Ben Lively's arrival in Billings as a fourth-round Draft pick out of Central Florida meant a stark removal from his normal surroundings. But the Pensacola, Fla., native isn't complaining.
"I'm liking it," said Lively, the 135th overall pick by Cincinnati in 2013. "The scenery is a lot different. I lived right on the beach, and I've never seen mountains like this. So it's pretty cool."
But, he added, "I've always been on the water. So it's a struggle not going out there."
Despite his devotion to life on the Gulf Coast -- he was in the process of procuring a captain's license to assist his father's charter fishing company -- pitching has been Lively's lifeblood since his time as a collegiate ace. And he's become one of the more dominant arms in the Pioneer League.
In his first seven starts as a pro, the 6-foot-4, 190-pound right-hander hasn't allowed an earned run. Lively has given up just 13 hits in that 21-inning span and piled up 26 strikeouts to just eight walks.
His record is 0-1, the loss coming July 5 against Missoula as a result of three unearned runs. He also gave up an unearned run July 23 in a start against Orem.
The league is hitting just .176 against Lively, and he owns a 1.00 WHIP to go along with his unblemished ERA.
"I've just been following the same motto," Lively said. "Just keeping the ball down and filling the zone and rolling with it. I'm not going to change my mind-set and the way I get on the mound. I'm going to do the same things I do every week to get ready to pitch."
Lively, who boasts a four-pitch arsenal (fastball, curve, slider, changeup) wrapped up his three-year career at Central Florida in 2013 with the fourth-lowest ERA in school history (3.06) and ranks seventh all-time in wins (21).
The aspects of first-year pro pitching to which Lively has tried to get accustomed are pitch counts and innings limits. Lively has never pitched more than three innings in any start this season, meaning he's never been in line for a victory. He threw 106 innings this past season at Central Florida, so the Reds and Mustangs have been mindful of his workload.
"I always mess around in the dugout: 'Just let me get to five innings, let me get five innings,'" Lively said. "They won't let me."
That's because there's a future to protect.
"He's fun to watch," said Mustangs manager Pat Kelly. "He pitches like you're supposed to. He pitches down in the zone and he pitches to both sides of the plate. He's aggressive, he gets ahead, and he can put you away with the breaking ball or he can elevate the fastball to strike you out. He definitely shows why we drafted him."
Playoff bound: Helena and Grand Junction each clinched first-half division titles, meaning their tickets are punched for the postseason in September. The Brewers went 23-15 in the first half, while the Rockies went 21-17. The league's second half began July 31.
Onward and upward: Billings will miss outfielder Phil Ervin, but the rest of the league probably won't. After winning the league's Player of the Week award for the period ending July 28, Ervin, the No. 27 overall pick by Cincinnati in 2013, was called up to Class A Dayton of the Midwest League. In his last nine games with Billings, Ervin hit a blistering .457 with six home runs and 14 RBIs.
Gray is gone: Jonathan Gray, the No. 3 overall pick in the 2013 Draft, has left Grand Junction for a promotion to Class A Advanced Modesto of the California League. Showing an improved changeup of late, Gray had a 4.05 ERA in four starts (13 1/3 innings) in Grand Junction with 15 strikeouts and two walks.
Tapia (still) streaking: Raimel Tapia won't stop hitting. The Grand Junction outfielder extended his hitting streak to 28 games with a 2-for-4 performance July 31, four shy of the league record set by Billings' Chris Valaika in 2006. Tapia's .383 batting average also leads the league.