BILLINGS — Eric Yang has one degree of separation from Pioneer League greatness, even if he didn't realize it until this week.
The Cincinnati Reds selected Yang in the seventh round of this year’s MLB Draft, and the catcher came out of the same college — UC Santa Barbara — as former Billings Mustang Chris Valaika.
Some Mustangs fans might remember that in 2006, Valaika, who is the Chicago Cubs minor league hitting coordinator, set a Pioneer League record with a 32-game hitting streak. Yang’s longest streak so far is six games, but he was hitting .356 going into Saturday’s game, was a Pioneer League All-Star (along with Mustangs teammates Miguel Medrano and Jake Stevenson) and hit a home run in last week’s game against the Northwest League All-Stars. So he’s got that going for him. Which is nice.
Q: Are you familiar with Chris Valaika?
A: Yeah, he was the coach (at Santa Barbara) the year before I got there. But Noah Davis (who started on the mound Thursday for the Mustangs) was coached by Valaika when he came back as an undergraduate assistant just for one year (2016).
Q: Valaika holds the Pioneer League record for a 32-game hitting streak in 2006.
A: Really? That’s interesting. I’d never known that.
Q: What about your recent All-Star experience? The logistics of getting to and from that game in Boise had to be tough.
A: I mean, they flew us, which is nice, so that saved a lot of time traveling, from Billings to Salt Lake and then Boise. It was fun, the whole experience. It was awesome to be around with all those dudes, great guys. It was just a cool experience that I won’t forget.
Q: While other guys got a four-day break, do the all-stars get much of a mental break?
A: It’s a break. I only played like four innings. You don’t really stress about the game, you’re just having a good time. It’s not like a normal game. It’s just go out there, have a good time and hang out with the guys. Just enjoy yourself type of thing.
Q: You hit a home run in your first at-bat. That had to be kind of cool.
A: Right when I hit it, I was thinking, ‘Man, I really just hit a home run in an all-star game.’ “
Q: Overall, it’s been a nice season for you after the first few games (Yang was hitting .125 after five games). Were there any adjustments you had to make?
A: Just getting back into it. I just came from school, it was just getting back into baseball, you know? Now I’m doing good, feel comfortable, I’ve got like a routine going now.
Q: What’s been the biggest culture shock for you coming to Montana from Los Angeles?
A: Um, just not having every food place you want on the corner. (Smiles) I don’t have a car around here, so I’m limited. But it’s been nice, I like it.
Mustangs at a glance
Last 7 (through Friday): The entire Pioneer League was off Sunday through Wednesday for the all-star break. The Mustangs were 1-1 since, heading into Saturday’s game.
Next 7: Aug. 11 vs. Rocky Mountain; Aug. 12-15 vs. Grand Junction; Aug. 16-17 at Idaho Falls
Who’s hot (through Saturday): Since joining the Mustangs after a promotion from Greeneville, RHP Noah Davis has allowed two earned runs in 12 innings, covering three starts for a 1.50 ERA. He’s struck out 12, walked four and given up eight hits.
Transactions for Aug. 3-Aug. 10: In: LHP Jacques Pucheu from rookie Greeneville. Out: LHP Alec Byrd assigned to Single A Dayton; OF Nate Scantlin placed on restricted list; RHP Manuel Cachutt assigned to rookie Greeneville; OF Matt Lloyd assigned to Single A Dayton.
Up on the farm: We mentioned former Mustang Aristides Aquino in this space a couple weeks ago, recounting the outfielder’s exploits at Triple-A Louisville. Well, the 25-year-old was called up to the major leagues after Cincinnati sent Yasiel Puig to the Cleveland Indians at the July 31 trade deadline, and Aquino has been nothing short of sensational for the Reds. Aquino homered in his first three at-bats Saturday night, and his seven home runs in his first 10 career games tied a major-league record. He entered Saturday’s contest against the Chicago Cubs with a .417 batting average and a 1.398 OPS in 24 at-bats.
Home run cycle: Yang’s all-star home run was part of an interesting feat for the PL All-Stars. His solo homer, along with a two-run homer by Ogden's Sam McWilliams, a three-run shot by Ogden's Jon Littell and a grand slam from Orem's Jeremiah Jackson meant the PL completed a “home run cycle” in its 11-7 win. In order, the homers went Jackson, Yang, Littell and McWilliams. “Everyone was going to swing hard today,” Yang told MiLB.com after the game. “We wanted to hit some bombs. I told myself I wasn’t going to take a strike today. So, trying to get my hacks off, I just ran into one.”
Pioneer League at a glance
Pitcher of the week for July 29-Aug. 4: Nathan Webb of Idaho Falls threw seven shutout innings and struck out 10 in his one start for the week.
Offensive player of the week: Grand Junction’s Christian Koss hit .333 in 21 at-bats and slugged .762 by hitting three doubles and two home runs among his seven hits. He drove in eight runs and scored six times. Koss's .392 batting average leads the Pioneer League.
Running it up: Going into Saturday, the Ogden Raptors (39-10) had scored a whopping 374 runs, an average of 7.6 per game. The Raptors’ run differential is so high that it dwarfs the second-best team by 128 runs. Here’s how the teams rank:
Grand Junction +32
Idaho Falls -19
Rocky Mountain -49
Great Falls -50