BILLINGS — Jalen Garcia and Daniel Cipriano wasted little time establishing themselves with the Billings Mustangs in the team’s first three games of independent baseball. The duo with local connections hit a combined .400 (8 for 20) with seven RBIs and seven runs scored at Idaho Falls.
Cipriano, fresh off setting the career home run record at NCAA Division II Montana State Billings, also hit one of the Mustangs’ five long balls during the season-opening series.
Trouble is, the pitching staff gave up 34 hits, issued 22 walks and allowed 28 earned runs and Billings dropped two of those contests.
Now the Mustangs are set for their 2021 home opener as they welcome the Rocky Mountain Vibes to Dehler Park on Wednesday for the first of six games. First pitch is scheduled for 6:35 p.m. It will be the first professional baseball game at Dehler since Sept. 8, 2019.
Fans will get their first glimpse of the new-look Mustangs, who are in their first season of independent status after a 47-year run as a farm team of the Cincinnati Reds. The Pioneer League, established in 1939, is now a “partner league” of Major League Baseball and no longer affiliated with MLB parent clubs.
“Last year was such an anomaly with the pandemic and what it caused in professional baseball,” Mustangs general manager Gary Roller said. “To not play in 2020 was really strange, and then going through what we went through really not knowing what the future of baseball in Billings was because of the negotiations between Major League and Minor League Baseball, we were obviously watching that very, very closely as to what was going to happen.
“We were always optimistic in that there was going to be something on the other end of it, but you didn’t really know that. Then it became clear that it wasn’t going to be an affiliated model. But the fact of the matter was that we were going to play again. It might not be perfect, it might not be the actual model that everybody would want, but the fact is you don’t always get what you want and we are going to play.”
Billings’ roster is, as of Tuesday, made of up 25 players with varying degrees of experience. Three are former major league draft picks: Pitcher Peyton Culbertson (2018 eighth round, Marlins), pitcher Alex Smith (2018 24th round, Royals) and infielder Jesus Azuaje (2017 25th round, Phillies).
Several players have previous experience in independent ball. Others, like infielder Dalton Cobb, are recently out of college and playing professionally for the first time. Cobb last played at D-II Auburn University at Montgomery in Alabama in what was a shortened season in 2020 due to the pandemic.
Cobb hit two home runs in the three games at Idaho Falls. As did catcher Robbie Kellerman, a product of Trinity University in Texas who played in a pair of different independent circuits in 2020.
Cipriano and Garcia, meanwhile, bring some local flair to the club. Garcia was born in Billings, starred for the Scarlets in the American Legion program and then played three seasons at MSU Billings where he hit .346 and set the school’s stolen base record.
Cipriano is an Agoura Hills, California, product. He matriculated to MSUB in 2019 and blasted 39 career homers to establish the program mark.
Billings’ opponent this week, the Rocky Mountain Vibes of Colorado Springs, Colorado, have gone in a different direction personnel-wise. Before the season, the Vibes entered into a partnership with Acereros de Monclova of the Mexican League, which is providing players to make up the Vibes’ roster.
The Vibes went 2-1 in their opening series against Grand Junction. One such win came by way of the Pioneer League’s new home run challenge in extra innings.
Roller said the response for Mustangs season ticket renewals has been positive, and he expects a strong fan turnout at Dehler Park on Wednesday. Tickets, Roller said, are still available. Roller also said that RiverStone Health, the public health command for Yellowstone County, has placed no restrictions or limitations on capacity or otherwise.
“People have missed baseball,” Roller said. “We’re very happy with the response we’ve gotten so far. We expect a good crowd.”