Category: Feature

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.

Chukars shortstop Marten Gasparini adjusts to life away from Italy

Idaho Falls Chukars shortstop Marten Gasparini, 18, has committed 10 fielding errors this season, but people in the Kansas City Royals organization believe he has the tools to be a good fielder.  (Pat Sutphin / psutphin@postregister.com)
Idaho Falls Chukars shortstop Marten Gasparini, 18, has committed 10 fielding errors this season, but people in the Kansas City Royals organization believe he has the tools to be a good fielder. (Pat Sutphin / psutphin@postregister.com)

By VICTOR FLORES
vflores@postregister.com

Marten Gasparini yearned for some home cooking.

He had just moved away from home. His parents were excellent cooks. He could barely make pasta.

College freshmen can relate to Gasparini’s pain. They can’t relate to much else.

Gasparini was in Burlington, N.C., for the start of his professional baseball career — 4,500 miles away from his native Italy.

A year earlier, Gasparini signed a contract with the Kansas City Royals, about a month after his 16th birthday. His $1.3 million signing bonus is still the European amateur record.

The shortstop has been with the Idaho Falls Chukars (a Kansas City Rookie-level affiliate) this entire season. Gasparini, 18, has struggled 23 games in, but he’s confident he’ll turn it around. He’s confident his community back home will remember him for more than the $1.3 million.

“The community is really going to appreciate my actions the moment I get to the highest level,” Gasparini told the Post Register. “At the moment, big number or not, I’m still in the minor leagues.”

Gasparini saw the 1999 baseball movie “For Love of the Game” around the age of 8. Before that, he knew hardly anything about baseball. Shortly after, Gasparini’s father bought him a baseball bat, and Gasparini discovered a club baseball team near his hometown of Alture.

Baseball isn’t a huge sport in Italy, but its relative obscurity helped attract Gasparini.

“Not from a hipster point of view, but yeah, it was something different,” Gasparini said. “As a 10-year-old, I wanted to do something new. It was a breath of fresh air.”

All of these factors led him to embrace America’s pastime.

Seven Italian-born players have played Major League Baseball, according to Baseball-Reference. One of them, Alex Liddi, currently plays for the Northwest Arkansas Naturals, Kansas City’s Double-A affiliate.

But Alex Maestri, an Italian pitcher formerly in the Chicago Cubs organization, was more responsible for Gasparini’s path.

Maestri once played for the Italian Baseball Academy. A 13-year-old Gasparini learned this and got in touch with then-Cubs scout Bill Holmberg, who is currently the Academy’s director.

“As soon as I saw him at 13, I knew we had a chance to create a superior player if we could work with him for a couple years,” Holmberg told Baseball America in 2013.

At 14, Gasparini joined the Academy, and he quickly caught the eyes of major league scouts.

Before he signed his contract with the Royals, some MLB scouts considered him the best European prospect they had ever seen, according to Baseball America. His MLB contract reflected that.

Gasparini’s $1.3 million signing bonus shattered the previous European record of $800,000, given to German outfielder Max Kepler by the Minnesota Twins.

“I did not expect anything like that coming,” Gasparini said. “People go crazy about it, but I try not to think about it. I try to take care of my family — my brother, my sister, my dad, my mom. What I earned is for them.”

The money helped ease his transition to the United States, despite Gasparini’s inability to cook much more than pasta and chicken (“Not pasta with chicken, though. [Italians] don’t do that,” he said). The Academy helped Gasparini learn English, and he was fluent by the age of 16.

“The excitement to be here as a professional baseball player overcame the fear of being in a new country,” Gasparini said.

The 6-foot, 165-pound Gasparini hit .191/.225/.250 (batting average/on-base percentage/slugging percentage) in 68 at-bats with Burlington last year, but his slash line skyrocketed to .455/.500/.727 in 11 at-bats with the Chukars last summer.

Gasparini, ranked Kansas City’s 20th best prospect by FanGraphs.com before the season, has hit .233/.295/.349 with Idaho Falls this season (through Thursday).

But Gasparini’s slow start doesn’t concern his organization.

Royals’ senior coordinator for player development John Wathan is impressed with Gasparini’s speed and defensive tools (strong arm, good instincts), despite 12 fielding errors this season.

“He’ll be a good player one day,” Wathan said.

Idaho Falls hitting coach Andre David is encouraged by Gasparini’s development, namely with hitting fastballs and breaking balls. However, David said Gasparini needs to lay off tough pitches more often (Gasparini has 35 strikeouts, tied for the most in the Pioneer League) and get less down on himself after a bad performance.

The soft-spoken Gasparini said he’s more comfortable two seasons into his professional career. His accent is hardly noticeable, especially when he utilizes his vast English vocabulary. And the baseball struggles don’t worry him. He’s 18, and like David, he believes he’s developing.

Gasparini still misses his parents’ home cooking, though.

“I kinda got spoiled in Italy,” Gasparini said. “But that’s such a minor thing. It says a lot about how comfortable I am here in the United States.”

Clarification (7/11/15): This story has been updated to reflect that Gasparini was ranked the 20th best prospect by FanGraphs.com in the Kansas City organization.

Alexis “Baby Panda” Rivera is having a break-out season for the Chukars

By VICTOR FLORES
vflores@postregister.com

Alexis Rivera is nicknamed the Baby Panda.

Alexis Rivera rounds the bases against the Ogden Raptors Tuesday at Melaleuca Field.  (Pat Sutphin / psutphin@postregister.com)
Alexis Rivera rounds the bases against the Ogden Raptors Tuesday at Melaleuca Field. (Pat Sutphin / psutphin@postregister.com)

Former Idaho Falls Chukars radio broadcaster Chris Lewis and current broadcaster John Balginy gave Rivera the nickname two years ago. It was inspired by Boston Red Sox third baseman Pablo Sandoval, whose nickname is the Kung Fu Panda.

“He’s a shorter, stout dude who’s pretty quick and has a big swing like Pablo,” said Lewis, now a broadcaster for Boise State. “It’s amazing he’s still there (in Idaho Falls).”

At this rate, Rivera — an outfielder and first baseman for the Chukars — won’t be around much longer.

A new approach at the plate, a mechanical adjustment and maturity have transformed the 6-foot-2, 225-pound Rivera, 21, from a struggling free-swinger into one of the Pioneer League’s best hitters.

“Last year, I chased a lot (of pitches),” Rivera said. “This year, discipline is a lot better. Try to get my pitch to hit instead of the pitcher’s pitch.”

Rivera, who moved from Puerto Rico to Florida when he was 6 years old, was drafted by the Royals in the 10th round of the 2012 MLB draft. He was 18 and fresh out of high school during his first minor league season with the Arizona League Royals, when he hit .341/.413/.477 (batting average/on-base percentage/slugging percentage) in 206 plate appearances.

He his numbers fell off the next season — exclusively with the Chukars — at .269/.349/.363 in 240 plate appearances, and they plummeted in 2014, when he hit .198/.275/.271 in 230 plate appearances (183 with the Single-A Lexington Legends, 47 with the Chukars).

“Second year, I tried to do too much,” Rivera said. “Last year, I got moved up and instead of doing what I was doing here, I tried to do way too much.”

Over the last two seasons, he constantly chased bad pitches, another trait of Sandoval’s. Rivera tried to pull the ball, rather than focusing on making good contact.

This year, the Sandoval-esque free swinging has vanished. Rivera focuses on hitting the ball to the center of the field. At the plate, his hands are lower, now level with his shoulders, making it easier for him to start his batting windup when the pitcher starts his.

“Before this year, I was trying to get way too big, instead of just using my hands,” Rivera said. “This year, I try to use my hands, and I have five home runs already.”

Rivera said that before Wednesday’s game versus Ogden. That night, he hit a two-run home run. The following night, he hit a grand slam. Going into Friday’s game, Rivera led the Pioneer League with seven home runs, 24 RBIs and 14 walks. His slash line was .386/.514/.842.

“I can count on one hand, really, him chasing,” Chukars hitting coach Andre David said. “For the most part, he’s got a pretty good feel for the strike zone. He doesn’t panic up there.”

David discussed a Rivera at-bat from Tuesday’s series opener against Ogden. Down 6-5 with two outs in the bottom of the seventh inning, Rivera came up with two runners on. He worked a 3-2 count and fouled three pitches back. Then, he laced a single into right field, scoring both runners.

“He got the big hit, but if he didn’t, for development concerns, it was a good at-bat, ” David said. “We’re not concerned about results here. It’s the process.”

Rivera struggled with process the last two years. Those struggles are gone this season, leading to monster results. Results that will move the Baby Panda up Kansas City’s affiliate chain if he keeps them up.

“My routine’s a lot better than last year, and I’m finally 21,” Rivera said. “I’m a man now.”

Q&A: Chukars’ rookie manager Justin Gemoll

Manager Justin Gemoll talks about his hopes for the team during Chukars Media Day on Wednesday at Melaleuca Field.  (Pat Sutphin / psutphin@postregister.com)
Manager Justin Gemoll talks about his hopes for the team during Chukars Media Day on Wednesday at Melaleuca Field. (Pat Sutphin / psutphin@postregister.com)

BY VICTOR FLORES
vflores@postregister.com

The Idaho Falls Chukars’ new manager is already enjoying his time in Idaho Falls.

Justin Gemoll grew up in San Jose, Calif., and often visited Lake Tahoe for fishing trips. After Gemoll, 37, was hired by the Chukars in November to replace Omar Ramirez, he researched Idaho Falls and discovered how popular fly fishing is in the area.

It was an excellent marriage of city and the new coach, who lives in Surprise, Ariz., with his wife Jennifer and children Samantha, Gavin and Jackson.

Today, Gemoll will manage his first regular season game for the Chukars against the Grand Junction Rockies at 7:15 p.m. On Wednesday afternoon, Gemoll sat down with the Post Register to discuss the city of Idaho Falls, his previous coaching experience and his goals for his first managerial job.

NOTE: This Q&A has been edited for clarity and brevity.

What do you like about Idaho Falls, other than fishing?

“So far, all of the people we’ve met have been very nice and polite. You guys have welcomed us with open arms, and that’s all we can ask for as staff and players. It looks like a great city. From what it sounds like, everyone’s Chukars fans here, so we’re looking forward to some great crowds and loud crowds at home.”

Where did you coach in six years prior to bench coach job with Wilmington last year?

“In the six years previous to that, I was a hitting coach. I started off a year at Arizona as a hitting coach, then three years in Wilmington as a hitting coach, which I was blessed to do. I got to have (Eric) Hosmer, (Mike) Moustakas, (Jarrod) Dyson. A lot of those guys that we have in the big leagues now came through there. Salvador Perez. It was real exciting to watch those guys. Then, I went with Lexington for a year and Burlington, North Carolina, for a year before being a bench coach.”

Do you still keep in touch with those major league players?

“Yeah. It’s funny, we went to the World Series last year, my wife and I. They let us in the stadium early before the general admission so we could watch the guys and say Hi. We were just hanging back watching them and Hosmer and Mous were down there at first base screaming, ‘Hey, G.’ It was pretty cool. My wife was crying. She’s real sentimental.”

What are your goals for this season?

“At the rookie ball level, it’s to get all of these guys acquainted with the daily grind of professional baseball, learning how to prepare themselves to go out and compete and win every single night. That being said, some of these kids are gone from their families for their first extended period, so there are going to be some issues. It’s going to be a learning process.”

What do you do to get a group of players like this to become tight-knit?

“Talk about things other than baseball all of the time. We’ll talk about what they like to do in their free time, we’ll joke around with each other, the music’s playing in (the clubhouse). We’ll change it so one day we’ll listen to Latin American music, the next day is country and the next day is stuff we like, the throwback stuff that shouldn’t be throwback. I was told Pearl Jam is ancient now.”

Sam Houston State’s O’Hearn, Toups excel as Chukars

Idaho Falls Chukars short stop Corey Toups hits a foul ball during the Aug. 4 game against the Helena Brewers at Melaleuca Field. Pat Sutphin / psutphin@postregister.com

By VICTOR FLORES
vflores@postregister.com

Corey Toups sat on his sofa during the 15th round of the 2014 MLB draft, listening on his laptop as names other than his got called. Toups expected to be selected in the top 10 rounds, so he felt worried when he was still waiting. This prompted him to text his friend and teammate, Ryan O’Hearn.

“Hey, man, what should I do?” Toups texted to O’Hearn.

O’Hearn, who was drafted by the Kansas City Royals in the eighth round, suggested Toups text a Royals scout and express his interest in playing for the organization.

Toups sent the scout a text. Five minutes later, Toups heard his name called. He, too, was drafted by the Royals.

Toups was understandably excited to be drafted, but especially because he’d be in the same organization as O’Hearn. Extra fortune came to O’Hearn and Toups when they were sent to Idaho Falls to play for the Chukars.

Now, Toups and O’Hearn are key cogs in the Chukars’ lineup, and their off-field relationship might contribute to their on-field success.

O’Hearn and Toups met during their freshman orientation at Sam Houston State in Huntsville, Texas, and hung out frequently that year. The two roomed together as sophomores and haven’t lived in separate homes since.

“In three years, we’ve never really fought,” O’Hearn says. “Knock on wood.”

Continue reading “Sam Houston State’s O’Hearn, Toups excel as Chukars”

From last to best: Chukars title driven by pitching

By JEFF PINKHAM
jpinkham@postregister.com

The two guys who pitched the Idaho Falls Chukars to the 2013 Pioneer League championship started the year by nearly pitching themselves out of baseball.

The turnaround of left-hander Jonathan Dziedzic and righty Jake Junis helps explain more than anything how the Chukars clinched their seventh league championship with a 6-0 win over the Helena Brewers on Tuesday night at Kindrick Legion Field in Helena, Mont.

Dziedzic, a 6-foot, 165-pounder from Humble, Texas, got the Chukars off to a good start against Helena, dominating the Brewers on Saturday, pitching six shutout innings (two hits, one walk, eight strikeouts) as the Chukars held on for a 2-1 win at Melaleuca Field.

Junis, a 6-3, 210-pounder from Rock Falls, Ill., put the finishing touches on the championship series Tuesday, blanking the Brewers over five innings of three-hit ball while striking out eight in a 6-0 win.

Those performances under pressure would have been hard to predict back in June, when Pioneer League teams were battering the duo for 16 earned runs on 26 hits over 16 innings when the Chukars got off to a 4-12 start.

“The difference between the early-season pitching and the pitching over the last month is huge,” Idaho Falls general manager Kevin Greene said. “We were 4-12 with good offense, but we didn’t have the pitching. The guys were so solid all through the second half.”

Continue reading “From last to best: Chukars title driven by pitching”

Chukars look for series lead in game one

By JEFF PINKHAM
jpinkham@postregister.com

As the 2012 Pioneer League season closed without playoffs yet again, Idaho Falls Chukars general manager Kevin Greene and team owner Dave Elmore were at a crossroads.

Would they stay with the Kansas City Royals, the team that had filled Idaho Falls’ rosters since the early 2000s, or find another major league team that would treat Chukars fans with more talent?

“Every time an agreement comes up, there are concerns on both sides,” Greene said Friday. “We want to put a winning team on the field. The (major league team) wants a good environment to develop their players. For the most part, we felt like we’ve lived up to our end of the bargain.”

And for the first time in more than a decade, the Royals lived up to theirs.

Continue reading “Chukars look for series lead in game one”