Long odyssey begins tonight for the Mustangs
14 days on the road a big test to open season
By MIKE SCHERTING
Of The Gazette Staff
Tom Browning has seen and done a lot of things in his professional baseball career.
Among the highlights for the 12-year major league veteran: He threw a perfect game against the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1988 and helped the Cincinnati Reds win the 1990 World Series.
And, believe it or not, he has been on a road trip longer than the 14-game odyssey the Billings Mustangs are beginning tonight in Missoula as they open their Pioneer League season against the Osprey.
When Browning, now in his first season as the Mustangs pitching coach, was in his second year of managing the Florence (Ohio) Freedom of the independent Frontier League a few years ago, his team was on the road for 28 days while the team's new stadium was being completed. So while others on the Mustangs may be experiencing such an extended trip for the first time, Browning knows exactly what's in store for the next two weeks.
"It's going to be a long road trip," Browning said Sunday afternoon, before the team left town early Monday morning. "I'm not very good at predicting, nor do I want to predict, but you know what, if we have close to a .500 record on this first road trip, I'll be tickled pink."
In fact, wins and losses might be the furthest thing from manager Julio Garcia's mind for the first week or so. Because of the ongoing construction at new Dehler Park in Billings, the Mustangs have been together as a team for only a few days. Another valuable workout day was lost Sunday when the team had to travel from Sarasota, Fla., where it was holding its minicamp that began only Thursday, to Billings, so the Mustangs could collect their uniforms and board a bus the next day to Missoula.
Garcia, who wasn't with the Cincinnati Reds organization last year, conceded that he knows little about his players. He does know, however, that Leonardo Astorga will make the opening-night start on the mound for the Mustangs.
Astorga, a 6-foot-2 right-hander, was signed as a free agent in 2004 but missed all of last season with an elbow injury. The 22-year-old, who compiled a 3-5 record with a 2.70 ERA in 26 games over two seasons in the Venezuelan Summer League, has been throwing during extended spring training, and Garcia said Astorga is stretched out and ready to go.
"He's coming off Tommy John surgery and he's coming along real, real well," Garcia said. "He's throwing the ball good and his velocity is about where it was before the surgery, and it's going to get better.
"He's the most prepared based on what he did in extended spring training. He's the most deserving of that start."
Maybe the real test for the Mustangs will be how they come together in the next two weeks before their home opener July 1. The players are going to be thrown into a tough situation, playing and living nearly 24 hours a day with 27 other guys whom they know little to nothing about.
"We're going to be close on the bus, everybody's going to be packed in, and we're going to be like that for two weeks," said pitcher Dan Zeffiro, who also played for the Mustangs last season. "Like it or not, we're going to get close to each other no matter what. And the wins will take care of themselves. Hopefully we can produce some W's."
And the packing? Players can only hope they brought enough clothes with them to bring along on the 14-day trip.
"I think I did," pitcher Will Hudgens, who was drafted by the Reds in the 23rd round out of the University of Memphis, said with a chuckle. "I don't know if I brought enough sleeves, so we'll see about that. But I brought enough underwear, and that's all I'm going to need."