The Idaho Falls Chukars held a three-run lead with six outs remaining. Then they led by one with two outs.
If they preserved the lead, they’d be headed to the Pioneer League championship.
Now they’re heading to an elimination game.
The Orem Owlz clawed back from a 5-2 eighth-inning deficit and earned a 6-5 walkoff win in game two of the Pioneer League South Division championship series Thursday at Orem, Utah. Tonight’s game in Orem will determine who advances to the championship.
After three scoreless innings, the Chukars took control of the game in the fourth.
First baseman Josh Banuelos (1 for 4) drove in second baseman D.J. Burt with a two-out double. The next batter was designated hitter Brandon Dulin, who bombed a two-run home run for a 3-0 lead.
Orem’s designated hitter Jared Walsh answered, hitting solo home runs in the fourth and sixth innings to cut I.F.’s lead to 3-2.
But the Chukars extended the lead back to three in the top of the eighth. Right fielder Amalani Fukofuka (1 for 4) hit an RBI double, and he scored two batters later on a single from Dulin (2 for 4).
I.F.’s bullpen woes began with Matt Ditman, who loaded the bases with no outs to start the bottom of the eighth. Orem scored one run on a groundout, and another came in on an error from shortstop Marten Gasparini. Ditman suddenly had a one-run lead to work with, and the bases were loaded with one out, but he escaped the threat.
Brian Bayliss recorded the first out of the ninth inning, but he subsequently walked first baseman Jeff Boehm. The next batter was center fielder Jared Foster, who drove Boehm in with a double. Bayliss walked the next two batters, bringing up catcher Angel Genao. He grounded to Burt, but the Chukars couldn’t complete the double play, and the Owlz forced another game.
Chukars starter Bryan Brickhouse gave up one run (earned) on four hits, a walk and three strikeouts in his four innings of work.
Julio Pinto gets the start tonight for the Chukars in their playoff rubber-match at Orem. First pitch is scheduled for 6:15.
In the North Division, Missoula knotted up its series with Billings after a 7-5 win Thursday night.
Royals honor Fukofuka, Gordon
On Thursday, the Kansas City Royals announced their players and pitchers of the year for each minor league affiliate. Fukofuka was named I.F.’s player of the year, and Derek Gordon was named its pitcher of the year.
Umpire calls carry extra weight right now for the Idaho Falls Chukars, who are battling the Ogden Raptors for the Pioneer League South Division title.
So the frustration ramps up when the umpires, from the Chukars’ perspective, make mistakes.
That frustration was evident Monday night against the Grand Junction Rockies, who benefited from several calls that drew ire from I.F.’s players, coaches and fans. It didn’t help that the Chukars lost the game 9-8 and fell one game behind Ogden in the South Division second-half standings. There are eight games left in the regular season.
“We had a couple of bad calls we should’ve gotten,” Chukars second baseman D.J. Burt said. “But that’s baseball.”
The Rockies scored twice off Carter Hope in the top of the first inning, but the Chukars took a 3-2 lead in the bottom of the first. Both teams went on to score every half inning until the bottom of the fifth, when the game was tied 7-7.
The Rockies took the lead back in the top of the seventh on a two-out, two-run single by catcher Chris Rabago off left-hander Ian Thompkins.
The Chukars loaded the bases in the eighth with two outs but failed to score. In the ninth, they loaded the bases with no outs and scored a run, but they needed at least one more.
Most of the Chukars’ frustration with umpires Isias Barba (home plate) and Luis Hernandez (field) stemmed from balls and strikes.
In the sixth, Barba called Burt out on a high strike. Burt voiced his displeasure with Barba’s call as he walked back to the dugout.
Melaleuca Field got heated in the bottom of the ninth, too, when Hernandez ruled that third baseman Logan Nottebrok went around while trying to check his swing. Fans were incensed, and the umpires told several Chukars in the dugout to settle down. Nottebrok struck out looking on the next pitch, and that call wasn’t popular, either.
“They’re young, too,” Chukars’ manager Justin Gemoll said of the umpires. “Hopefully they learn from it. Things happened to both sides; it wasn’t like it was only our team. It’s just part of the game.”
Burt made noise in another way when he hit a triple in the first inning. That hit extended his on-base streak to 48 games, which is a 2015 high for affiliated baseball, according to the Chukars. Burt (1 for 3, two walks) passed Matt Holiday of the St. Louis Cardinals.
“It feels good,” Burt said. “At the plate, I didn’t want to think about it too much. I just wanted to stick to my game plan, be patient and be a spark to this team.”
First baseman Josh Banuelos went 2 for 4 with a walk, left fielder Roman Collins went 2 for 5 and center fielder Amalani Fukofuka went 1 for 3 with two walks.
The Chukars (33-35, 20-10 second half) host the Raptors (40-28, 21-9) for a two-game series starting at 7:15 tonight. The teams have a 7-7 record against each other this season. If they have equal second-half records at the end of the season, head-to-head record would be the first playoff tiebreaker, so both teams crave a sweep in their final series.
Valenzuela traded for Gomes
The Kansas City Royals bolstered their lineup Monday night by acquiring outfielder Jonny Gomes from the Atlanta Braves, first reported by Fox Sports. In return for Gomes, the Braves received shortstop Luis Valenzuela, who started the season with the Chukars.
Valenzuela, 21, hit .486/.472/.600 (batting average/on-base percentage/slugging percentage) in 37 plate appearances for I.F. this season. On July 2, he was promoted to Single-A Lexington, where he hit .339/.368/.483 in 184 plate appearances.
Valenzuela will be assigned to the Single-A Rome Braves, Atlanta announced.
Behind a record sixth inning, the Chukars pounded the Rockies 16-7 on Sunday at Meleleuca Field.
The Chukars trailed 6-3 going into the sixth. After the inning, they led 12-6. The nine runs are the most I.F. has scored in an inning this season.
Designated hitter Amalani Fukofuka had one of his best games of the season, going 5 for 6 and finishing a home run shy of the cycle. The five hits are the most by a Chukars’ batter in a single game this season.
Catcher Nick Dini went 3 for 4 with a double, while Banuelos (2 for 4, double, two walks), right fielder Brawlun Gomez (2 for 4, double, walk), center fielder Cody Jones (2 for 6) and shortstop Gabriel Noriega (2 for 5) each had two hits.
Noriega is on a rehab assignment. He transferred from Triple-A Omaha to I.F. before Sunday’s game.
The Idaho Falls Chukars enter today’s game against Grand Junction with a 19-9 second half record, tops in the Pioneer League. That record is even more impressive when compared to the Chukars’ first half, when they finished dead last at 13-25.
I.F. is currently tied with Ogden in the Pioneer League South Division for the second half. Even if the Chukars miss the playoffs, they might finish with the winningest half since they became a Kansas City Royals affiliate.
The Chukars joined the Royals’ organization in 2004. Since then, their best half was in 2009, when they went 23-14 to end the season. The Chukars would need to go at least 5-5 to surpass the 2009 mark.
It should be noted that the halfway point of a season is an arbitrary endpoint. In other words, the dividing line between the first 38 games and the last 38 games is essentially meaningless.
The beginning of a season is the most significant starting point for a baseball team, and I.F. has gone 32-34 since then. You can create any narrative you want by closing your eyes and randomly placing your finger on a calendar.
The Pioneer League, of course, doesn’t work like the MLB, which rewards season-long records. Teams only need one good half to be in the Pioneer League playoff hunt, as the Chukars have shown. But that doesn’t mean the Chukars went into a telephone booth on July 28 and came out a superteam.
That all said, several I.F. players and coaches said they hit a mental reset button after the first half ended. They knew July 28 marked a new season, and that mental rewiring counts for something.
Plus, several players have gone from bad to elite, and their improvement started almost squarely on July 28. Second baseman D.J. Burt and shortstop Marten Gasparini are at the top of that list.
After July 28, Burt was hitting .198/.324/.215 (batting average/on-base percentage/slugging percentage). Through Friday, he was hitting .282/.389/.364, and his defense looks improved.
Gasparini’s slash line dropped to .205/.275/.346 through July 27. Now, it’s .262/.339/.419, although Gasparini might be done for the season because he is representing Team Italy in the 2015 World Baseball Softball Confederation U-18 Baseball World Cup.
“A lot of the position players, especially, are very young, so whenever you go up a level, not everybody’s going to have immediate success,” Chukars reliever Tripp Davis told Chukars director of broadcasting Alex Cohen on Aug. 11. “They’ve put in their time in the first half, and now everything’s clicking.”
The pitching is clicking, as well. I.F.’s first half team ERA was 5.33. It’s down to 4.93 on the season, thanks to pitchers like Davis (2.84 second-half ERA) Derek Gordon (3.12) and Josh Staumont (3.48, 34-to-9 strikeout-to-walk ratio).
I.F. has also been good/lucky in close games during the second game. The Chukars have won five extra-inning games (7-1 on the season), eight by one run and are 13-4 in games decided by two runs or fewer.
The Chukars will enjoy this success even if they miss the playoffs and fizzle over these last 10 games. Their players have developed in the second half, and that is ultimately all that matters in rookie ball.
PICOLLO VISIT’S I.F.
J.J. Picollo — the Royals’ vice president/assistant general manager for player personnel — has watched the Chukars since Thursday in Ogden, and he’ll be in Idaho Falls through today. He makes trips to see Kansas City’s three Rookie-level teams once a year.
Picollo said he’s here for two main reasons.
“One, getting to learn our new players, guys who were drafted this year. I saw a lot of them in mini-camp but didn’t see them in games,” said Picollo, who has held his current position since 2008. “The second thing is to look at the guys we’ve had in the system, see how they’re progressing, see where they’re at.”
Chukars general manager Kevin Greene has been employing college interns since he became GM in 1993, and he believes the opportunties benefit him and the interns.
But every summer, he deals with the same issue: interns going back to school.
This summer, the Chukars had six administrative interns (some receive college credit, but all of them receive stipends, Greene said). Four have begun classes — Jake Guza (College of Idaho), Matthew Donovan, Aaron Palmberg (both BYU) and Desiree Cannon (Lewis and Clark). I.F. also lost several college-age concessions workers.
Greene and the Melaleuca Field staff aren’t too worried about being understaffed, though. After all, they’ve survived the intern migration for 22 years.
Last Sunday, right-handed pitcher Bryan Brickhouse made a three-inning rehab start for the Chukars against Grand Junction (he allowed two earned runs). The next day, Brickhouse was added to I.F.’s active roster.
This is Brickhouse’s third stint with the Chukars. He made one start for I.F. in 2012 and nine appearances (eight starts) in 2014.
2B D.J. Burt
Burt’s hot second half gets two mentions in this space. Since July 28, Burt his hitting .398 with nine extra-base hits, seven stolen bases and 15 walks. He’s also reached base (via a hit, walk or hit-by-pitch) in 46 straight games.
OF Brawlun Gomez
Gomez leads the Chukars with nine home runs, but he’s been in a major slump. In his last 11 games, Gomez is hitting 5 for 41 (.122) with two walks and 22 strikeouts. He has 79 strikeouts on the season, tied for first in the Pioneer League with Gasparini.
The Idaho Falls Chukars don’t concern themselves with wins and losses.
They prefer to win, of course, but the coaches and players value one thing more than anything else — development.
So when the coaches discuss the first half of the season, they don’t focus on the 13-25 first half record and last place finish in the Pioneer League South Division, nor do they prioritize some of the poor individual statistics. They want the players to take steps toward Major League Baseball. So far, the coaches — all in their first seasons with the Chukars — are pleased with their players’ progression.
“Obviously, we can improve on our execution offensively and defensively and make pitches when we have to,” Chukars manager Justin Gemoll said. “But that’s all part of the learning process of rookie ball.”
In the Pioneer League, Idaho Falls was middle of the pack to below-average in most pitching categories in the first half, and they were middle of the road to above average in batting.
A team doesn’t go 13-25 without a multitude of struggles.
But those stats mask some key factors, like the Chukars’ roster.
Idaho Falls has gained two batters and lost three, including Alexis Rivera, who was named a Pioneer League all-star despite playing for Single-A Lexington since July 5. The Chukars have welcomed in five pitchers and lost four, including two who joined Idaho Falls after opening day.
Hitting coach Andre David and pitching coach Jeff Suppan also live by the adage, “process over results.” It’s a phrase major league coaches use, too, because players only have so much control over the results once they complete a swing or throw a pitch.
David utlilizes this phrase especially when dealing with slumping hitters, like second baseman DJ Burt (.203 first half batting average) and shortstop Marten Gasparini (.205 first half).
“I don’t want guys like Burt and Gaspy to get result-oriented. It’s not the purpose of this,” David said. “You have to give yourself a little bit of breathing room and credit and spend a lot of time thinking about what will come of this experience.”
That’s why David, like the other coaches, works so hard on the mental side of the game.
“The swing follows the mind,” David said.
Suppan operates under a similar line of thinking. If Idaho Falls’ pitchers, especially the young ones, are improving their mechanics and decreasing mental mistakes, he’s encouraged. The pitching has struggled, but he’s seen progress.
“I’ve been happy with how starters have been able to go deeper into games,” Suppan said. “The relievers have been a little more efficient.”
All of these coaches, including bench coach Ramon Castro, hope they capture the second half division crown. So do the players.
But their main concern in the second half is further player development. A winning record would be gravy.
“We want them to win in Kansas City,” Gemoll said.
Post Register’s First Half Awards
Most Outstanding Position Player: OF Amalani Fukofuka
– Key first half stats: .342 batting average, .400 on-base percentage, .479 slugging percentage, 12 doubles, four triples, five stolen bases.
Most Outstanding Pitcher: RHP Derek Gordon
– Key first half stats: 3.94 ERA, 29.2 innings pitched, 34 strikeouts, 10 walks, 33 hits, three home runs, zero hit batters
On Friday night, the Chukars erased an 8-2 ninth inning deficit to walkoff against Ogden 9-8.
This was the first time in four years that Idaho Falls came back from a deficit that large.
The last time the Chukars won a game after trailing by six or more runs was Aug. 4, 2011 at Orem. The Owlz held a 7-1 lead going into the eighth inning. Idaho Falls scored four in the eighth, two in the ninth and one in the 10th to win.
Friday’s win was also the largest home comeback since July 5, 2011. The Chukars trailed the Casper Ghosts (now the Grand Junction Rockies) 8-1 before rattling off five runs in the seventh and three in the eighth for the victory.
Friday marked Idaho Falls’ largest ninth inning comeback since the Chukars became a Kansas City Royals’ affiliate in 2004, according to Chukars’ director of broadcasting Alex Cohen.
FORMER CHUKARS ON THE MOVE
The Royals made multiple trades before Friday’s MLB trade deadline, and two of them involved former Chukars.
Last Sunday, Kansas City traded for pitcher Johnny Cueto, sending left-handed pitchers Brandon Finnegan, Cody Reed and John Lamb to Cincinnati. Reed pitched 29.2 innings for Idaho Falls in 2013. Lamb pitched 41.1 innings for the Chukars in 2009 and 7.1 innings for them in 2012.
On Tuesday, the Royals acquired infielder/outfielder Ben Zobrist from Oakland for left-hander Sean Manaea and right-handed Aaron Brooks, who pitched 79.2 innings for Idaho Falls in 2011.
SS Marten Gasparini
The cutoff between the season’s first and second halves occurred between Monday and Tuesday. Gasparini has made that (mostly arbitrary) dividing line look meaningful.
The 18-year-old Italian has gone 8 for 14 since Tuesday, with three triples (he leads the Pioneer League with seven) and three walks. His batting average has risen 36 points, his on-base percentage is up 39 points and his slugging percentage has increased 65 points since the second half began.
Gasparini’s most telling stat might be his strikeouts. He has led the league in strikeouts for a large chunk of the season, and his first half strikeout rate (strikeouts per plate appearance) was a monstrous 38.4 percent. In the second half, Gasparini’s strikeout rate is 17.6 percent, albeit in a tiny sample.
3B Ryan Dale
Dale is in the midst of his largest slump of the season. Since July 20, or 10 games, the 19-year-old Australian is hitting .188. He’s struck out 14 times and walked four times. In his 32 at-bats, Dale has hit two extra-base hits since July 20, and he’s committed two errors.
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.
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.
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.
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.
It didn’t take long for Mike Sweeney to return to the Kansas City Royals.
Sweeney, 43, spent 13 of his 16 MLB seasons in Kansas City, retiring in 2010. In February 2014, he was hired as a special assistant to baseball operations. In August, he’ll be inducted into the Royals Hall of Fame.
This week, Sweeney made his second trip to Idaho Falls in two years to help coach the Idaho Falls Chukars.
Royals’ baseball operations assistant for player development Chris Getz, hitting coordinator Bill Springman, pitching coordinator Larry Carter and baserunning, bunting and outfield coordinator Milt Thompson joined Sweeney in Idaho Falls this week.
The Post Register sat down with Sweeney on Friday to discuss his duties this week and the end of his playing career.
Note: This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
His duties this week
“I’m here for three and a half days. I’m really here to help speed up the process for these young prospects to get from Idaho Falls to Kansas City. I’m here to teach them, encourage them, kick them in the rear, pat them on the back and hopefully use my experiences of 16 years in the major leagues and 20-plus years in professional baseball to make that process happen.”
Specific advice he’s given to the Chukars
“Some it is, ‘Try to slow the game down, have fun, enjoy the moment.’ Some of it’s more mechanical stuff, working on hitters in the cage, game awareness, telling DJ Burt, ‘Hey, you should’ve already had your helmet and spikes on in the eighth inning to pinch run. You’ve gotta be ready. Expect that.’ These guys are young, they don’t have the experience of guys like me. It’s our job to help teach them, and it’s a joy.”
The Chukars who have impressed him
“I really like (outfielder Amalani) Fukofuka. Last year I saw him play. He’s a young kid with a lot of talent, and he’s starting to believe and put it together. To see Roman Collins hit his first professional home run (Thursday) night, being a walkoff… I actually got a ball, doctored it up and presented it to him before stretch today. That’s my job. Put a smile on their faces. Help them remember these days because there are only about 4,000 people on the planet that can say they play minor league baseball today.”
The 2010 NLDS with the Philadelphia Phillies
“My last at-bat in the big leagues was against (Cincinnati Reds reliever) Aroldis Chapman in the playoffs. First pitch: 103 (miles per hour). Second pitch: 103. Third pitch: 102. Thankfully, I got a nice line drive into left field for a base hit. I finished my career the right way.” (This was the only postseason plate appearance in Sweeney’s career)
On facing Chapman
“No once throws the ball like him. It’s a different level. You don’t see it. The only time you might see it is if you go to the batting cage, crank up the pitching machine as fast it will go and stand 30 feet away from the machine. That’s the only time you’re going to see something that fast.”
On his final MLB game: Game 6 of the 2010 NLCS against the San Francisco Giants
“I felt the spirit of God inside of me saying, ‘Hey, this is it. You just played your last game.’ I put my head down. The Giants are running out on the mound, cheering and celebrating. I feel a tap on my shoulder. I look up and it’s (Giants reliever) Jeremy Affeldt. He goes, ‘Hey man, I just came over to tell you I love you and congratulations.’ It shocked me. He was a 21 year-old kid in the big leagues when he came up. I was a veteran, and I mentored him. Really neat. That was my last moment in the big leagues, and one I’ll never forget.”
BUTLER RETURNS TO I.F.
Oakland Athletics first baseman/designated hitter Billy Butler spent this week’s MLB All-Star break in Idaho Falls.
Butler played 74 games for the Chukars as an 18-year-old in 2004, batting a Pioneer League-best .373.
But Butler’s ties to Idaho Falls go deeper than the Chukars. He met his wife, Katie Hansen, in 2004. Hansen, a Skyline High School graduate, worked at the hotel where Butler lived while playing for Idaho Falls.
Butler was called up to Kansas City in 2007, but Idaho Falls was still embedded in his mind. He lived there in the offseasons from 2007 to 2011.
Butler, 29, now lives in Arizona.
Other than meeting Katie, Butler’s favorite memory in Idaho Falls was when the 2004 Chukars clinched their first Pioneer League playoff spot since 2000.
“I made lifelong friends on that team,” Butler told the Post Register Saturday.
CHUKARS’ ROSTER MOVES THIS WEEK
July 15: Right-handed pitchers Brooks Pounders (Pittburgh’s 2009 second round MLB draft pick) and Josh Staumont (Kansas City’s 2015 second round pick) were promoted from the Arizona League Royals to Idaho Falls. Pounders, who pitched 15 innings for the Chukars last season, made one start for Idaho Falls this week on a rehab assignment.
July 16: Kansas City released left-handed pitcher Carlos Herrera (organization decision). Herrera, 22, posted a 9.45 ERA with 10 walks and eight strikeouts in 20 innings for Idaho Falls this season. The San Pedro de Macoris, Dominican Republic native was picked up as an undrafted free agent in 2012.
RHP Derek Gordon
Gordon has pitched 10.1 combined innings in his last two starts, giving up one earned run and striking out seven in each outing. His ERA has fallen from 5.65 to 4.01 in that span.
SS Marten Gasparini
Gasparini has three hits in his last 20 at-bats (he’s drawn two walks in that span, as well). Gasparini’s season batting average is .218, and he leads the Pioneer League with 46 strikeouts
Their media director and road play-by-play broadcaster Joey Zanaboni resigned June 19, in light of the Owlz’s controversial announcement of their promotion “Caucasian Heritage Night.”
Zanaboni’s resignation left the Owlz, the Los Angeles Angels’ Rookie-level affiliate, without a road play-by-play voice for their upcoming road trip, which started June 22.
Orem’s front office frantically searched for a replacement. One of them was David Winkworth, whom the Owlz knew after he (unsuccessfully) applied to be their public address announcer years earlier. Winkworth had broadcasting experience, lived in the Salt Lake City area and was available for the rest of Orem’s season.
The Owlz hired him on June 21.
“I’ve gotten a lot of positive feedback from fans on social media and from the Owlz,” Winkworth said in a phone interview. “They said, ‘You’re doing a good job so far,’ and I’m really enjoying my time.”
Two days before “Caucasian Heritage Night” was announced, nine African-American people were shot and killed in a Charleston, S.C., church. Dylan Roof, a white man, has been charged with the murders.
According to Zanaboni, via Twitter, he warned the Owlz’s front office about the potential public outcry “Caucasian Heritage Night” would create. He resigned after the team went ahead with the announcement and the outcry arrived.
In a statement, the Owlz said their announcement of the event — scheduled for Aug. 10 — was ill-timed.
“We understand in light of recent tragic events that our intentions have been misconstrued,” the Owlz’s statement said, via the Salt Lake Tribune. “For that, we sincerely apologize.”
The Owlz quickly cancelled the event. Orem’s general manager Justo Vazquez declined to talk about the situation.
As Orem searched for Zanaboni’s replacement, Winkworth’s public address application put him on their radar. Lack of experience cost him the PA job. His resume has grown since.
Since 2012, the Utah Valley University alum has interned at ESPN 700 (a Salt Lake City sports radio station), hosted a sports podcast, helped produce a sports TV show for Salt Lake Community College and covered the Utah Grizzlies (an East Coast Hockey League team affiliated with the NHL’s Anaheim Ducks) for KSL.com, among other work.
That experience, along with his local residence and summer availability, made him a clear favorite for the Owlz over the four to five other candidates.
Vazquez has been impressed with Winkworth’s performance so far.
“He learned everything from scratch — the team, the players — so I think he’s done an admirable job,” Vazquez said in a phone interview.
Winkworth said he’s enjoyed his four weeks with the Owlz.
“I love just sitting there, talking sports,” he said. “It’s a good opportunity for me.”
Winkworth was in Idaho Falls on Fourth of July weekend for Orem’s three-game series against the Chukars. He’ll return two more times: from July 27-29 and August 5-6.
Winkworth is only guaranteed this job through the end of the season. If a more attractive opportunity opens up after the season, he’ll take it. But if he wants to return as Orem’s road play-by-play voice next year, he’ll have an advantage over other candidates.
“If he goes through the season, keeps improving and shows us something, he obviously has the experience, so he’ll have the upper hand on anyone going into next year,” Vazquez said.
After Idaho Falls’ 8-5 loss to Orem on July 5, three Chukars were promoted to the Single-A Lexington Legends, most notably Alexis Rivera.
The left-handed outfielder and first baseman still leads the Pioneer League in home runs (seven) and walks (17), despite leaving Idaho Falls a week ago. He also hit .362 in his 69 at-bats with the Chukars.
Idaho Falls also lost left-handed pitchers Eric Stout (3.38 ERA in 2.2 innings for the Chukars) and Brennan Henry (1.69 in 5.1).
Those three joined former Chukar infielder Luis Valenzuela, who transferred to Lexington on July 2. Valenzuela leads the Legends with a .375 batting average and a .974 on-base-plus-slugging-percentage (OPS) in 16 at-bats.
Rivera has gone 1 for 9 with a walk in his three games with Lexington. Henry, who transferred from Lexington to Idaho Falls on June 22, has a 3.95 ERA in 13.2 innings for the Legends. Stout’s ERA is 3.00 in 3.0 innings.
Right-handed pitcher Carter Hope moved up from the Arizona League Royals to the Chukars on July 5. He’s made one appearance (a start) for Idaho Falls, giving up two earned runs in 3.1 innings against Great Falls on Wednesday.
Former Chukars make All-Star team
Seven Kansas City Royals made this year’s American League All-Star team. Two are former Chukars — third baseman Mike Moustakas and catcher Salvador Perez.
Moustakas played 11 games for Idaho Falls as an 18-year-old in 2007, hitting .293.
Perez played 12 games for the Chukars in 2008 (at age 18) and 59 games in 2009. He hit over .300 both seasons.
Cuthbert’s short MLB stint
Former Chukar Cheslor Cuthbert made his major league debut for Kansas City on Tuesday. He lasted four games, all starts at third base, going 5 for 15 (.333) with a triple.
Cuthbert played 14 games for Idaho Falls in 2010 (at age 18), hitting .233.
The Chukars’ bullpen
Singling out one reliever would be unfair. Idaho Falls’ bullpen has not allowed an earned run in its last 25 innings pitched (it has allowed an unearned run). The starters, however, have allowed 24 earned runs in their last 23 innings.
OF Brawlun Gomez
Gomez posted a .327 batting average and four home runs through his first 13 games. He has gone 1 for 20 with 11 strikeouts since, dropping his batting average to .253.
Saturday’s game rained out
Idaho Falls’ scheduled game at Missoula on Saturday was rained out. Both teams are scheduled to play a doubleheader today starting at 5 p.m. Both games will go seven innings, barring extra innings, and the second game will start 30 minutes after the first concludes.
A win’s a win, especially for the struggling Idaho Falls Chukars. But no one in pinstripes wanted to see another poor pitching performance, even in victory.
Led by starting pitcher Derek Gordon, the Chukars (6-13) got a 4-2 win over the first-place Orem Owlz (13-6) on Monday at Melaleuca Field, preventing an Owlz sweep.
“You could tell pre-game, there was a different feeling in the clubhouse,” said Gordon, the younger brother of Kansas City Royals’ All-Star Alex Gordon. “When you go out with the feeling that you’re going to win, it’s tough to lose.”
Before Monday, a Chukars pitcher had gone 5.2 innings or more only three times this season.
Gordon made that four.
Gordon, who lasted
5.2 innings on June 26 against Grand Junction, gave up two hits Monday in his fourth start of the season. The right-hander gave up two runs (one earned) on three walks and seven strikeouts. That’s the most strikeouts by any Idaho Falls pitcher in a single game this season.
“I felt more comfortable on the mound tonight than I have this season,” Gordon said. “I was locating my pitches all night.”
Stephen Milligan arguably pitched better than Gordon in his 3.1 relief innings. The left-hander gave up zero runs on two hits, a walk and three strikeouts.
At the plate, center fielder Cody Jones continued his hot start. Jones, who joined Idaho Falls on Saturday after a week in Arizona, went 3 for 4 with two doubles and two RBIs on Monday. He’s now 7 for 13 in three games.
Catcher Pedro Gonzalez went 3 for 4 with a double, and Jeckson Flores went 2 for 3.
Other than their 2-0 loss to Grand Junction on June 26, this was the Chukars’ lowest-scoring game of the season.
“They’re going to need to learn to play in these types of games,” Chukars manager Justin Gemoll said. “So, it’s good for us to have a close game every once in a while.”
The Chukars travel to Great Falls for a three-game series starting tonight at 7.
On Sunday, the Chukars fell behind 5-0 after four innings and never recovered in an 8-5 loss to Orem.
Starting pitcher Dylan Sons went 5 innings, allowing five runs (four earned) on seven hits, two walks and five strikeouts.
1-2-3 hitters Cody Jones, DJ Burt and Josh Banuelos each went 2 for 4 with a walk, with Banuelos adding three RBIs.
Three Chukars were promoted to Single-A Lexington after Sunday’s 8-5 loss to Orem — outfielder/first baseman Alexis Rivera and left-handed pitchers Brennan Henry and Eric Stout.
Rivera played for Idaho Falls for parts of each of the last three seasons. He exited Idaho Falls with a .362 batting average and Pioneer League-highs in home runs (seven) and walks (17) in 69 at-bats.
Henry transferred from Lexington to Idaho Falls on June 22. He made four relief appearances for the Chukars, posting a 1.69 ERA in 5.1 innings.
Stout joined the Chukars on June 29 and made one start, giving up three runs (one earned) on five strikeouts and no walks.
“We’re trying to develop players and get them better so we can push them up the system,” Gemoll said. “For us as coaches, we’re real happy anytime that happens.”
These three players will join former Chukars’ infielder Luis Valenzuela, who moved from Idaho Falls to Lexington on July 2.
Former Chukar joins Royals
On Monday, the Kansas City Royals called former Chukar Cheslor Cuthbert. The infielder replaced fellow former Chukar Mike Moustakas, who was placed on the family emergency/bereavement list after leaving the team Sunday for a family emergency, according to the Kansas City Star.
Cuthbert, 22, played one season for the Chukars as a 17-year-old in 2010. The infielder played 14 games for Idaho Falls, hitting .233 with two home runs in 64 plate appearances.
Cuthbert (.256 in 76 games for Triple-A Omaha this season) was set to make his MLB debut Monday against the Tampa Bay Rays starting at third base and batting eighth, but the game was postponed due to tornado warnings.
Few people have more knowledge of the Kansas City Royals’ organization than John Wathan.
Wathan, 65, is a Royals’ senior coordinator for player development. Wathan has been in Idaho Falls this week to evaluate the Chukars, along with director of minor league operations Ronnie Richardson, fellow senior coordinator for player development Chino Cadahia and Rafael Belliard, an infield coordinator and advisor to the general manager.
Wathan has spent 39 years with Kansas City. He played all 10 of his MLB seasons with the Royals, managed them for four years and worked in the team’s front office for a quarter century.
Wathan sat down with the Post Register on Thursday to discuss his job duties this weekend and overall.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
What does your role entail?
“I do a little bit of instruction. I used to do baserunning and bunting a lot, so I occasionally do that. More than that, I’m an evaluator. I go around to all seven clubs (affiliated with Kansas City) and evaluate all the pitching and the position players.”
Are you looking for anything specific this week in Idaho Falls?
“Nothing specifically. I’m just evaluating everything they do, from a hitting standpoint to defense to baserunning to pitching.”
How long do you spend watching each affiliate?
“I usually see every team five games, so I can see the whole starting rotation. Maybe I’ll see all of the bullpen, see all the guys play, position-wise. It’s enough time to make an evaluation.”
From the spring until the fall, are you traveling from team to team?
“I get home some. I live in Kansas City. I’ll be home for a few days, then head out again. I get home Monday, and I’ll leave Kansas City Thursday to Wilmington. I’ve seen (Double-A affiliate) Northwest Arkansas twice already. I usually see each team twice, with the exception of short-season clubs. This one, I’ll just see once.”
On Monday, Civic Stadium in Eugene, Ore., was engulfed in flames and declared a total loss by Eugene Springfield Fire Chief Randy Groves. Four juvenile boys were charged with second degree arson.
The baseball stadium has been unused since 2009, but before that, its history was rich. It opened in 1938, and in 1969, it became the home of the short-season Class A Eugene Emeralds, a Chicago Cubs affiliate since 2014.
The Emeralds, who moved to PK Park in 2010, are owned by Dave Elmore. The owner of Elmore Sports Group owns six other minor league baseball teams, including the Chukars.
Elmore, who has owned the Emeralds for more than 30 years, remembers how much the fans would intermingle around Civic’s concessions. He heard stories of fathers and sons bonding at the stadium, and people meeting their future spouses there.
“It was kind of a magical thing, and I think it was for a lot of people for a lot of years,” Elmore said in a phone interview Saturday. “I’m hoping that out of this will come a new desire and mission on the part of the community to rebuild it.”
The nonprofit Eugene Civic Alliance, which purchased Civic Stadium in April, vowed to build a sports complex where the stadium once stood, according to the Eugene Register-Guard.
OF/1B Alexis Rivera
Rivera has gone hitless in one game this season — an 0 for 4 performance against Ogden on June 24. He’s hit .368 in his last 10 games, one of which was Idaho Falls’ 25-2 win over Grand Junction on June 28. Rivera reached base in all seven plate appearances that game. Rivera leads the Pioneer League in home runs (7), RBIs (25) and walks (16).
LHP Hunter Haynes
In four starts, Haynes has given up 25 runs (19 earned) on 27 hits and 10 walks in 15.1 innings pitched. He owns a 11.15 ERA, the second-worst among Chukars pitchers (reliever Brian Bayliss has a 12.71 ERA).
Here is a timeline of the Chukars’ roster moves so far this season:
June 21: Outfielder Riley King (a Helena, Mont., native who was selected in the 24th round of the 2013 MLB draft out of Carroll College) transfers to the Rookie-level Riley King.
June 22: Left-handed pitcher Brennan Henry (17th round, 2014 draft, Bellevue University) transfers from the Single-A Lexington Legends to Idaho Falls.
June 23: Idaho Falls adds left-handed pitcher Nick Green (10th round, 2014 draft, Utah) to its active roster.
June 29: The Chukars add left-handed pitcher Eric Stout (13th round, 2014 draft, Butler University) to their active roster.
July 2: Infielder Luis Valenzuela transfers to Lexington. Valenzuela hit .486 in 35 at-bats for the Chukars this season. The Chukars also add Arizona League infielder Logan Nottebrok (undrafted) to their active roster.
July 4: Idaho Falls adds outfielder Cody Jones (6th round, 2015 draft, TCU) to active roster from extended spring.
The Idaho Falls Chukars just can’t escape the rain.
The Chukars, who battled wet weather on each day of its four-game homestand last week, had another game wiped out by the elements Saturday in Orem, Utah.
The Orem area got hit hard by rain Friday, and the field at Brent Brown Ballpark was still unplayable Saturday afternoon, forcing the postponement of Saturday night’s game at around 4 p.m.
The Chukars and Owlz will play their scheduled game at 4 p.m. today, then make up Saturday’s game as part of a doubleheader beginning at 5:30 p.m. Monday. Both of those games will be seven-inning affairs.
This is the seventh postponed game for the Chukars this season after having no rainouts a year ago.
Idaho Falls trails South Division leader Grand Junction by three games with 14 games remaining. The Chukars and Owlz wrap up their four-game series Tuesday, and before the teams head to Melaleuca Field to begin a four-game series Wednesday.
Also Saturday, the Kansas City Royals extended their Player Development Contract with the Idaho Falls Chukars through the 2016 season. The Chukars have been affiliated with the Royals since 2004.
“We are excited to extend our contracts with Burlington, Idaho Falls, Lexington (through 2018) and Wilmington for an additional two years,” Royals Director of Player Development Scott Sharp said in a news release. “We feel these cities and facilities are some of the best in all of minor league baseball and provide us a great advantage in developing the Royals of the future.”