Every baseball season begins with hope and promise. But not every game ends that way.
The Billings Mustangs started their 60th season Monday night with a record crowd of 4,861. Les Barnes, a member of the Mustangs’ first-ever 1948 team, threw out the first ball. The Mustangs were outfitted in retro replicas of their 1948 uniforms, complete with black-and-orange striped socks, cream-colored jerseys and high-riding pants.
What could go wrong? Just the score. The Missoula Osprey got runners on base in every inning and batted around in the sixth on their way to a 13-3 victory. By game’s end, that record crowd had dwindled to the indomitable few.
Out-of-control games are no rarity in the Pioneer League, and Monday’s game was only the first of 76. But it was a disappointment for Mustangs’ fans, who had to have hoped for more from returning starters Wes Mugarian and Robert Maddox.
Mugarian, the Mustangs’ starting pitcher (4-5 with a 5.80 ERA last year), managed to leave runners on base the first two innings, but Missoula scored in each of the next four. Mugarian ended up allowing eight hits over four innings, with no walks and four strikeouts.
The wheels came off after Mugarian departed. The Osprey sent 10 batters to the plate in the sixth inning, with Justin Bianco making the first and third outs. In between, the Osprey scored six runs, jumping to an 11-1 lead that the Mustangs never came close to overcoming.
Maddox led the team with 16 home runs last year and rewarded the crowd with a deep drive to right on his first at bat. But the ball was caught, and Maddox finished the evening 0 for 3.
Indeed, the top four hitters in the Mustangs’ lineup went 1 for 17 between them. The Mustangs’ punch, such as it was, came from the bottom of the order, with the ninth-place hitter, shortstop Brandon Dailey, pounding out a single and a ninth-inning double.
Still, there were bright spots. Part of it was just being in the ballpark, even with concession lines that lasted an inning or two. After watching baseball on television, even on a big screen, the experience of going into an actual ballpark is a tad overwhelming. There’s so much going on – fielders whipping the ball around, angling for position, runners taking leads, balking and retreating, even the balls zipping in and out of the stands on foul balls – that it takes a few innings to settle in on the game.
Also there was the play of catcher Wagner Gomez, who had a single and stopped a couple of Osprey at home plate.
Then there was, at least for my wife and me, the usual focus on third base. Our season tickets put us within a dozen yards of the third baseman, so we develop an attachment, for better or worse, over the course of the season.
Monday’s new third baseman, second-round draft choice Gabriel Rosa out of Puerto Rico, was mostly for the better. The rangy 6-4 infielder made a couple of good plays, nearly made a couple of excellent plays, and singled sharply.
In the sixth, with the game still vaguely in reach, he hit a line drive deep in the power alley in right field. Right fielder Bianco made a long run for the ball and got a glove on it before it bounced away, leaving Rosa on third base and a run in.
It took the official scorer all the way through a pitching change to announce the ruling: a three-base error. But the look on Rosa’s face as he stood on third was one of sheer joy. This bears watching.