BILLINGS — There’s a new advertisement on the wall in the deep left-center field alley of Dehler Park that bears a Cincinnati Reds logo and reads, “This Is Reds Country.”
It used to be. But not anymore.
The Billings Mustangs played their first home game as an independent franchise on a cool Wednesday — their first after losing their nearly 50-years-long minor league affiliation with the Reds by way of Major League Baseball’s contraction of more than 40 MiLB clubs.
But that didn’t prevent 1,704 fans from filling into Dehler Park for what was the restoration of professional baseball at the home grounds in 626 days after coronavirus perpetuated the cancellation of the 2020 season. And the Mustangs gave the crowd a 17-7 win over the Rocky Mountain Vibes.
The Mustangs’ affiliation with Cincinnati may be no more — even though the team confirmed that the Reds paid for that advertisement before this season — but baseball had finally made long-awaited return, regardless of how the three hour and 33 minute contest might have looked.
Five Vibes pitchers issued an eye-popping 19 walks and hit three other batters. But the Mustangs’ offense didn’t truly break out until the seventh inning, when local product Jalen Garcia delivered a bases-loaded single through the hole at second that scored two runs and Mike Bradshaw belted a long three-run homer over the left field barrier as part of an eight-run frame.
It was a bit of a reversal of fortune for Billings, which went through a similar spate of wildness on the mound and dropped two of three games during its season-opening series at Idaho Falls.
“Baseball has a way of paying it back,” said Mustangs leadoff hitter Chris Eusay. “We did the same thing in Idaho Falls. It took some pressure off the sticks, took some pressure off the hitters, it was nice.”
Eusay reached base five times on four walks and a hit-by-pitch. Teammate Caeden Harris also got on board five times (two singles, two walks and an error). Dalton Cobb scored three times.
Rocky Mountain was charged with five errors.
Garcia, who played American Legion ball with the Billings Scarlets and went on to set the stolen base record for Montana State Billings, struck out three times but also stole two bags prior to his aforementioned hit. He also made a nice sliding catch in left field.
Slugger Daniel Cipriano, who also played collegiately at MSUB, delivered an RBI single in the fourth and walked and scored in the sixth.
“Sometimes it’s a little tougher when you’re not seeing strikes,” Eusay said. “It’s a little bit harder to catch barrels and get into a rhythm as an offense. We were just waiting, and when they were throwing strikes we started swinging it.”
A scary moment occurred in the third inning when Mustangs starter Misael Castillo was hit by a sharp line drive off the bat of Rocky Mountain’s Manny Olloque. Castillo fell to the ground in obvious pain and was later helped off the field but did not return to the game.
In contrast to the Vibes, Billings pitchers gave up six walks and put up zeroes in five separate innings. Castillo was fairly effective in his short stint, allowing one run and striking out four while issuing one walk in three innings.
Relief pitcher Sam Wells earned the win. He gave up two hits in 2 2/3 innings, striking out walk without a walk.
The Mustangs and Vibes will play the second game of their six-game series Thursday at Dehler Park. First pitch is scheduled for 6:35 p.m.