This week’s profile on Centene Stadium in Great Falls concluded my series on the four ballparks in the Pioneer League North. I’ll start by saying touring around Montana to take in baseball games is not the worst way to spend a work week.
I would be lying, though, if I didn’t say the series turned out to be more of a challenge than I was expecting. The actual day at the ballpark is easy and fun. But getting back to the office and having to grade the different parks on the facility, food, entertainment and atmosphere? That proved to be challenging, especially when you set the bar that Dehler Park in Billings only earned a triple for its more-or-less state-of-the-art minor league facility.
If I had to do it over again, maybe I would have given Dehler Park a home run, as it’s the best in the Pioneer League North. I have no reservations when I say that, even though it’s not quite perfect. As I noted, the baseline seats directed towards the outfield instead of the infield are a big problem for me. Other than that, though, Dehler is awesome.
So if we’re ranking the four Montana parks in order, we’re going Dehler, Ogren Park at Allegiance Field in Missoula, Centene Stadium in Great Falls and then Helena’s Kindrick Legion Field.
If we’re ranking them on the food – I love ballpark food – Dehler Park’s Stang Burger tops the list as the best food I ate on my tour. Missoula’s Bats & Balls ranks as the worst. (On a side note, I can’t believe I ate Rocky Mountain Oysters for the first time on this trip. I’ve lived in Montana all my life, grew up on a ranch, have been to dozens of brandings, and my first dining experience of the Big Sky delicacy was at a baseball game!?) I won’t be eating those again.
(Note: This is the fourth and final installment of a series featuring the four ballparks of the Pioneer League North division. Parks were graded on facility, food, entertainment and overall atmosphere. The “Day at the Park” series profiled Billings’ Dehler Park, Missoula’s Ogren Park at Allegiance Field and Helena’s Kindrick Legion Field in recent weeks. To read those reviews, visit billingsgazette.com.)
Centene Stadium has been a part of the Great Falls landscape since 1940. The home of the Great Falls Voyagers still has some of that classic ballpark charm, but the renovations that began in the mid-2000s have brought it up to modern standards.
The Voyagers, a Chicago White Sox minor league team, have updated the entrance to Centene, as well as the concourse along the third-base line. But the most notable improvements are at the concession stands.
“We have lots of different dishes. We have kind of a large menu,” said Voyagers general manager Scott Reasoner. “The first concession is where you can get everything from super nachos to hamburgers to one of our signature dishes, an Orbit Burger. And we also have a Taco John’s in a third-base concession stand.”
With the two concession stands, plus the Bottoms Up Beer stand, the Voyagers provide plenty of variety for hungry fans.
(Note: This is the third installment of a four-part series featuring the four ballparks of the Pioneer League North. The “Day at the Park” series profiled Billings’ Dehler Park and Missoula’s Ogren Park at Allegiance Field in recent weeks and will look at Centene Stadium in Great Falls next week. Parks are graded on facility, food, entertainment and overall atmosphere. The final installment will run in next Thursday’s Billings Gazette.)
As history goes, baseball has seemingly always held a special place in Helena. One of the benchmark events of the Capital City’s pastime passion was the 1932 opening of what is now Kindrick Legion Field, home of the Milwaukee Brewers’ Pioneer League farm club, the Helena Brewers.
“This place has seen a lot of ballgames,” said Dustin Daniel, the Brewers’ director of broadcasting and media relations. “As far as the atmosphere it creates for a ballgame, this is classic baseball here. It’s not going to be anything fancy that you see, but it definitely gives you a great summer vibe to come out to the ballpark.”
Helena is the smallest of the four Pioneer League North cities, so that classic feel fans get at Kindrick Legion Field fits nicely with the community. It’s not the biggest or fanciest, but it just feels like a ballpark.
(Note: This is the second installment of a four-part series featuring the four ballparks of the Pioneer League North. The “Day at the Park” series profiled Dehler Park in Billings last week and will look at the parks in Helena and Great Falls in the future. Parks are graded on facility, food, entertainment and overall atmosphere. New installments will run in Thursday editions of the Billings Gazette.)
Since moving to Missoula, the Missoula Osprey have won Pioneer League baseball championships in 1999, 2006 and 2012. They’ve also seen their share of individual talent – including Paul Goldschmidt, who was in the conversation to win the National League MVP following the 2013 season – move through the Arizona Diamondbacks’ farm club.
So when executive vice president Matt Ellis said the front office implements a philosophy assuming the team will lose every game 8-0, they’re preparing for the worst.
“We want to make sure that our product is good, so relying just on baseball for us is not our model,” Ellis said. “Our model’s to have a complete product, because that’s what minor league baseball’s about. As an industry, our minor leagues have been a pioneer in professional sports in terms of marketing, and we want to continue to be that.”
The Osprey perform different on-field promotions every game to provide entertainment for the more casual fans at the ballpark. According to Ellis, they have received national recognition for some of those promotions, specifically the peanut inning when fans can earn free peanuts if the Osprey score a run in the bottom of the sixth.
(Note: This is the first installment of a four-part series featuring the four ballparks of the Pioneer League North. The “Day at the Park” series will rank the parks in Billings, Missoula, Great Falls and Helena on the facility, food, entertainment and overall atmosphere.)
By now, Billings Mustangs fans are more than familiar with Dehler Park. The simple yet refined stadium replaced Cobb Field in 2008, giving the Mustangs a place to play that matches the award-winning organization.
The Mustangs organization won the John H. Johnson award in 2010 and the Bob Freitas Award for the Short Season in 2012. Both awards honor sustained excellence throughout the organization.
“Our focus is really the fans themselves and the customers themselves,” said Mustangs general manager Gary Roller. “We’ve been here since 1948, we’ve never been about gadgets — the dizzy bat races and those types of on-field promotions. And that’s not to say that doesn’t work in other markets, because it does. We just find that what we’re about here is really baseball.”
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.”