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Jesse Gutierrez was down to his final swing in batting practice, and he wasn’t about to waste it.

Billings Mustangs pitching coach Ted Power, who had mound duty this particular time, looked in on Gutierrez as the first baseman let what should have been his final pitch go by.

In came another pitch from Power. Gutierrez didn’t budge.

“Whaddya want?” Power said to Gutierrez, implying the pitches were perfect.

Finally, Gutierrez got a pitch to his liking and he lofted a fly ball to center field. As Gutierrez took off for his obligatory run around the bases after his turn at bat, Power turned to him, smiled, and said: “Those were strikes.”

Then, Power quickly added: “But good eye, though.”

That

numbers game Through Monday Billings’ Jesse Gutierrez was tied for the league lead in home runs and is tied for second in RBIs. Below are his statistics.
Batting average .276
Games played 15
At-bats 58
Runs 14
Hits 16
Doubles 6
Triples 0
Home runs 5
Runs batted in 16
Walks 6
Strikeouts 9

Gutierrez didn’t crush the ball up to the Rims isn’t the point. The point is that the 6-foot-2, 190-pound Gutierrez won’t swing at a ball that he doesn’t think he can handle.

“That’s one of the things we’re striving for,” says Billings hitting coach Jay Sorg. “We’re not going to give the pitchers anything. When we get into BP, especially the last few rounds, I want these guys thinking game swings and game pitches, and he did that today and that’s an example. … We can’t start expanding our zone in BP. If we do it there, we’re going to expand it in the games. We’re going to stay disciplined throughout.”

It’s that discerning eye that has helped Gutierrez become one of the Pioneer League’s most dangerous hitters.

Through Monday, the first baseman from McAllen, Texas, is tied for the league lead in home runs (5) and is tied for second in RBIs (16). His 11 extra base hits and a .638 slugging percentage also have him sitting second in the league.

Already this year Gutierrez has had two memorable home runs at Cobb Field: One hit high off the Budweiser scoreboard in left-center field and the second hit halfway up the left-field light pole.

Nike was only half right. It’s not only chicks who dig the long ball; everyone appreciates the majesty of a power shot.

“When he comes to bat, everything gets quiet,” says Tom Maley, who was Gutierrez’s college coach at St. Mary’s University in San Antonio this year. “You have conversations and whatnot during a game, which is the neat thing about baseball, but when he comes to bat everything gets quite, nobody’s talking. Guys on our team were disappointed at times when he would get an RBI single. Here’s a guy that gets a one-hopper to left field to drive in a run and our guys are disappointed.”

His batting average (.276) may be a disappointment right now, but Gutierrez has come a long way from his junior college days to his first few weeks of professional baseball.

At the University of Texas at Brownsville, a junior college, Gutierrez hit just six home runs his freshman year and seven his sophomore year.

Things changed drastically the following year, however. Playing at NCAA Division I University of Texas-Pan American, Gutierrez hit a school record 21 home runs in 46 games, and his 0.46 home runs per game average ranked him second in the nation. He finished the year with 58 RBIs and a .855 slugging percentage, and was named second team to the Louisville Slugger NCAA Division I All-American Team.

Gutierrez followed that with another banner year this season. After transferring to Division II St. Mary’s, Gutierrez hit 28 home runs and drove in 97 runs in just 63 games. He was named the most outstanding player in the NCAA Division II championship game after going 4-for-4 with two home runs and four RBIs in leading the Rattlers to an 11-3 win over Central Missouri State just days before being drafted in the 20th round by the Cincinnati Reds.

“When you’re up there (at the plate) it’s your game and you try to choose the pitch you like,” says Gutierrez, who’s walked six times and struck out nine. “Curve ball, slider, you look for a certain pitch. When you’re up there it’s your at bat. Even if you have two strikes (and) no balls, you still have one more pitch. I’ve gotten a couple walks now since I’ve gone 0-2 (in the count) and come back and walked, and that makes me feel good.”

If his prodigious home runs make him feel good, he isn’t letting on. Ask him about his homers, and the shy Gutierrez quickly changes the subject about as easily as he swats an 80 mph fastball out of the park.

“I just hope our pitching holds up,” Gutierrez says, giving the Mustangs’ staff credit for the team’s early success.

Gutierrez has caught the eye of Mustangs manager Rick Burleson, and not just because of his home run potential. Burleson likes the effort Gutierrez, who played mostly catcher in college, has put into all aspects of the game.

“His defense has gotten better every day that he’s been here, he’s worked at it,” Burleson says. “He’s gotten better with his fielding, he’s gotten better with his throwing, he’s gotten better with his foot work, he’s gotten better at picking balls out of the dirt. And I think what you’re looking at is a guy that is going to develop himself into a prospect if he continues on the same pace he’s on now.”

Schedule: Medicine Hat at Billings, 4 p.m. today and 7 p.m., Thursday and Friday

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