Ponies to make Dehler Park debut tonight
Mustangs finally return home after 14 road games in 15 days
By MIKE SCHERTING
Of The Gazette Staff
GREAT FALLS - It's not really the comforts of home that the Billings Mustangs have missed.
Because really, so far in this Pioneer League season, Mustangs players haven't even been in Billings long enough to get settled into their living situations and know what those comforts are.
Several of the Mustangs joined the team on the road, and even the 29 or so players and coaches who have seen Billings had been in town only a matter of 18 hours or so before they had to embark on their mammoth 15-day, 14-game road trip to start the season.
They've been to Missoula, to Great Falls, back to Missoula, to Helena and back to Great Falls.
But finally, the time has come to play at new Dehler Park. Their odyssey complete, the Mustangs play the first Pioneer League game at the park tonight at 7 p.m. against the North Division-leading Great Falls Voyagers. More than anything, the Mustangs are ready to hear a few friendly voices.
"Basically, we're on a three-month road trip, to tell you the truth, because we're all not from around here," Mustangs infielder Alex Buchholz, a sixth-round selection of the Cincinnati Reds out of the University of Delaware, said with a chuckle before Monday's game against the Voyagers. "But to get to Billings and have the fan support, that'll make you feel at home. When we score we'd like to hear some roars and rahs, you know?"
The players are well aware that the reserved seating for tonight's game has been sold out for some time, and that a large walk-up crowd is expected as well. And besides getting the much anticipated crowd support, the Mustangs are also looking forward to an easier day-to-day life.
"I'm excited to get home and not be in the hotels all the time, constantly traveling," Buchholz said. "It'll be nice to get on a steady program at home because we get to the field a lot earlier than we do when we're on the road.
"Everything from rest to eating. We eat fast food on the road all the time. At home we'll get to eat a little bit better, and get more rest. I'm looking forward to that."
The respite won't be long - after three games with Great Falls and three with Helena - it's back on the bus for a seven game road trip to Orem and Ogden, Utah. But they entered Monday's road finale in Great Falls with seven wins, guaranteeing themselves of a break-even trip.
Though pleased with the team's record, Mustangs manager Julio Garcia said he didn't put a number on how many games he'd like to see his team win on the initial trip. Instead, he was more focused on finding a formula for everyone to get playing time.
"I didn't even put a number on it, in terms of wins and losses, to tell you the truth," he said. "... The driving, the buses and all that kind of stuff, is the one thing that's been a little tough on the guys. But they've come through it pretty good.
"We'll get to wear the white uniform when we get home ... everything will look new ... I wouldn't want to do it again, but it's been a good experience."
Clayton Shunick, a fifth-round pick from North Carolina State, will get the ball for the Mustangs against Daniel Hudson of the Voyagers. Shunick will be making his third start after taking a break of nearly three weeks from the time he was drafted by the Reds to the time he made his first start with the Mustangs.
"I'm starting to get more and more comfortable out on the mound after taking a little bit of time off," said Shunick, who is 0-0 with a 6.75 ERA in eight innings. "I was starting to feel the groove back toward the end of my last start, so hopefully that carries over into this next one."
Since Shunick joined the Mustangs after the season started, he hasn't seen Dehler Park in person. He has viewed photos of the park on the Internet, and the significance of tonight's game isn't lost on the 21-year-old right-hander.
"I know it means a lot to the town of Billings and I've heard they've got a great fan base there," he said. "I'm excited and I'm honored to be starting the first game there. Hopefully we can start out the new stadium with a win."