At the conclusion of a first half that saw them finish six games off the division lead, the Billings Mustangs could have been forgiven for trying to shake things up. They didn't. Thursday night in Orem, they were rewarded for staying the course.
Kevin Franklin belted a two-run homer and Brennan Bernardino wriggled out of a difficult jam in a tense ninth inning as Rookie-level Billings swept Orem with a 6-5 win for its first Pioneer League championship since 2003.
"I know it's Rookie ball, and there's a lot of development that's a part of it, but toward the end of the last three weeks [of the regular season], they realized there was something in sight to win the second half," Billings manager Dick Schofield said. "Going into the playoffs, they had tremendous energy. We had a lot of fun. Even in the first half, when we didn't play well, the kids didn't change anything. We didn't change anything. They stuck to what they were supposed to do, and they got rewarded for their hard work."
The Mustangs roared back to post the league's best record in the second half and swept their way through the playoffs, beating Great Falls in two games before finishing off Orem on Thursday. Franklin sparked Billings with his one-out blast in the second inning, the first half of a four-run frame.
The Mustangs added two in the third, capped off by Brian O'Grady's second RBI single of the night.
"Offensively, we jumped out quick, and then we just held on," Schofield said. "Our bullpen has done an unbelievable job this whole second half, and it's a credit to them. They're the reason we won this thing. Obviously, we scored runs and all that, but they came up huge for us. It was pretty fun to watch."
As the Owlz chipped away, Schofield turned to closer Bernardino to protect a one-run lead in the ninth. That advantage looked shaky when Orem's Michael Strentz reached and went to second base on a fielding error charged to right fielder Aristides Aquino to lead off the final inning. Wade Wass singled behind Strentz and moved to second on a one-out wild pitch.
"I was just hoping, worst-case scenario was that they would tie it," Schofield said. "We have the infield back, and they put the ball in play on the ground and tie it up.
"We struck [Raul Linares] out, and I can't even remember what else happened," he added with a laugh. "I was trying to hide in the corner."
With the potential game-winning run in scoring position and two outs, Juan Moreno laced a line drive into the glove of Billings third baseman Taylor Sparks to set off the celebration.
"It was a case of being really good and being really lucky all at once," Schofield said.
The Mustangs, who finished second in the league in ERA with a 4.31 to Great Falls (3.74), won three of their four postseason games by one run, including both victories in the Finals. The Pioneer League title is Billings' ninth since becoming a Cincinnati affiliate in 1974.
O'Grady, Aquino, Franklin and Garrett Boulware posted multi-hit games, and the Mustangs earned the win despite leaving 14 men on the basepaths while going 3-for-15 with runners in scoring position.
Tejay Antone (1-0) allowed two runs on four hits while fanning one in two innings of relief to earn the win. Bernardino recorded the final four outs for his second save of the postseason.
"The kids were excited. I was, too, but I'd seen this all year long," Schofield said. "That 27th out is sometimes hard to get. We barely hung on, but they battled and battled and battled and came out ahead."
Tyler Maun is a contributor to MiLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @TylerMaun.