By VICTOR FLORES
History is brewing at Melaleuca Field.
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.