The Mustangs were one out from finishing their first error-free game in six nights when shortstop Alex Blandino misfired to first on a routine grounder in the ninth.
Eventually, Helena brought the tying run to the plate in the form of one of the Pioneer League’s best hitters, Dustin DeMuth. But catcher-turned-reliever Wagner Gomez, who struggled with control in the ninth, was able to shut it down with the bases loaded and preserve a 12-8 victory Monday at Dehler Park.
“I just threw it low,” Blandino said of his error. “Whenever your pitcher is struggling to throw strikes and you get a play to end the game … it’s tough to let your teammates down like that. You’ve just got to try to do better the next time.”
Blandino, a heralded prospect out of Stanford, joined the Mustangs last Wednesday after signing a professional contract with the Cincinnati Reds. The 21-year-old Blandino was a supplemental first-round draft pick, the No. 29 choice overall, earlier in June.
Blandino primarily played third base at Stanford (he was named a second-team All-American by Baseball America in 2014) but the Reds want him at short, where he’s flashed the range it takes to go into the hole or dive behind the bag to make plays.
Monday’s error notwithstanding, he’s finding his way with each passing game.
“I played short primarily growing up, so it is nice to get back over there,” Blandino said. “We have a great coaching staff that has really helped me ease back into it. I feel pretty good out there. Every night I feel like I’m getting the hang of it.
“You have to be a little more creative at short. There are a lot of different plays. I don’t always know what’s going to happen on a play but you have to make it up as you go along. As long as you get the out, that’s what matters.”
Blandino reached base and scored four times on Monday, racing around the bases as teammate Brian O’Grady slugged Helena into submission. The red-hot O’Grady finished 4 for 5 with two doubles, a homer and five RBIs.
Blandino’s batting average is under .200 at the moment. As a junior this past season at Stanford, he hit .310 with 12 homers and 44 RBIs in 61 games.
“We’ve told him to just go out there and play,” said Mustangs manager Dick Schofield. “He’s done everything we’ve asked. We told him to not worry about statistics or anything like that, just go out and play.”
KEY MOMENT: The Mustangs were down 4-0 after the top of the first but fought back quickly in their half of the inning. O’Grady’s double scored Blandino and Cory Thompson, and ignited a six-run outburst. “When (Helena) scored those four runs I was like, ‘Here we go again,’” said Schofield, whose team gave up 36 runs in the four-game series. “But that was a good confidence-builder for the guys.”
ON THE MOUND: Soid Marquez (2-1) pitched four scoreless innings in relief of starter Mike Saunders, who was on a short pitch limit and didn’t last past the second. He had three strikeouts and walked one. Helena starter Luis Ortega (0-2) floundered, allowing eight hits and six earned runs in three innings.
AT THE PLATE: O’Grady’s four hits were a season-high, and he finished with nine total bases. His two-run home run in the second caromed off the video board deep behind right field. He doubled in another run in the fourth and singled in the sixth. O’Grady’s batting averaged jumped 87 points to .379.
ON DECK: The Mustangs hit the road for a six-game trip beginning Tuesday in Missoula. Billings made 18 errors during its homestand but still came out of it .500. Will the road be as kind?