By VICTOR FLORES
Tuesday’s game wasn’t a must-win for the Idaho Fall Chukars, but it was close.
I.F. went in trailing the Ogden Raptors by one game in the Pioneer League South Division, and the Chukars hosted the Raptors for a two-game series starting Tuesday.
The Chukars are now tied for the second-half division lead after handling the Raptors 10-5 at Melaleuca Field. I.F. manager Justin Gemoll said his team has a one-game-at-a-time mindset, but the Chukars know the stakes. Seven games remain in the regular season.
“I’ve never been in a playoff before,” said Chukars catcher Xavier Fernandez, who transferred from the Burlington Royals on Monday. “I feel so excited, and I can’t even explain it.”
The Chukars scored first with a three-run bottom of the first inning. Two runs scored on an error, and Fernandez (3 for 5) hit an RBI single after a long at-bat.
Ogden scored once in the top of the second, but I.F. built on the lead in the bottom half. Center fielder Cody Jones kicked the scoring off with an RBI triple.
Next up was D.J. Burt, who hit a towering fly ball to left field. Left fielder Alex Santana froze as the ball went airborne, appearing to be camped under it. But Santana didn’t know where the ball was, and neither did most of Melaleuca Field. Even Burt thought it was an out.
Santana’s confusion didn’t matter. Burt’s fly ball landed over the wall, 410 feet away.
After 273 plate appearances, Burt had his first home run of the season.
“Finally,” said Burt, who hit two blasts in 163 plate appearances for Burlington last season. “It feels good.”
Gemoll, the third base coach, gave Burt a high five but didn’t exchange words with the 19-year-old as he rounded third.
“He was too busy smiling,” Gemoll said.
The Chukars scored four runs in the second inning, taking a 7-1 lead.
I.F. extended the lead to 8-1 on a Brawlun Gomez home run (420 feet), but Ogden cut it to 8-5 with a four-run fourth. The Chukars added some insurance with a two-run sixth.
Julio Pinto made his first start for the Chukars and struggled, despite a mid-to-high-90s fastball. Pinto, previously with Burlington, gave up three runs (all earned) on five hits, a walk, five strikeouts and two wild pitches in 3.1 innings.
Fellow Chukars flamethrower Josh Staumont pitched three scoreless, hitless innings out of the bullpen, giving up two walks with four strikeouts.
Burt went 2 for 4 with two walks and has now reached base 49 games in a row. Newcomer Gabriel Noriega (shortstop) went 3 for 4, Jones went 2 for 5 with a walk and left fielder Roman Collins went 1 for 4 with two walks.
— Victor Flores (@VictorFlores_IF) September 2, 2015
Tonight’s series finale is enormous for the Chukars (34-35). If they win, they’ll not only take a one-game division lead, they’ll improve their season record against Ogden (40-29) to 9-7. The first playoff tiebreaker is head-to-head record.
Derek Gordon is scheduled to start for I.F. in tonight’s game, which starts at 7:15.
Several key I.F. position players were missing from Tuesday’s game. Outfielder Amalani Fukofuka was on the bench getting rest, and Gemoll wasn’t sure if he’d play tonight either. Shortstop Jeckson Flores (hamstring) and catcher Kyle Pollock (hand) are both day-to-day. Gemoll also said catcher Pedro Gonzalez, currently on the disabled list, will not return.
Shortstop Marten Gasparini could return as early as this weekend, Chukars director of broadcasting Alex Cohen said. Gasparini is currently in Japan representing Team Italy in the World Baseball Softball Confederation U-18 Baseball World Cup