Javier Hernandez is known for his energy, but he’s prone to falling asleep at work.
Two weeks ago, Hernandez was at Melaleuca Field for his part-time job as the Idaho Falls Chukars’ public address announcer. During the game, Hernandez didn’t announce the name of an opposing player who came up to bat.
Hernandez also failed to announce the next batter. The Chukars intern sitting next to Hernandez looked over. Hernandez’s eyes were closed. The intern tapped Hernandez, who awoke in confusion.
“It was one of those long days,” Hernandez said.
That was the only time Hernandez, 34, fell asleep while announcing a Chukars game. With the hours he works, it’s amazing Hernandez, in his second year as the PA announcer, hasn’t fallen asleep on the job more often.
“By the end of a homestand, I’m ready for it to be over,” Hernandez said. “But the flipside is, ‘Man, this is baseball. This is awesome.’ It’s short season, so enjoy it while you can.”
Earlier this summer, Hernandez was promoted to assistant store manager at Lowe’s in Idaho Falls. But with it came demanding hours.
During various weekdays, Hernandez has to be at Lowe’s by 5 a.m. He gets off around 3 or 4 p.m., which gives him about an hour to go home and say hi to his wife, Nicole. Then he heads to Melaleuca Field to start his shift as the PA announcer. If it’s a quick game, he might be home before 10 p.m.
Hernandez, who gets paid per game, works two jobs so he can afford his children’s education. Gavin, 8, and Ava, 3, Hernandez attend Watersprings Christian.
“(Nicole) supports me in knowing that this is going toward a good cause,” Hernandez said. “It’s taking care of my family’s needs.”
Hernandez admits the hours are draining, but he loves announcing baseball game. It helps that he’s good at it.
“He brings a really polished presence up there,” Chukars general manager Kevin Greene said. “He does as well as any announcers we’ve had.”
Jordan Beckstead has been the Chukars’ scoreboard operator for more than two decades, so he’s seen his share of PA announcers. Some have been good, some haven’t. Beckstead recalled one announcer throwing a chair in anger during one game.
“Other guys used to get really angry when they’d mess up because they were perfectionists,” Beckstead said. “(Hernandez) doesn’t do that, and that’s what I like.”
Hernandez and Beckstead’s relationship started outside the press box. They were a year apart at Bonneville High School.
“He was always really personable back then, too,” Beckstead said. “Really popular guy, friend to everyone, just like he is now.”
It doesn’t matter if Hernandez messes up a name or has a rough day at Lowe’s. He’s always friendly, his voice always booming.
Even when he dozes at the mic.
“This is a stress reliever,” Hernandez said. “I can’t believe I get paid to do this.”
The Chukars are still battling Ogden for the second-half crown in the Pioneer League South Division. But if they clinch, here’s how the playoffs would look.
Since Orem won the first half South title, it gets homefield advantage in the best-of-three playoff series. That means I.F. would host the first game of the series Wednesday, and Orem would host the second game Thursday and, if necessary, the third game Friday.
Whoever wins that series faces the winner of the North series in the championship. The North gets homefield advantage during odd years, so the 2015 Pioneer League champion will have to win the title in Montana.
Here is a timeline of the week in the Chukars’ roster moves:
Sunday, Aug. 30 — Chukars add infielder Gabriel Noriega (rehab) from Triple-A Omaha and right-handed pitchers Jacob Bonder and Matt Ditman from Rookie-league Burlington.
Monday — Chukars add righty Julio Pinto and catcher Xavier Hernandez from Burlington.
Wednesday — Chukars add outfielder Rudy Martin from the Arizona League and infielders Jose Martinez and Brandon Dulin from Burlington.
Thursday — Chukars add infielder Carlos Diaz and lefty Nicholas Andros from the Arizona League. Noriega ends his rehab stint and returns to Omaha.
Since this is the final Chukars Notebook of 2015, the weekly “Who’s Hot? Who’s Not?” feature will award the hottest and coldest Chukars of the season.
THE ‘WHO’S HOT?’ PLAYER OF THE YEAR
OF Amalani Fukofuka
This was an agonizing choice between Fukofuka and first baseman Josh Banuelos. The deciding factors were Fukofuka’s speed and defense.
Through Friday, the 19-year-old outfielder was second on the team behind Banuelos with a .340 batting average (among players with at least 100 plate appearances). But Fukofuka had a team-best .896 on-base-plus-slugging percentage, thanks to his 18 doubles (second behind Banuelos), nine triples (second behind Marten Gasparini), two home runs and 24 walks. Through Friday, Fukofuka had 299 plate appearances, tied for first on the Chukars with Banuelos.
Fukofuka is also sixth on the team with 10 stolen bases. He’s made several highlight catches in the outfield and has committed only six errors in 64 games.
Fukofuka and Banuelos were the lone representatives on the Pioneer League’s postseason all-star team, as well.
THE ‘WHO’S NOT?’ PLAYER OF THE YEAR
3B Ryan Dale
Left-handed pitcher Hunter Haynes (7.04 ERA, 27 strikeouts, 24 walks) narrowly avoided this dubious honor thanks to a strong second half. Dale has played poorly in the second half, although his struggles aren’t exclusive to the last 35 games.
Through Friday, Dale was batting .208 with a .628 OPS. Other than recent addition Rudy Martin, who had four plate appearances through Friday, Dale has been the Chukars’ worst batter this season. He’s also committed 10 errors.
Not everything has been negative for Dale. The Australian hit a game-winning home run at Helena on Aug. 7, and he’s shown good patience at the plate (.328 on-base percentage).
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’ 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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
The inaugural Northwest League vs. Pioneer League All-Star Game does not appear to be the last.
The Ogden Raptors announced near the end of Tuesday’s all-star game that they will host the 2016 game, pending approval from Minor League Baseball. The success of Tuesday’s game, hosted by the Northwest League’s Spokane Indians, led to the decision to play another one next year, this time at a Pioneer League ballpark.
“It will be a big project for us but we will be excited and ready for the game,” Raptors president Dave Baggot said in an article on Ogden’s website.
Ogden could not be reached for comment.
The date and time of next year’s all-star game have not yet been announced. Pioneer League president Jim McCurdy and Northwest League president Mike Ellis will make a joint application for MiLB approval, and Idaho Falls Chukars general manager Kevin Greene hopes the game will be approved in the next few weeks.
“I think what they’re really waiting for is to get feedback from all of the farm directors from all the teams that participated,” Greene said. “Make sure all the farm directors are comfortable with us moving forward and doing this annually.”
As Greene told the Post Register before Tuesday’s all-star game, Ogden was a prime candidate to host next year’s all-star game. The Raptors’ ballpark, Lindquist Field, has a capacity of 6,700 people, making it the largest ballpark in the Pioneer League. Spokane’s Avista Stadium had an attendance of 7,083 for Tuesday’s all-star game.
Other than ballpark size, location was another key factor for Ogden’s all-star game selection. Ogden is about 40 miles north of Salt Lake City, narrowly surpassing Orem as the closest Pioneer League town to an international airport. Ogden’s proximity to Salt Lake’s airport allows Northwest League teams to save time and money compared to the Pioneer League’s seven other venues (Idaho Falls; Orem; Grand Juction, Colo.; Billings, Mont.; Helena, Mont.; Missoula, Mont; Great Falls, Mont.).
Next year’s likely all-star game wouldn’t have been possible if Tuesday’s inaugural game went poorly. It went anything but, according to multiple people at the event. The home run derby was well-done, Greene said, and the capacity crowd was treated to a thrilling 6-5, extra-inning victory by the Northwest League.
“Spokane did such a great job,” Greene said. “Their attention to detail was spot-on. These guys worked very, very hard, and they spent a lot of money to pull it off the way they did. The way it was all put together, you couldn’t have asked for it to be done better.
“I’d hate to be the one to try and follow what they did.”
On Aug. 2, Chukars’ left-handed pitcher Dylan Sons was placed on the voluntary retirement list. The Chukars could not provide further details, and Sons could not be reached for comment.
Sons, 22, was drafted in the 15th round of the 2012 MLB draft by the Kansas City Royals. In seven starts and 26.2 innings this season for Idaho Falls, Sons had a 10.80 ERA on 14 walks, 21 strikeouts and five home runs.
The Chukars also added a player on Aug. 2. Catcher Luis Lara, 20, was promoted from the Arizona League, where he had a .278 batting average, a .381 on-base percentage and a .278 slugging percentage in 36 at-bats.
Idaho Falls now has four catchers on its active roster.
Lara played his first game in an Chukars uniform on Saturday. He went 2 for 4 at the plate against Helena.
RHP Josh Staumont
Staumont has been electric since he joined Idaho Falls on July 15, but he was also wild early on. In his first appearance with the Chukars on July 16 against Missoula, Staumont walked five and gave up two earned runs in 0.2 innings. The 21-year-old settled down a bit his next three relief appearances, but he still finished the first half with 11 walks, nine strikeouts and four earned runs in 7.1 innings.
Staumont, a second- round pick by Kansas City in the 2015 MLB draft, has given up one earned run in his 6.2 second half innings (three relief appearances). But more importantly, he’s walked three batters while striking out 11. Staumont’s fastball has hit 100-plus miles per hour on several occasions, as well.
1B Josh Banuelos
It’s not easy to find a struggling player on a team that’s won eight consecutive games, and hardly any Chukar is currently slumping. But compared to his hot start, Banuelos fits that bill.
Banuelos’ batting average was .361 before Idaho Falls’ game against Orem on July 23. He’s gone 12 for 44 (.273) since, dropping his season average to .337.
Perhaps most concerning for Banuelos are his walks, or lack thereof. He’s drawn two walks since July 20, leading to a 35-point drop in his on-base percentage.
Banuelos, a 2015 Pioneer League all-star, missed four games last week due to a bone bruise in his hand.
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.