In the ninth inning of the final game of the first half, the Idaho Falls Chukars didn’t know what their audience did: the Orem Owlz had lost.
Orem’s loss to Billings gave the Chukars an opening. If they came back to beat Missoula, they’d be the Pioneer League South Division first half champions.
As Orem’s game was concluding, the Chukars staged a comeback. A 4-1 deficit turned into a 4-4 tie, and it was feet away from a 5-4 lead. Angelo Castellano hit a double high off the wall to tie it up.
I.F.’s joy soon turned into anguish. Jacy Cave hit a walkoff home run off Brian Bayliss to put a disappointing end to an otherwise successful first half for the Chukars.
“It was a tough loss, especially when the game’s over and you find out that Orem lost,” Idaho Falls manager Justin Gemoll said. “Still, (we) accomplished a lot. I think a lot of our losses were by one or two runs. A lot of close games. With those close games, it just makes you focus on doing the little things right because a bunch of little things add up to a win.”
In some ways, Bayliss symbolized I.F.’s strong first half and its dispiriting end. Bayliss is a Pioneer League All-Star. The right-hander finished the first half with a 2.87 ERA, 13 strikeouts and three unintentional walks. Cave’s home run was one negative moment in a half full of positive ones.
“It’s baseball. It happens,” Bayliss said. “You’ve got another half season, and you just have to move on.”
The Chukars haven’t won a first half title since 2007, and they went a league-worst 13-25 in the first half of 2015. Bayliss was on last year’s team, and the playoff race this week didn’t feel new to him. It felt like the second half of last year, when the Chukars won the South Division.
The biggest goal for Gemoll and company, of course, is to develop their players. The coaching staff wants all 29 players to improve, wins and losses be damned … to some extent.
Not every aspect of development is mechanical. Close games and tight playoff races can also prepare the players for the next level, even if Pioneer League contests feel light years away from the World Series.
“To get to that next level, you’ve gotta be a little bit sharper up top,” Gemoll said. “That’s what the good big league players do.”
One positive from finishing second in the first half title chase: the second half has stakes. The Chukars have another playoff race to look forward to.
Chukars starting pitcher Alex Luna strained his left oblique Tuesday at Missoula. The injury will force Luna to miss Tuesday’s All-Star game, but neither he nor Justin Gemoll expect him to miss much time. Luna isn’t exactly sure when he’ll be back, but he hopes to throw again by Tuesday.
Luna leads I.F. with 42 strikeouts, and he’s issued seven walks in 40 innings pitched. The right-hander also leads all Pioneer League starters with a 2.48 ERA.
MONDESI CALLED UP
Kansas City called up former Chukar Raul Mondesi on Tuesday. The 21-year-old has started at second base the previous five games for the Royals and has gone 6 for 17 (.353) at the plate. He recorded his first MLB hit Wednesday, a bunt single against the Los Angeles Angels.
Mondesi, widely considered the Royals’ top prospect, was added to Kansas City’s 2015 World Series roster and made one plate appearance in Game 3. He started this season in Double-A Northwest Arkansas but was suspended 50 games in May after testing positive for Clenbuterol, a performance-enhancing drug. He returned to Advanced Single-A Wilmington on June 25, moved up to Northwest Arkansas on July 4 and ascended to Triple-A Omaha on July 9.
Mondesi played for the Chukars in 2012 at the age of 16. He hit .290 with a .733 OPS in 232 plate appearances.
FORMER CHUKARS LITTER TOP 30 LIST
Below are the former — and current — Chukars who made the Royals’ list:
1. SS/2B Raul Mondesi (preseason: No. 1) — Was a Chukar in 2012; No. 54 on MLB.com’s top 100 list
2. 3B/OF Hunter Dozier (preseason: No. 15) — Chukar in 2013
4. LHP Matt Strahm (preseason: No. 10) — Chukar in 2012, 2014
6. RHP Kyle Zimmer (preseason: No. 2) — Chukar in 2014
8. 1B/OF Ryan O’Hearn (preseason: No. 13) — Chukar in 2014
9. RHP Alec Mills (preseason: No. 15) — Chukar in 2012, 2014
10. RHP Jake Junis (preseason: unranked) — Chukar in 2013
11. RHP Josh Staumont (preseason: 18) — Chukar in 2015
14. SS Marten Gasparini (preseason: 8) — Chukar in 2014, 2015
23. RHP Brooks Pounders (preseason: 29) — Chukar in 2014, 2015
24. LHP Eric Skoglund (preseason: 28) — Chukar in 2014
29. SS Ricky Aracena (preseason: 26) — Current Chukar
30. 2B/SS Corey Toups (preseason: unranked) — Chukar in 2014
Former Chukars who dropped out of the top 30: OF Amalani Fukofuka (preseason: 20; Chukar in 2015), OF Brandon Downs (preseason: 24; Chukar in 2014)
WHO’S HOT (FIRST HALF)?
C Meibrys Viloria
Alex Luna, Manny Olloque, Yeison Melo and others had excellent halves, but Viloria is the indisputable choice for this award. In the first 38 games, Viloria led the Pioneer League in batting average (.457), on-base percentage (.504), slugging percentage (.793), hits (53), RBIs (36), doubles (15) and total bases (92).
WHO’S NOT (FIRST HALF)?
LHP Nick Andros
Andros finished the first half with a 10.80 ERA in 13.1 innings pitched. He allowed 27 hits, seven walks (11 strikeouts) and a team-high six home runs.