Category: Feature

Local umpires step up at Chukars games

Umpires Conner Culhane (left) and Chris Sundvold talk during the Idaho Falls Chukars’ game against the Helena Brewers on July 15 at Melaleuca Field. Sundvold filled in for an injured Jacob Botek. (Courtesy of Steve Thayer)
Umpires Conner Culhane (left) and Chris Sundvold talk during the Idaho Falls Chukars’ game against the Helena Brewers on July 15 at Melaleuca Field. Sundvold filled in for an injured Jacob Botek. (Courtesy of Steve Thayer)

Teagan Smith knows Melaleuca Field well, but the ballpark looked foreign to him last Thursday.

Smith umpired an Idaho Falls Chukars game for the first time in his 10-year umpiring career.

His experience at Melaleuca Field is exclusive to high school games, which might feature 100 fans on a good night. The attendance at last Thursday’s game between the Chukars and Helena Brewers was 3,177.

The mix of a large crowd and professional stakes led to a bundle of nerves for Smith, who was filling in for the injured Jacob Botek. But the butterflies fluttered away once the game got rolling.

“It’s just baseball,” Smith said.

Smith was one of three local umpires who picked up Botek’s slack during the Chukars’ most recent homestand. Idaho Falls general manager Kevin Greene is tasked with finding replacement umpires. Conflicting schedules and low pay sometimes make that job difficult.

On the rare occasions when Greene needs to find a replacement umpire, he turns to Brent Martin. Martin is the District 6 commissioner for umpires and rules interpreter, and he has filled in at Chukars games for years. Martin declined to umpire last week due to a bad knee, so he recommended Smith and Brad Hadley to Greene.

Hadley worked with Pioneer League umpire Conner Culhane on Wednesday, Saturday, Sunday, Monday and Tuesday. But neither Hadley nor Smith could work Friday’s game due to their previous commitments as umpires for American Legion baseball games. That left Greene in a bind.

“I called the (Pioneer) League president and said, ‘I’ve got no one,’ Greene said. “He said, ‘Kevin, you’ve gotta find someone.’”

Greene eventually got Chris Sundvold to fill in.

Players and coaches know the replacement umpires are not professionals, but the umpires didn’t poor treatment from the teams. And Smith, Hadley and Sundvold umpired relatively clean games. It’s just baseball, after all.

The only real issue is finding umpires, and scheduling is not the only conflicting factor.

The Pioneer League pays replacement umpires $75 per game, according to league president Jim McCurdy. Martin said umpires get paid about $75 for Legion games, and that number spikes to $120 for doubleheaders. Barring extra innings, Legion games last seven innings, and mercy rules can reduce game times even more. Every Pioneer League game goes at least nine innings, and umpires are required to show up an hour before first pitch.

“You should be getting $100, minimum, for a professional baseball game,” Martin said. “We don’t want to bleed them dry, but we think we should be compensated at least to the high school level or better.”

Umpires can make more than $75 for Pioneer League games, but the extra cash comes out of the team’s wallet, Greene said, and there’s only so much room in the budget. McCurdy said increased pay for replacement umps has not been discussed in recent league meetings.

Hadley doesn’t mind the meager pay. For one, the opportunities for local umpires to work Chukars games are so rare that the money they receive hardly affects their total income. Martin, for instance, hasn’t umped a Chukars game since 2014.

Hadley also considers it a privilege to work Chukars games.

“It’s fun to say that you’ve umped a (professional) game, even though it’s minor league,” he said. “I’m not too worried about the pay because it’s not that big of a deal.”

On the road again: Jeff Suppan adjusts to life as coach

 

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Idaho Falls Chukars pitching coach Jeff Suppan, right, watches right-hander Reid Redman on June 14 at the team’s first workout at Melaleuca Field. (Monte LaOrange / mlaorange@postregister.com)

Jeff Suppan has memorized one line of Spanish: “No hablo español pero entiendo todo.”

Translation: “I don’t speak Spanish, but I understand everything.”

It’s a joke Suppan tells the Spanish-speaking pitchers on the Idaho Falls Chukars in attempt to hurdle the language barrier. And the Latino pitchers make up a fraction of the players Suppan is mentoring in his second year as I.F.’s pitching coach.

“You try to understand the individual, whether they speak the language or not,” Suppan told the Post Register.

Last season, Suppan made a translated cheat sheet of key points he wanted to tell his Latino pitchers. He also consults bench coach Ramon Castro or bilingual players if he needs a translator.

But the maze of translation still provides some frustration.

“If I say, ‘Hey, be aggressive,’ (a Latino pitcher) might think it means, ‘I have to throw 100 miles an hour,’” Suppan said. “To me, that doesn’t mean that. ‘Just hit the strike zone. Be aggressive in your pitch, whether it’s a changeup, slider, curveball or fastball.’”

These adjustments are relatively minor compared to Suppan’s first weeks in Idaho Falls last summer.

Suppan officially retired from Major League Baseball in 2014. His last pro season was 2012, when he split time between the San Diego Padres and their Triple-A affiliate. When the Padres released Suppan after the season, the right-handed pitcher ended his 17-year MLB career.

The year before his stint with San Diego, Suppan played for the Omaha Storm Chasers, the Kansas City Royals’ AAA affiliate. Suppan said people in the Royals’ organization gauged his interest in coaching. At the time, he couldn’t fathom coaching career.

“It took a year, maybe two years to get the player out of me,” Suppan said.

Suppan became more attracted by coaching the longer he was retired. He stayed in touch with the Royals and went to the team’s scout school. A year after officially retiring, he was hired as the Chukars’ pitching coach.

One of the hardest things for Suppan to get used to last summer was riding the bus to every road game. He flew in chartered jets his entire major league career, which began in 1995. From 1998 to 2011, Suppan’s only trips to the minor leagues were for one-start rehab assignments.

He only had to worry about one pitcher for the previous two decades, as well. As a pitching coach, Suppan had to focus on more than a dozen.

Suppan owned a Los Angeles restaurant fittingly named Soup’s Grill until this past December. His coaching responsibilities helped lead to the restaurant’s sale.

“My wife was stuck in California with two kids having to run to the restaurant because somebody didn’t show up,” Suppan said. “I didn’t really think that was fair, and the market was right, so we sold it.”

Chukars left-hander Matt Portland was disappointed when he found out he’d be returning to I.F. for a second straight season. No player wants to repeat a minor-league level. One bright spot, however, was the Chukars coaching staff, particularly Suppan.

Portland described Suppan as approachable and hip, a coach who deftly balances the mentor-peer relationship. Suppan will discuss more than just pitching, although he’s good at that, too.

“His favorite saying is, ‘You never know when a bag of (expletive) is going to fall on your head,’” Portland said. “You’ve gotta be even-keeled and be ready for the highs and the lows.”

Portland has a 9.18 ERA this season, but last week he threw a sequence of pitches that left Suppan proud.

The basis of the sequence is this: throw an inside slider followed by a sinker that begins where the slider ended. The goal is to create an invisible X in the hitter’s mind, keeping him off-balance.

After weeks of practice, Portland executed the sequence in a game.

Moments like these make the grind of I.F.’s season worth it for Suppan. Whenever he can get through to his pitchers, Hispanic or otherwise, he’s glad he pursued a coaching career.

“Hitters can hit forever in the cage, but we can’t really throw (forever),” Suppan said. “Getting that work down to where it’s short increments where we’re gaining a lot of knowledge from it, that’s where I get really excited.”

Tall order: Cole Way transitions from punter to pitcher

Way
Way

Not many athletes get to choose between playing pro baseball or college football.

But there was Cole Way, sitting in his parents’ living room, wondering if he’d be selected in the 2014 MLB draft. If not, he’d likely return for his senior year at Tulsa. As a punter.

Way almost lost faith, but he finally heard his name called in the 38th round. The Kansas City Royals selected him, causing the living room to fill with hugs and tears.

“(The Royals) called me right after that and were like, ‘Hey, we’re serious about you,’ Way said. “I told them right there, ‘I’m in.’

Two years and a $50,000 signing bonus later, Way is pitching for the Idaho Falls Chukars. At 24, the left-hander is one of the oldest players on I.F.’s roster. But in baseball years, he’s one of the youngest.

I feel like I’m growing, maturing in the game like I need to be doing,” Way said.

Perhaps more surprising than Way’s path from punter to pitcher is that he was a punter to begin with. He’s 6-foot-11.

Way became a punter because of his brother Tress, who is heading into his third season as the starting punter for the Washington Redskins. Cole juggled baseball and football scholarship offers entering his senior year at Union High School in Tulsa, Okla. Watching Tress thrive at the University of Oklahoma helped sway Way toward football.

“Being a little brother, I was like, ‘Well if he can do it, I’m gonna do it,’ Way said.

A group of Way’s friends chose to attend Tulsa, so Way’s decision became easy. Tress believes Way could have gone to bigger school if he attended more football camps in high school.

“Out of high school, Cole was probably the best punter in the country,” Tress said. “Cole was a better punter than I was.”

Way grew three inches after his junior season at Tulsa in 2013. In May 2014, he traveled to Corona, Calif., to visit Tress’ future in-laws, which included former Seattle Mariner Brian Turang. Turang, who owns a training facility in Corona, heard Way was a pitcher in high school and asked him to pitch for the first time in three years. Turang’s radar gun clocked Way’s fastball from 89 and 92 miles per hour.

Turang recommended Way to a Southern California-based Royals scout, who brought Way in for a workout, according to MLB.com. The scout was also impressed, and Way was invited to a Royals pre-draft workout.

A week after the workout, Way sat in his parents’ living room listening to the MLB draft feed on a laptop. If Way wasn’t drafted but signed as a free agent, he’d consider balancing baseball with his final season at Tulsa. That consideration went out the window when the Royals selected him.

Tress told his brother that baseball was a no-brainer. As impressive as Way was as a punter, Tress gushed even more about his pitching ability.

“I try telling people how good he was in high school. Anytime he stepped on the mound, guys never touched the ball,” Tress said. “We all had a pretty good idea what God created him to do.”

Last year with Burlington, Way overextended his elbow three weeks into last season and missed the rest of it. He entered this summer healthy, and he’s posted a 3.18 ERA in 5.2 innings so far.

Pitching coach Jeff Suppan is impressed with Way’s stuff and temperament. Way’s football career rarely comes up.

“He doesn’t really say he was a punter,” Suppan said. “He just says he was on the football team.”

Way knows he’s raw compared to most minor-league pitchers, so he’s patient. He’s just grateful the Royals gave him a shot.

“Hopefully I can live up to the expectations of what they saw,” Way said.

Scary injury landed Brandon Dulin with the Chukars

Idaho Falls' Brandon Dulin takes the throw from pitcher Alex Luna during Tuesday's game at Melaleuca Field. (Monte LaOrange / mlaorange@postregister.com)
Idaho Falls’ Brandon Dulin takes the throw from pitcher Alex Luna during Tuesday’s game at Melaleuca Field. (Monte LaOrange / mlaorange@postregister.com)

Brandon Dulin should not be in Idaho Falls right now.

The Idaho Falls Chukars first baseman proved last season that was he was too good for Rookie ball, and the Kansas City Royals promoted him to Single-A Lexington this spring. He continued to hit well.

But since April 12, Dulin has played just four games, all with the Chukars. The reason: a freak injury on one of the most routine plays in baseball.

Dulin, 23, started at first base for Lexington in the second half of a doubleheader against the Augusta GreenJackets on April 12 in Lexington, Ky. Dulin walked in his first plate appearance and singled in his second, raising his slash line to .364/.417/.818 (batting average/on-base percentage/slugging percentage) in three games with the Legends.

After the fourth-inning single, Dulin was forced out at second base on a fielder’s choice. He slid feet-first into second base on the play, something he’d done hundreds of times before. As Dulin stood up, pain shot up his back and neck.

Dulin stayed in the game for two more innings but asked his coaches to take him out in the seventh. He was having trouble moving and even breathing.

“They were really worried about me as soon as I was like, ‘Hey, I can’t play,’ because it’s just not like me to pull myself out of the game,” Dulin said.

In the locker room after the game, Dulin fainted for a brief second. That’s when the Legends’ training staff knew something was seriously wrong, so Dulin was rushed to the hospital. In hindsight, Dulin fears what might have happened if he didn’t pass out, or if the training staff wasn’t around.

“I could’ve just went to sleep not feeling good ‘I’m just gonna sleep it off’ and it could’ve been really bad,” Dulin said.

Dulin discovered he had hemothorax, a type of internal bleeding between the chest wall and the lung. It caused his lung to collapse, and it kept him in intensive care for nine days.

Dulin’s parents, Jason and Lisa, flew from their Baker, Mont., home to Lexington after they heard about their son’s condition.The three returned to Whitaker Bank Ballpark after leaving the hospital.

“We walked in and his trainer was like, ‘I literally thought I’d never see you walk through these doors again,’ Lisa said. “‘I thought you were dying that night.’ It was pretty scary.”

Dulin rehabilitated in Kansas City (his hometown) before heading to Arizona for more rehab. The Royals then assigned him to I.F., where he finished the 2015 season. Dulin hit .286/.290/.321 in seven games for the Chukars last year after posting .280/.360/.516 line in 59 games for Burlington. He was batting .385/.429/.615 going into Tuesday’s game, and he hit home run against Ogden on Saturday.

“It wasn’t about baseball, it was his health. That’s all we were concerned about,” said Jason, who watched Saturday’s game with Lisa and other family and friends. “Seeing him out playing and hitting a home run tonight, it makes you feel good that he’s healthy and he’s able to play.”

Dulin is not sure how long he’ll remain in I.F., although his early success points to an exit sooner rather than later. He has steep path to Kansas City, but even after his scary injury, Dulin remains focused on playing in his home city.

“You keep playing as hard as you can and put yourself in position to get that call,” Dulin said. “I believe that I have a good shot.”

Reid Redman continues adjusting to life as a pitcher

Right-handed relief pitcher Reid Redman, 27, is on a rehab assignment with the Idaho Falls Chukars. He underwent Tommy John surgery in May 2015. (Pat Sutphin / psutphin@postregister.com)
Right-handed relief pitcher Reid Redman, 27, is on a rehab assignment with the Idaho Falls Chukars. He underwent Tommy John surgery in May 2015. (Pat Sutphin / psutphin@postregister.com)

It’s hard to blame Reid Redman for missing the warning signs.

The right-handed pitcher in the Kansas City Royals organization felt some tightness in his right forearm during 2015 spring training, but he pitched through it.

“I was pretty new to pitching, so I thought this was just what pitchers go through,” Redman told the Post Register.

The pain persisted during his first two months with the Northwest Arkansas Naturals, Kansas City’s Double-A affiliate. That May, Redman decided to get his arm looked at. An MRI revealed a ulnar collateral ligament tear. He underwent Tommy John surgery the next day.

The surgery landed Redman, 27, with the Idaho Falls Chukars this summer on a rehabilitation assignment. His goal this summer is to progress as a pitcher, a position he began playing three years ago.

Redman graduated from Texas Tech in 2012 with a degree in oil and gas. In 2013, the Lubbock, Texas, native started considering a career in the oil industry.

Redman was drafted by the Tampa Bay Rays in the 23rd round of the 2012 MLB draft. He played infield at the time and had hardly pitched an inning in his career.

In 2012, the Rays assigned Redman to Rookie-level Princeton, where he spent most of his time at second base. Redman batted .265/.324/.376 (batting average/on-base percentage/slugging percentage) in 253 plate appearances that summer. It wasn’t a horrendous performance, but Tampa Bay released him after 2013 spring training.

Redman packed his things and headed back to West Texas. He figured his career was over.

“I was going to get into oil and gas of some sort,” Redman said. “That’s all there really is around there.”

Before he began searching for new jobs, a scout for the Miami Marlins called Redman wondering if he could come to Palm Beach, Fla., for a tryout. Redman didn’t hesitate.

Redman arrived in Palm Beach hoping to impress the Marlins scouts at the plate and in the field.

“They said, ‘You don’t need any bats or anything, you just need your glove. We want to see if you can pitch,’ Redman said. “I was pretty confused at first. Thought they might have the wrong guy.”

A Miami scout was impressed with Redman’s arm as a infielder for Texas Tech, Redman said, and the Marlins wanted to see if that arm would translate to the pitching mound. Redman wasn’t about to turn down the opportunity. But all he threw, all he knew, were fastballs.

“I really had no idea what I was doing,” Redman said.

His velocity, movement and mechanics impressed Miami enough for them to offer him a contract. It’s paid off.

Redman posted a 1.91 ERA in 28.1 relief innings for the Batavia Muckdogs (short-season Single-A) in 2013. He played for the advanced Single-A Jupiter Hammerheads and the Double-A Jacksonville Suns the following season. His combined ERA in 61.2 innings that year was 2.04, with 68 strikeouts and 12 walks.

Redman and left-hander Brian Flynn were traded to the Royals for Aaron Crow before the 2015 season, and Redman was assigned to Northwest Arkansas. He posted a 3.63 ERA in 17.1 innings before he experienced a pitcher’s worst nightmare last May. But he considers the Tommy John rehab a blessing in disguise, a chance to improve his slider and changeup.

“His stuff is there, he’s got good velocity,” Chukars pitching coach Jeff Suppan said. “He has a good idea of how the game is played. That’s half the battle really.”

Redman does not know how long his rehab assignment will last or where he’ll be assigned after Idaho Falls. But it’s easy for him to be patient. After all, he thought his career was finished three years ago.

“I’m gonna try to do this as long as I can, and hopefully have some fun while I do it,” Redman said. “Oil and gas will be there when I get done.”

Another year, another new Chukars’ broadcaster

Andrew Haynes begins his first season as the Idaho Falls Chukars’ broadcaster and director of media relations. He is the fifth person to serve that role since 2009. (Pat Sutphin / psutphin@postregister.com)
Andrew Haynes begins his first season as the Idaho Falls Chukars’ broadcaster and director of media relations. He is the fifth person to serve that role since 2009. (Pat Sutphin / psutphin@postregister.com)

John Balginy enters his 32nd season as an Idaho Falls Chukars broadcaster, yet change continues to flow through the booth.

Andrew Haynes is another agent of that change. The 29-year-old was hired in March as the Chukars’ latest broadcaster and director of media relations. He’s Balginy’s fifth booth partner since 2009, when local legend Jim Garchow passed away at 72 due to leukemia.

“I just hope to grow as an announcer and as a media relations contact, especially with my writing skills,” Haynes said. “Get a little more smooth, especially on the air. Also looking forward to helping out around the team and learn the ways of professional ball.”

Haynes is the Chukars’ third different director of media relations/broadcaster in as many years. Alex Cohen served the position last summer, and he currently works for the Bowling Green Hot Rods, the Tampa Bay Rays’ Class A Affiliate. Chris Lewis, who now calls Boise State women’s basketball games, preceded Cohen in Idaho Falls.

Balginy is still getting accustomed to the constant movement of his broadcast partners. He called I.F. minor league baseball games with Garchow for 25 years.

“The first year or so, it was strange not having Jim there,” Balginy said. “But I enjoy these young guys. They have a lot of enthusiasm. They’re trying to move up, and I’m just trying to stay here and stay alive.

Balginy has only interacted with Haynes for a few days, and he’s been impressed so far. He said Haynes has already shown better preparedness than Cohen, and that trait can help neutralize Haynes’ relative inexperience.

“Preparation’s always key,” Balginy said. “Jim Garchow always said, ‘If you have a good pregame show, you’re gonna have a good broadcast.’

Haynes’ lone experience as a media director before joining the Chukars was in the summer of 2010, a year after he graduated from Fresno State University. Haynes handled media relations and called games for the East Texas Pump Jacks of the Texas Collegiate League. The Pump Jacks played in Kilgore, Texas, a town of about 15,000 people. Haynes had spent his whole life in Fresno, Calif. (population greater than 500,000) before 2010.

“It was a bit of a culture shock,” Haynes said. “But it was a good culture shock. It was a good eye-opener.”

Haynes returned to Fresno and became a broadcaster for Fresno State’s flagship radio station in 2012, primarily calling softball games. He also called some high school games.

In addition to calling home games with Balginy, Haynes will travel with the Chukars for every road trip. Balginy will accompany him for I.F.’s first road trip to Grand Junction next week, but Haynes will ride solo after that.

At this point, Haynes does not know if he’ll join the Chukars’ drive-thru of broadcasters or if he’ll stick around for at least two summers. Either way, Haynes does not see Idaho Falls as a longterm destination.

“I do hope to work my way up the ladder and hopefully do major league games,” Haynes said. “I might go on a different path, but that is the goal at this point.”

Former Chukars named all-stars

The Texas League announced its all-stars this week, and four former Chukars made the list.

Those four, who play for the Double-A Northwest Arkansas Naturals, are right-handed pitcher Jake Junis (played for I.F. in 2013), right-hander Alec Mills (2014), third baseman Mauricio Ramos (2013) and first baseman Frank Schwindel (2013).

Chukars Notebook: Derek Gordon’s unorthodox path to pros

Idaho Falls’ Derek Gordon delivers a pitch against Orem on July 28 at Melaleuca Field. (Monte LaOrange / mlaorange@postregister.com)
Idaho Falls’ Derek Gordon delivers a pitch against Orem on July 28 at Melaleuca Field. (Monte LaOrange / mlaorange@postregister.com)

By VICTOR FLORES
vflores@postregister.com

The Idaho Falls Chukars’ best starting pitcher was a scrawny second baseman six years ago.

That pitcher, Derek Gordon, is currently listed at 6-foot-6 and 215 pounds. Before graduating from Lincoln (Neb.) Southeast High School, he stood 5-foot-11.

A position shift is a small part of Gordon’s unorthodox route to professional baseball success. His under-the-radar career and famous brother have contributed to one of Gordon’s primary traits: measured expectations.

“I didn’t expect much, and now it’s not like I have super high expectations for myself,” Gordon, 23, said Friday. “But I have a standard I set for myself. I want to go out and compete and have the best chance to win.”

In high school, Gordon knew he wasn’t a phenom like his older brother, Alex, an MLB all-star who was chosen second overall by the Kansas City Royals in the 2005 amateur draft. So Gordon chose to play for Missouri’s Park University of the NAIA.

Park’s coaches recruited Gordon to play second base and pitch, but when the season approached, the slender Gordon stood 6-foot-4. The Pirates opted to move Gordon to the outfield in addition to his pitching duties.

The next year, Gordon and his coaches agreed he’d exclusively pitch. He finished his Park career with a 3.35 ERA and 172 strikeouts in 212 innings pitched.

That success didn’t net him a minor league contract. Luckily for Gordon, he knew Bill Sobbe, the pitching coach for the independent Kansas City T-Bones. Sobbe set up a pitching session in front of T-Bones manager John Massarelli in June 2014. The team signed Gordon days later.

His ERA was 6.49 in 14 games for the T-Bones.

Gordon’s family was full of Royals fans even before Alex and their cousin, Jake Kuebler, were drafted by the franchise (Kuebler played 23 games for the Chukars in 2010). Gordon’s parents even named his older brother, Brett, after Kansas City legend George Brett.

The Royals cemented Gordon’s fandom this year.

In January, Gordon was driving to his cousins’ house to play catch. On the drive, he received a phone call. It was J.J. Picollo, the Royals’ vice president/assistant general manager for player personnel. Kansas City had signed Gordon, Picollo said.

After Gordon hung up, he pulled over to the side of the road.

“I was shaking,” Gordon said. “I was so excited.”

Gordon was a mid- to late-inning reliever for the T-Bones, but the Royals asked him to be a starter. In nine starts for Idaho Falls, Gordon’s ERA is 4.34, which would be better if not for the seven earned runs he allowed against Helena on Aug. 9.

On the season, Gordon has 44 strikeouts and 14 walks. His success has less to do with his fastball velocity (which sits in the high 80s) than his command and ability to throw offspeed pitches for strikes.

“I think he’s learning how his body feels two, three times through the lineup,” Chukars pitching coach Jeff Suppan said. “He’s a smart guy. He learns his stuff, and I think that’s what’s helped him.”

Gordon’s name is almost always preceded by “Alex’s brother.” It defines his baseball persona. Gordon discusses his brother with an aggravated admiration, but he harbors no ill will. Alex works too hard for Gordon to feel that way.

Gordon hopes he’ll be Alex’s teammate in the not-so-distant future. He certainly doesn’t want to face him.

Gordon’s expectations are measured, after all.

“I want him to get a little older, maybe have a little less energy in his legs,” Gordon said with a laugh. “Maybe I can sneak something by him. Right now, I don’t think that’s possible.”

ROSTER MOVE

Left-handed reliever Nick Green was promoted from the Chukars to the Single-A Lexington Legends on Friday.

Green, 24, had a 3.52 ERA in 15.1 innings for Idaho Falls this season with seven walks and 15 strikeouts. He also had a 3.52 ERA in 15.1 innings for the Chukars in 2014.

Green, a Salt Lake City native, was selected by the Royals in the 10th round of the 2014 MLB draft.

INJURY UPDATE

Chukars catcher Pedro Gonzalez has not played since July 25 against Orem while dealing with shoulder irritation. He’s day-to-day, the Chukars said, and is being re-evaluated this weekend.

“He’s getting close,” Chukars manager Justin Gemoll said Friday. “Hopefully we’ll get him back here soon, once he feels better swinging the bat and that kind of thing.”

With the addition of Luis Lara, Gonzalez is one of four catchers for Idaho Falls, so the team does not want to rush Gonzalez back.

Gonzalez, 23, is hitting .328/.403/.552 (batting average/on-base percentage/slugging percentage) in 67 plate appearances this season.

WHO’S HOT?

LHP Matt Portland

On July 9, Portland’s ERA ballooned to 7.88 after allowing three earned runs in 1.1 innings against Ogden. The rookie reliever has pitched 13.1 innings since then, giving up one earned run. His ERA now sits at 3.38 for the season.

Portland, 21, hasn’t merely benefited from batted ball luck, either. The 17th-round draft pick walked three batters in those 13.1 innings since the July 9 outing, where he issued three walks. On the season, Portland has walked seven batters while striking out 22 in 21.1 innings.

WHO’S NOT?

OF Cody Jones

When the second half began, Jones had settled in nicely as Idaho Falls’ regular center fielder and leadoff man. But the rookie has fallen into a slump the last two weeks.

Since July 31, Jones has gone 9 for 44 (.205 batting average) with five walks and nine strikeouts. The sixth-round draft pick’s .326 batting average going into the July 31 game against Ogden has dropped to .285 through Saturday.

Chukars gear up for brand new Northwest League vs. Pioneer League All-Star Game

By VICTOR FLORES
vflores@postregister.com

Tonight, the Pioneer League will play in its first all-star game in over half a century.

Three Idaho Falls Chukars will represent the league, which will compete against an all-star team of players from the Single-A short-season Northwest League. The eight Pioneer League Rookie-level teams hope tonight’s game — at Avista Stadium in Spokane, Wash. — will be the first of many.

Banuelos.
Banuelos.

“Everyone in the league is very excited about it,” Chukars’ general manager Kevin Greene said. “It puts us on par with the Northwest League.”

The Pioneer League has not participated in an all-star game since 1964, according to league president Jim McCurdy citing league records. The Pioneer League played all-star games up to 1964, when it switched from long-season to short-season.

McCurdy and Northwest League president Mike Ellis got the ball rolling on an all-star game this season. Ellis is the owner of the Pioneer League’s Missoula Osprey. He and McCurdy gained support from every team in their respective leagues, and they proposed the interleague all-star game to Minor League Baseball. The MiLB approved the all-star game for one year.

This is the first interleague all-star game between short-season leagues in MiLB history, according to McCurdy. Tonight’s game will have to run smoothly in order for the MiLB to approve another one.

“We anticipate that our 2015 game will go very well,” McCurdy said in a phone interview.

Fukofuka.
Fukofuka.

If the MiLB approves of a game next year, a Pioneer League city will host (the Northwest League’s Spokane Indians are hosting tonight’s game). Greene said he would not propose an all-star game in Idaho Falls next year, at least not at this juncture.

The main reason for Greene’s hesitation is ballpark size. Avista Stadium seats approximately 9,000 people. The Orem Owlz and the Ogden Raptors of the Pioneer League both have stadium capacities over 6,000.

Melaleuca Field’s capacity is 3,400.

“I think you have to have a bigger ballpark to be profitable for something like this,” Greene said.

Orem and Ogden have another advantage: travel. Salt Lake City neighbors both towns, and it has an international airport where Northwest League teams could directly fly to. Cities like Idaho Falls and Missoula would require either a connecting flight or a long drive for the Northwest League teams.

Until tonight’s game ends, no one knows if a second all-star game is likely or not. So McCurdy, Greene and Idaho Falls’ three all-stars (all reserves) are solely focused on Spokane.

First baseman Josh Banuelos is making the first all-star appearance in his baseball career, he said, from little league to professional baseball. Banuelos is hitting .338 with a .405 on-base percentage and a .461 slugging percentage in 173 plate appearances this season. His parents, Luis and Silvia Banuelos, will be in attendance.

Banuelos missed four straight games last week due to a bone bruise in his hand, and the pain likely won’t dissipate until the season ends. But the 23-year-old would always take an all-star game appearance instead of three days of rest.

“We have six months to rest after the season,” Banuelos said.

Outfielder Amalani Fukofuka said the all-star game validates his hard work and last season, when he hit .183/.266/.289 in 204 plate appearances for Burlington.

“Coming into this season, I had a chip on my shoulder,” the 19-year-old Fukofuka said. “This year is important for me, and my hard work is kind of paying off.”

Fukofuka is hitting .343/.395/.483 in 191 plate appearances this season.

Davis.
Davis.

Idaho Falls’ third all-star is reliever Tripp Davis. After a poor season with Double-A Northwest Arkansas, the left-hander felt great this spring. That’s when the Kansas City Royals’ front office asked Davis to consider switching to a sidearm delivery. The Royals told Davis he’d provide more value as a side-armer.

Davis, 24, debated, but he decided to make the change. His 3.24 ERA (inflated by a six-run outing against Orem on July 24) and all-star selection this season have helped him justify the decision, he said.

Former Chukar Alexis Rivera was also named to the all-star team. The outfielder and first baseman moved up to Lexington on July 5 after hitting .362/.494/.739 and leading the Pioneer League at the time in home runs (seven) and walks (17).

“I wasn’t expecting that at all,” Rivera said in a phone interview. “It would’ve been cool to go to it, but I’m glad I got promoted.”

Tonight’s game is scheduled to start at 8:05 Mountain Time following a home run derby.

2015 PIONEER LEAGUE ALL-STARS

C: Taylor Ward, Orem

1B: Austin Byler, Missoula

2B: Willie Calhoun, Ogden

SS: Isan Diaz, Missoula

3B: Michael Pierson, Orem

OF: Nick Sell, Ogden

OF: Daniel Suero, Grand Junction

OF: Kyle Survance, Orem

DH: Zach Fish, Great Falls

P: Tanner Banks, Great Falls

Reserves P : Ty Boyles, Billlings

P: Hunter Brothers, Grand Junction

P: Tripp Davis, Idaho Falls

P: Marcos Diplan, Helena

P: Evin Einhart, Great Falls

P: Joe Gatto, Orem

P: Dan Savas, Missoula

P: Cameron Smith, Missoula

P: Christian Trent, Helena

C: Luke Lowery, Missoula

1B: Josh Banuelos, Idaho Falls

SS: Nick Dean*, Ogden

SS: Blake Trahan, Billlings

3B: Brantly Bell, Billlings

OF: Amalani Fukofuka, Idaho Falls

OF: Monte Harrison*, Helena

OF: Matt Jones, Ogden

OF: Alexis Rivera*, Idaho Falls

* indicates player was selected but will not appear due to injury or promotion.

Manager: Dick Schofield, Billings

Pitching coach: Derrin Ebert, Billings

Hitting coach: Jolbert Cabrera, Billings

2015 NORTHWEST LEAGUE ALL-STARS

C: Miguel Gomez, Salem-Keizer

1B: Brian Mundell, Boise

2B: Dylan Moore, Spokane

3B: Kevin Padlo, Boise

SS: Drew Jackson, Everett

OF: LeDarious Clark, Spokane

OF: Zach Nehrir, Hillsboro

OF: Logan Taylor, Everett

DH: Jose Vizcaino Jr., Salem-Keizer

P: Jared Miller, Hillsboro

Reserves C: Hamley Marte, Boise

INF: Justin Atkinson, Vancouver

INF: Chris Shaw, Salem-Keizer

INF: Peter Van Gansen, Tri-City

INF: Yeyson Yrizarri, Spokane

OF: Sean Hurley, Vancouver

OF: Eloy Jimenez, Eugene

RHP: Pedro Araujo, Eugene

RHP: Andrew Case, Vancouver

RHP: Oscar De La Cruz, Eugene

LHP: Luis Gohara, Everett

LHP: Brandon Hinkle, Vancouver

RHP: Carlos Hernandez, Hillsboro

LHP: Elvin Liriano, Tri-City

LHP: Andrew Leenhouts, Salem-Keizer

LHP: Cody Reed, Hillsboro

Manager: Tim Hulett Sr., Spokane

Hiting coach: Rick Down, Spokane

Pitching coach: Jose Jaimes, Spokane

Chukars Notebook: I.F. hitters explain walk-up songs

Idaho Falls Chukars first baseman Josh Banuelos hits a fly ball to center field during the first inning of the game against the Missoula Osprey July 17 at Melaleuca Field. (Pat Sutphin / psutphin@postregister.com)
Idaho Falls Chukars first baseman Josh Banuelos hits a fly ball to center field during the first inning of the game against the Missoula Osprey July 17 at Melaleuca Field. (Pat Sutphin / psutphin@postregister.com)

By VICTOR FLORES
vflores@postregister.com

A smile was absent from Josh Banuelos’ face as he approached home plate two springs ago.

Banuelos was making his first home plate appearance of the 2014 baseball season, his redshirt junior season for Fresno Pacific University. Banuelos felt nervous that his new introduction song was “Fantasy” by Mariah Carey.

The 1995 R&B song fits awkwardly in baseball’s macho culture, so Banuelos expected some perplexed reactions. That song? Really?

So he was surprised when he returned to the dugout after his at-bat.

“All of the guys were like, ‘That song is tight,’” Banuelos said. “I was like, ‘If they like it, I know it’s a good song.’”

Banuelos has walked up to “Fantasy” ever since, including the 17 home games he’s played for the Idaho Falls Chukars this season. The first baseman’s song choice taps into the layered world of baseball hitters’ walk-up songs.

“It makes you smile, you’re relaxed and I’ve had success with it,” Banuelos said of “Fantasy.” “I don’t want to change things up.”

Walk-up songs appear in professional leagues all the way down to high school. The songs run for about 30 seconds before each hitter’s plate appearance, and they’re only played for the home team. But some players draw a line between walk-up song and results.

Banuelos had a .378 batting average, a .432 on-base percentage and a .575 slugging percentage for Fresno Pacific last season. His batting average is .343 for Idaho Falls this season.

In other words, Banuelos has excelled since he started walking up to “Fantasy,” and he doesn’t think that’s coincidental.

Banuelos mainly chose “Fantasy” because he likes it, just like DJ Burt. The Chukars second baseman walks up to “My Way” by the rapper Fetty Wap. He started using it this season, and he only chose it because it’s a song he regularly listens to.

Idaho Falls outfielder Amalani Fukofuka also walks up to a Fetty Wap song (“Again”). His reasoning is similar to Burt’s, but it also helps his performance, he said.

“When you have a catchy beat walking up to the plate, it gives you a little rhythm,” Fukofuka said. “You have to stay relaxed.”

Chukars third baseman Ryan Dale disagrees. He walked up to Darude’s “Sandstorm” for most of the season and now walks up to a different techno song, Disclosure’s “You & Me” (remixed by Flume). Other than the home ties (Dale, Darude and Flume are all Australian), Dale likes to get pumped up before each plate appearance. “Sandstorm” and “You & Me” fulfill that requirement.

The Kansas City Royals’ mental skills coach Freddy Sandoval walked up to Guns N’ Roses’ “Sweet Child O’ Mine” in college and during his 10-year playing career in the Los Angeles Angels organization. But the song was not used to pump him up.

“That was the first song I listened to when I met my wife,” Sandoval said. “It puts me in a happy place.”

Sandoval’s agrees with Banuelos and Fukofuka about the purpose of walk-up songs — to be relaxed and positive.

“Music alone can retrieve a lot of information from your past,” Sandoval said. “If a player chooses a song that reminds him of negative thoughts or negative situations, it’s detrimental to what he’s trying to achieve.”

Banuelos still gets some negative reactions to “Fantasy.” But it brings a smile to his face, and that’s all he cares about.

“As long as I’m in baseball, I’ll probably stay with that song,” Banuelos said.

CHUKARS’ WALK-UP SONGS

  • Josh Banuelos — “Fantasy” by Mariah Carey
  • DJ Burt — “My Way” by Fetty Wap
  • Roman Collins — “Vampire” by Tribal Seeds
  • Ryan Dale — “You & Me” by Disclosure (Flume remix)
  • Nick Dini — “Epic Sax Guy” aka Sergey Stepanov (via YouTube)
  • Jeckson Flores — “Fireball” by Pitbull
  • Amalani Fukofuka — “Again” by Fetty Wap
  • Marten Gasparini — “Heart Upon My Sleeve” by Avicii
  • Pedro Gonzalez — “Farruka” by Chapi Chapi
  • Brawlun Gomez — “Aposento Alto” by Quien Vive
  • Cody Jones — “Sweet Emotion” by Aerosmith
  • Logan Nottebrok — “Tops Drop” by Fat Pat
  • Kyle Pollock — “Savior” by Andrew Ripp

Orem player’s connection to the Royals

The Chukars and Orem Owlz were tied 2-2 in the bottom of the seventh inning on July 6. Idaho Falls center fielder Cody Jones faced Orem’s left-handed pitcher Tyler Watson with a runner on first and one out.

On a full count, Watson threw a changeup. Jones softly hit the pitch into right field for an RBI double. The run was the difference in Idaho Falls’ 4-2 win.

“If there was one person in this league who would throw a 3-2 changeup to me, it would be him,” Jones said. “He’ll pitch backwards, and he’s good at it.”

Jones didn’t know this purely based on scouting. He played with and against Watson since childhood. Jones, by association, has also know Watson’s father, Gene Watson. Gene currently serves as the director of professional scouting for Kansas City, Idaho Falls’ MLB affiliate.

The two played little league baseball in Austin, Texas, from about 7 years old until high school. Jones played for Stony Point and Watson played for Georgetown (both schools are in Austin suburbs).

Jones attended Texas Christian University, and Watson went to McLennan Junior College in Waco, Texas. Watson was drafted in the 38th round of the 2014 MLB draft by the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. The Royals selected Jones in the sixth round of the 2015 draft.

Jones and Watson’s Rookie-level teams face each other 16 times this season, including a four-game series wrapping up today in Orem.

“I texted him last night — I told him if he needed anything while he was here, let me know,” Watson said on Saturday. “He said he needed a vehicle and a fishing pole. I said, ‘Alright, bud, I’m on my way.’”

Gene Watson hasn’t seen Orem play yet this season, but he plans to make a trip out in a couple of weeks to see his son play. He missed Watson throw 3.1 scoreless innings against the Chukars on Saturday.

Gene wouldn’t say who he roots for when the Chukars and Owlz play. All he said was how bizarre it feels to watch those games.

“It’s really strange to see the players we talk about every day and know that your kid is in the other dugout,” Gene said.

Roster move

On Monday, right-handed pitcher Brooks Pounders was promoted from Idaho Falls to the Advanced Single-A Wilmington Blue Rocks.

Pounders, who was on a rehabilitation assignment, pitched three scoreless innings for Idaho Falls in his July 16 start. He posted a 4.80 ERA in 15 innings for the Chukars last season.

Who’s hot?

LHP Brandon Thomas

Thomas has been the Chukars most consistent relief pitcher this season. He’s pitched the third most innings (27.0) of any Idaho Falls pitcher despite making only one start (on July 12, when he allowed three earned runs in five innings). Thomas has given up one home run and 12 walks against 23 strikeouts, and his season ERA is 2.00.

Who’s not?

LHP Tripp Davis

The side-armer threw 10.1 innings without an earned run to start the season. That streak ended on July 15, when he gave up a walkoff solo home run to Missoula’s Luke Lowery. Davis pitched 2.1 scoreless innings three days later against Great Falls, but he was shelled by Orem on Friday. Davis gave up seven runs (five earned) on six hits and a walk in 0.2 innings pitched against the Owlz. His season ERA is now 4.05.

Chukars suffer second walkoff loss in three games

Another night, another walkoff loss for the Idaho Falls Chukars.

The Chukars lost a 2-0 lead to the Orem Owlz on Saturday, then forced a 5-5 tie in the eighth inning. But the Owlz walked off for the second time in three nights, winning 6-5 at Brent Brown Stadium. The win gave Orem the first half title crown in the Pioneer League South Division.

Idaho Falls lost on a walkoff double to Orem on Thursday, and the narrative from that game was similar to Saturday’s: good starting pitching, good hitting and struggles with runners on base.

The Chukars had 17 hits on Saturday, but they went 4 for 15 with runners in scoring position and left 10 runners on.

Idaho Falls took a 2-0 lead through four innings on 11 hits, but could’ve scored more.

The Chukars scored once in the first on an RBI single from first baseman Josh Banuelos (2 for 4, walk). Left fielder Roman Collins (3 for 5) hit an infield single, but center fielder Amalani Fukofuka (1 for 4, walk) was thrown out at home plate on the play. Shortstop Marten Gasparini (1 for 5, triple) struck out in the next at-bat, stranding runners at first and second base.

The Chukars led off the next inning with two singles, but third baseman Ryan Dale (1 for 4) hit into a double play and center fielder Cody Jones (2 for 4) grounded out to end the inning.

Gasparini struck out again to end the third inning, only this time, he stranded runners at second and third base.

The Chukars held the 2-0 lead into the seventh, but left-handed reliever Hunter Haynes gave up five unearned runs, which stemmed from a Gasparini error.

Idaho Falls immediately answered the next inning, scoring three runs. The Chukars tied the game on an RBI double from Jones.

But right-handed Alberto Rodriguez couldn’t preserve the tie in the bottom of the ninth, giving up a walk, a stolen base and an RBI single to end the game.

Idaho Falls starting pitcher Daniel Concepcion pitched five scoreless innings in his third start for the Chukars. The right-hander gave up three hits and a walk with two strikeouts, and his season ERA dropped to 2.38.

Desginated hitter Nick Dini went 3 for 4 with a double, catcher Pedro Gonzalez went 2 for 3 with a double and second baseman DJ Burt went 2 for 5.

The Owlz (23-13) will attempt to sweep their four-game series against the Chukars (12-24) today at 4:15 p.m.