there,” Kelly said. “He was out a long time with that shoulder surgery and he’s been impressive the three outings he’s been out there.”
A quick look at the lineups for tonight's Pioneer League game between the Mustangs and Helena at Dehler Park. First pitch is at 7:
BILLINGS MUSTANGS 4-1 (1st North division) -- 1. Avain Rachal, 2b; 2. Gabriel Rosa, dh; 3. Phillip Ervin, cf; 4. Jonathan Reynoso, rf; 5. Humberto Valor, ss; 6. Taylor Terrasas, 3b; 7. Jhimy Lopez, 1b; 8. Jose Ortiz, c; 9. Nick Benedetto, lf; SP - Pedro Diaz, RHP
HELENA BREWERS 3-3 (2nd North division) -- 1. Angel Ortega, ss; 2. Michael Ratterree, rf; 3. Garrett Cooper, 1b; 4. Taylor Brennan, 3b; 5. Jose Pena, dh; 6. Dustin Houle, c; 7. Charlie Markson, lf; 8. Jalen Harris, 2b; 9. Omar Garcia, cf; SP - Anthony Banda, LHP
A few pregame notes an hour before first pitch:
• The Mustangs come into tonight's game following a rainout Tuesday at Missoula. It was supposed to be the final game of a four-game road trip, but the team was able to arrive back in town earlier than expected. Billings won each of its three games on the road, and come into tonight having beaten the Brewers twice this year by scores of 9-2 and 4-2.
It's no secret that the Mustangs are one of the Pioneer League's best at developing young talent and preparing it to move along through (in their case) the Cincinnati Reds organization. Several players on the current Reds roster spent time in Billings.
From 2010 National League MVP first baseman Joey Votto to outfielder Jay Bruce to third baseman Todd Frazier to relief pitcher Logan Ondrusek, the Mustangs have had a hand in producing a slew of future Reds. And it's gone a long way toward Cincy winning two NL Central division titles in the last three seasons. There are a few guys waiting in the wings, too -- notably base-stealing phenom Billy Hamilton. This year's player to watch in Billings is outfielder Phillip Ervin, the Reds' first-round pick (No. 27 overall) from the 2013 draft.
Last week third-year Mustangs Manager Pat Kelly talked about the importance of player development, and I think it's worth divulging here. In minor league baseball, especially at a Rookie-level circuit like the Pioneer League, winning in many ways is of secondary importance to the daily grind of improving your young talent.
Teams want to win, and that's the goal each night, but player development is a monotonous and extremely important process, one that Kelly takes quite seriously. Some guys will make it and some guys won't. But each guy is looked at as a potential major leaguer. The following are a couple quotes on this subject from the Mustangs' skipper:
♦ “I take it very seriously. For most of these guys it’s their entryway into pro ball, and it’s their first experience. I feel like you have a chance to mold them and teach them how to be a professional. There’s a lot of things that we do here that aren’t necessarily about the baseball field. It’s about guys living away from home for the first time, responsibilities, acting like a professional … there’s a lot of teaching involved. I look back at when I managed at the higher levels. You wanted your players prepared when they came to your club. And I feel like that’s my obligation, to prepare these guys to move on in the organization.”
Jon Matthews’ long, tailing drive to right-center was caught. And then it wasn’t.
At least that was the ruling in Thursday night’s Pioneer League opener between the Billings Mustangs and Great Falls Voyagers. And as far as Mustangs manager Pat Kelly was concerned, it just might have been the play of the game.
Leading off the bottom of the first, the right-handed hitting Matthews smacked a pitch from Jose Bautista deep into the Dehler Park outfield. Matthews kept rounding the bases until he reached third, despite the fact that Great Falls center fielder Jacob May appeared to make the catch after a long run and a dive on the warning track. But neither base umpire Ryan Doherty nor plate umpire Cameron Westover made an immediate call, so Matthews stood on third as Kelly congratulated him.
Finally, Doherty raised his hand with the ‘out’ gesture, and Kelly quickly went across the field to seek an explanation. After Doherty and Westover conferred, Westover ruled Matthews safe at third, which of course brought out Great Falls skipper Pete Rose Jr., who argued to no avail.
“To me, there was just a lot of suspicious activity going on out there,” Kelly said in describing what he saw on the play. “Just to get to the ball, I thought May made an incredible effort to get there. When he first dove, I thought he had a chance to catch it. From my view, I thought the ball kind of rolled underneath him and the right fielder was trying to help … it just seemed like a lot of confusion, and that’s why I asked the umpires to get together and figure it out.”
HELENA -- Win and they’re in.
Regardless of the Mustangs’ 11-5 loss to the Helena Brewers on Tuesday, the reality of their Pioneer League postseason aspirations is this: With one victory in their next two games, Billings will make the playoffs.
Billings begins a season-ending, two-game series at Missoula on Wednesday. The Mustangs and Osprey are tied atop the North division with identical 21-15 second-half records, but Billings owns two tiebreakers should the teams finish the season deadlocked.
Missoula, which beat Great Falls 3-1 on Tuesday, will eliminate the Mustangs with a two-game sweep.
Billings expects to send starter Sal Romano (5-5) to the mound in Wednesday’s series opener. Missoula is scheduled to counter with Chris Thomas (2-1).
I was able to catch up with Billings Mustangs second baseman Taylor Wrenn after batting practice on Friday. The 22-year-old Wrenn was kind of enough to provide some tips on fielding ground balls.
The ball is hit to players in the infield more often than outfielders, so Wrenn said infielders have to be ready all the time.
"You can't take any pitches off," Wrenn, a native of Florida, said. "The mindset changes from pitcher to pitcher, but I think it really starts with you knowing who's pitching, knowing your pitchers, and just knowing how they work people."
Wrenn specifically mentioned Mustangs pitcher Sal Romano. Romano throws a lot of pitches that batters hit into ground balls.
"Sal's a ground ball-pitching guy," Wrenn explained. "You gotta know that going out there. That day you're probably going to get a lot of ground balls."
Last week, Billings Mustangs outfielder Jeff Gelalich took the time to visit with me after the team finished batting practice. Gelalich, a 21-year-old from California, provided a few hitting tips for young baseball players.
“It’s not something that happens overnight,” Gelalich said. “It’s going to take time and repetition and hard work. The guys in the Big Leagues put in a lot of time, and they all started here where (Mustangs players) are right now. It’s their hard work that got them to where they are, so you got to be willing to put in the time and be patient with it. It’s a learning process.”
Gelalich said one of his “biggest tools” is a tee. Before he hits live, the first thing he does is hit balls off of tee to work on his swing. If he’s in a hitting slump or having problems with his swing, he goes back to the tee to try to fix what he’s doing wrong.
Once the action is live, Gelalich said it’s best for young hitters to just focus on making contact with the ball and not trying to guide the ball to a certain part of the field.
“Don’t try to pull the ball,” Gelalich explained. “Just take a good swing and let the ball go where it’s going to go. Just attack the inside part of the baseball, and don’t try to guide it anywhere. A baseball is hard enough to hit as it is, so you trying to direct it somewhere makes it even harder. So I think one of the biggest things that I’ve learned growing up is that you can’t try to hit the ball somewhere. Just take your swing, take a good swing at it, and the ball’s going to go where it’s going to go.”
On Thursday, I caught up with Billings Mustangs starting pitcher Joel Bender as the team was leaving the field after batting practice. The 20-year-old Bender was kind of enough to give me a few moments of his time to provide some pitching tips for young baseball players.
“The first thing is practice,” Bender said. “Practice every day. It’s going to help you get better and develop. We’re young guys still, and we’re developing still, even in pro ball. It’s practice. I mean, practice makes perfect, like everyone says.”
Mustangs pitchers have 12-minute throwing programs, and Bender said it’s important to focus on mechanics during those sessions.
“Every day you got to work on something different because we’re all not perfect,” Bender added. “We all make mistakes. Not everyone’s perfect, but the more you practice at it the more comfortable you get like with anything else.”
Following the quick interview, Bender demonstrated some of the different pitches he throws. The left-hander focuses on three main pitches – the four-seam fastball, two-seam fastball, and changeup. Watch the related video to see Bender show the different grips on the baseball for each pitch as he describes the movement on the ball.