Category: Feature

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”

Chukars’ winning streak vs. history

The Chukars return home today owners of a five-game winning streak, and they look to stretch that streak to six tonight against the Helena Brewers.

But before they do, let’s pause and take a look at home rare these kind of winning streaks are.

The Chukars haven’t won five games in a row since the opening weeks of the 2010 season. The 2010 Chukars (27-49) turned into one of the worst in teams Idaho Falls’ 74-year history of professional baseball. They finished with a .355 winning percentage, tied for the sixth worst in the city’s history.

So, as with all streaks, you shouldn’t put too much faith into them.

Regardless, here is the list of winning streaks five games or longer since 2005, as far back as game-by-game data is available.

Chukars’ winning streaks

5 games: June 30-July 4, 2010
5 games: Aug. 6-Aug. 10, 2006
5 games: Aug. 7-Aug. 11, 2005
6 games: Aug. 24-Aug. 29, 2007
6 games: July 30-Aug. 4, 2007
9 games: June 19-27, 2007 (start of the season)

8,125 hot dogs? That’s just the start for Chukars

Melaleuca Field hums during Chukars games.

Fans step to the concession stand. Orders come in. Food goes out.

Baseballs fly into the stands. As soon as they hit the bleachers, a pearly-white new one replaces it.

The Chukars arrive to the clubhouse each day, and a freshly-washed uniform awaits them.

It’s an intricate dance that works with machine-like precision. Melaleuca Field burns through a lot of supplies during the summer. So many supplies, the grand totals calculated at the end of the season surprise even a fan attending all 38 home games.

Below are a few of the more jaw-dropping calculations the Chukars went through last year.

Errors continue to haunt Chukars

A throw from Chukars catcher Frank Schwindel sneaks past Hunter Dozier and scoots into left field, allowing Orem's Kody Eaves to score on the throwing error June 21 at Melaleuca Field. Pat Sutphin / psutphin@postregister.com

When the calendar flipped to July, it brought errors to the Chukars. And it brought them in bunches.

Idaho Falls has committed 35 errors in 12 games this month, vaulting the Chukars into last place in the Pioneer League in blunders. And the defensive decline is keeping the Chukars in the league’s basement.

“That’s been the reason we’ve been losing some games,” Chukars manager Omar Ramirez said.

Ramirez pointed out a trend that seems obvious, but holds true for the Chukars. They committed only two errors Thursday and Friday, and they won. In games they’ve made two or fewer errors this season, Idaho Falls holds an 8-8 record. In games with more than two errors, the Chukars are 1-6.

And all this comes from the team that also leads the league in double plays turned.

Continue reading “Errors continue to haunt Chukars”

Dozier’s hit streak snapped

Third baseman Hunter Dozier, the eighth overall pick in the 2013 draft, finally met his match this week.

The 6-foot-4, 220-pound Texas native went 0 for 4 Thursday, ending his hitting streak at 11 games, tied for the longest in the league thus far. He drew a pair of walks though, extending his on-base streak to 21 games before he went 0 for 5 Friday and failed to reach base.

Despite the 0-for-9 stretch, Ramirez remains impressed by the Royals’ top pick.

“He’s what we call a ‘baseball player,'” Ramirez said. “He goes 100 percent every day and doesn’t complain. You see him play and he enjoys playing baseball. That’s something you don’t see in many first-rounders.”

Continue reading “Dozier’s hit streak snapped”