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Riders thrown by the Ponies down stretch

by FRITZ NEIGHBOR
Daily Inter Lake | September 14, 2023 12:00 AM

With the way they played the first half, it should have been a lock that nobody besides Missoula would have a better overall record in the Pioneer League than the Glacier Range Riders.

It was an excellent bet: The PaddleHeads finished with 66 wins; the Range Riders ended with the next-best total, 54.

What few people saw coming was the Billings Mustangs tearing off 15 straight wins and overtaking Missoula for the second-half North Division title.

Billings kept the Riders from their first PBL playoff berth, and did with two of the best 2022 players — Crews Taylor and Jackson Raper — suiting up for Glacier.

“They got hot at the right time,” first-year Range Riders manager Stu Pederson said of the Mustangs. “I thought they would beat them (Monday), just because they were hot. Missoula hasn’t been playing too well lately. The PaddleHeads have a team built for the long season. Once you get to the playoffs anything can happen.”

For the record, Billings won Game 1 of the Divisional series Monday, 8-5 over Missoula and their ace pitcher Alfredo Villa. Owner of a 13-1 record and a 2.82 earned-run average, Villa lasted four innings, giving up six runs (four earned).

Looking back on his season, the Range Riders underwent a bit of a makeover following MLB’s amateur draft, but nothing more extreme than any other team in the league. With the exception of a seven-game winning streak in late August they fell off, going 23-27 after a 31-15 start.

“I think in the second half some of our pitchers were getting tired, and kind of hit a wall,” Pederson said. “If you look at their first-half stats and their second-half stats, especially if you look at the kids that came in from college — they’d been at it for five or six months. They hit a wall. And once you get tired it’s hard to recover.”

Range Riders broadcaster Scot Gladstone provided the proof: Glacier’s first-half ERA was 5.16; it jumped to 6.68 the second half. Nick Zegna’s ERA by half-season was 3.38 and 6.88; Jonathan Clark’s rose more than five points from his first-half 3.18.

It wasn’t just the starters; the bullpen that was so good the first half got a little strained in July and August.

That said, it was a successful year. Kingston Liniak belted 20 home runs, and Gabe Howell had 17. Christian Kirtley, a late addition, hit .320 with 15 homers and a 1.017 OPS.

“He came here and hit well,” Pederson said of Kirtley. “I thought he was one of the better hitters in the league. I’ll be surprised if he doesn’t get picked up this winter.”

In 2022 the fledgling Range Riders won a total of 39 games. They seem to be trending up, playing at the award-winning Glacier Bank Park.

“I had a lot of fun,” Pederson said. “A lot of good kids, a lot of talented players, and that makes it fun. We won a lot of games.

“We’ll continue trying to get better each and every year. That’s the goal of the organization, it’s my goal, and the goal of the players. They should be trying to get better every day.”

Fritz Neighbor can be reached at 758-4463 or fneighbor@dailyinterlake.com