Tag: Andre David

Chukars announce their 2017 coaching staff

Gemoll
Gemoll

A new hitting coach will sit in the Idaho Falls Chukars dugout this summer.

Damon Hollins will replace Andre David as the Chukars’ hitting instructor for the 2017 season, the Chukars announced Friday. Manager Justin Gemoll and pitching coach Jeff Suppan will return to Idaho Falls for their third straight seasons, and Justin Kemp will serve as the Chukars’ head athletic trainer for the second straight year.

This is not Hollins’ first stint as the Chukars’ hitting coach. He held the same position in 2013 and 2014. Hollins spent the previous two seasons as the hitting coach for the Single-A Lexington Legends. 2017 will be Hollins’ eighth year in the Kansas City Royals’ organization.

David was named the hitting coach for the Burlington Royals, Kansas City’s other Rookie-level affiliate, according to the (Burlington, N.C.) Times-News. Former Chukars manager Omar Ramirez will become Burlington’s manager this upcoming season, as well. Ramirez, who managed the Legends the last two years, spent three seasons in Idaho Falls. He and Hollins won a Pioneer League title in 2013.

The Chukars did not name a bench coach on Friday. Ramon Castro has occupied that role the previous two seasons.

Chukars’ all-stars took giant leaps this season

Chukars third baseman Manny Olloque grabs a foul ground ball during the game against the Orem Owlz on June 22 at Melaleuca Field. (Pat Sutphin / psutphin@postregister.com)
Chukars third baseman Manny Olloque grabs a foul ground ball during the game against the Orem Owlz on June 22 at Melaleuca Field. (Pat Sutphin / psutphin@postregister.com)

Last Wednesday, the Chukars lost to Missoula on a walkoff home run. The man who served up the homer was Brian Bayliss, who discovered he was a Pioneer League All-Star hours earlier.

Bayliss’ all-star selection couldn’t fully neutralize the sting of the walkoff, but it softened the blow. The second annual Pioneer League-Northwest League All-Star Game is a good reminder to Bayliss and the Chukars’ other four all-stars Alex Luna, Yeison Melo, Manny Olloque and Meibrys Viloria of the larger picture. They’ve taken strides toward the higher levels of affiliated baseball over the last month and a half.

“It’s an honor,” Olloque said. “Just keep going. We’ve got plenty of season left. Improve on it.”

All five of I.F.’s All-Stars have gone through some version of the same story: they’ve broken through this season afterlackluster 2015 campaigns. Viloria might be the most glaring example.

The 19-year-old catcher leads the Pioneer League in batting average (.448), slugging percentage (.776), OPS (1.269), doubles(17) and total bases (97). Viloria has drawn only 10 walks, but that does not mean he’s impatient.

“He knows what he’s looking for,” Chukars hitting coach Andre David said. “If there’s a fastball on the outer half, and hedoesn’t like it, he’d rather be 0 and 1 than 0 for 1. Taking nothing away from his aggressiveness. It’s a controlledaggressiveness.”

Why take a walk when you get a pitch you can crush?

Viloria has 20 extra-base hits, including the six home runs that landed him in Tuesday’s home run derby and in the starting lineup for the game to follow. He had 39 hits last year with Burlington. None went for extra bases.

“I was working hard last year,” Viloria said in Spanish through I.F. bench coach Ramon Castro. “I tried hitting the ball (hard)but I couldn’t do it last year. I wasn’t focused. This year, I’m more focused, relaxed, I see the ball better and I have moreconfidence.”

Olloque hit .169 with a .438 OPS in 18 games with the Arizona League Royals that summer after battling a thumb injury. Hehas been plenty healthy this summer.

Olloque’s .342 batting average and .895 OPS netted him the start at third base for Tuesday’s game.

“He recovers really well,” David said. “If the pitcher makes a good pitch or a good couple pitches, it doesn’t phase him.”

Melo had the best 2015 season of I.F.’s all-stars, hitting .318 in 43 games for the Arizona League Royals. His OPS, however, was .772. That number is .919 this season, thanks in large part to 12 doubles, four triples and three home runs. Melo leads the Pioneer League in hits (58) and RBIs (39).

“We have done some things that have allowed him to be more in a position to see the fastball,” David said. “If it’s a breaking ball that he can get to or they hang, he’s in a better position to (hit) that, but he’s also recognizing, for the most part, the ones he can’t handle.”

Luna had a 4.54 ERA in 41.2 innings with Burlington last year. In 40 innings this season, he leads the Pioneer League in ERA (2.48) and the team in strikeouts (42). He’s issued just seven walks.

“We want to fill up the strike zone, and he’s able to do that,” Chukars pitching coach Jeff Suppan said. “It makes the hitters more aggressive. Then he can pick, he can change speeds, and he does that well.”

Luna will miss the game due to a strained oblique, and Bayliss filled his vacancy. Bayliss played for the Chukars last year and finished with a 6.39 ERA in 25.1 innings. His ERA is 3.24 in 16.2 innings this year, and he allowed only one earned run his first 10 innings. Suppan said Bayliss has been effective in throwing his changeup off his sinking fastball, and he tries to get hitters to chase his curveball.

The five all-star Chukars aren’t close to their major goal, but Tuesday’s game validates the progress they’ve made.

“I continued working hard,” Melo said. “I want to make the next level next year.”

Chukars turn on the power late, beat Osprey 6-5

Chukars infielders David Edwards (left) and Manny Olloque (right) high-five their teammates after Idaho Falls’ 6-5 win over Missoula on Tuesday at Melaleuca Field. (Courtesy of Steve Thayer)
Chukars infielders David Edwards (left) and Manny Olloque (right) high-five their teammates after Idaho Falls’ 6-5 win over Missoula on Tuesday at Melaleuca Field. (Courtesy of Steve Thayer)

The Idaho Falls Chukars’ lineup might take a while to wake up, but it never sleepwalks through a game.

That was the case again Tuesday. The Chukars didn’t record a baserunner through three innings, and they were hitless through four. No matter. They finished with 10 hits and a 6-5 win over the Missoula Osprey Tuesday at Melaleuca Field. I.F. now occupies first place in the Pioneer League South by itself.

Power out, power in

First pitch of Tuesday’s game was delayed 15 minutes due to a power outage that affected the entire region. Everything returned back to normal at Melaleuca Field around 6:45 p.m., except for the Chukars’ offense.

The team that averaged 8.3 runs on 10.9 hits per game heading into Tuesday was shut down the first four innings by right-hander Chester Pimentel. Not only did he hold I.F. hitless for four innings, he struck out six batters over that span.

Then the Chukars’ lights turned on.

Five singles led to three runs in the bottom of the fifth, and the Chukars suddenly had a two-run lead. Before that inning, it was easy to forget that Alex Luna I.F.’s best starting pitcher was also pitching a gem. He finished with three earned runs in 5.2 innings, but he only allowed five hits and one walk while striking out eight.

The Osprey regained the lead against Luna and Brian Bayliss in the top of the sixth, but a 5-3 deficit to the Chukars is like a summit reachable by wheelchair.

Sure enough, the Chukars scored once in the bottom of the sixth to inch closer. Meibrys Viloria led off the bottom of the eighth, and the outcome of his at-bat felt comically predicable. Viloria skied a 400-plus-foot home run to right field. The next batter, David Edwards, launched a pitch the opposite way over the left field wall to give I.F. the lead for good.

“You play to the last out of the ballgame, and that’s kind of the attitude these guys have taken,” Chukars pitching coach Andre David said. “That’s a good learning experience for them as they move up, to understand that you’re competing every pitch. That’s how you get better, is to be able to compete through the tough times as well as the good times.”

The Chukars have now won five games this season in which they trailed in the seventh inning or later. They’re also 15-4 at home.

Alone at the top

I.F.’s win, coupled with Orem’s 5-3 loss to Billings, vaulted the Chukars into first place alone in the South Division. I.F. has a 19-12 record with seven games left in the first half.

The Chukars were also at home on July 19 last year for their 31st game. They beat Billings 4-2 in 11 innings that night to improve to 11-20, and they finished the first half 13-25.

Melo named player of the week

Chukars outfielder Yeison Melo hit .520 last week, making him an easy choice for the Pioneer League player of the week.

From July 11 to 17, Melo went 13 for 25 with a double, triple and his first two home runs of the season.

Player of the game

Chukars catcher Meibrys Viloria

Viloria might cool down this season, but don’t hold your breath. The catcher went 3 for 4 with key hits: the game-tying home run and an RBI single in the sixth to cut Missoula’s lead to 5-4.

Viloria is now batting .472 in 89 at-bats this season.

Up next

The Chukars get Wednesday off and begin an eight-day road trip on Thursday at Helena (11-20). Jace Vines is scheduled to take on fellow right-hander Jordan Desguin in game one of the four-game series.

Rockies overcome Chukars’ furious rally, win 14-13

The Idaho Falls Chukars could taste a third straight walk-off win. This one would’ve been the most thrilling.

The third time was not the charm.

Grand Junction designated hitter Colton Welker hit a two-strike, two-out RBI single in the top of the ninth inning. It proved to be the winning run in the Rockies’ 14-13 victory Saturday at Melaleuca Field, and it negated I.F.’s seven-run comeback.

Tragedy of errors

The Chukars went into Saturday’s game leading the Pioneer League with 35 errors. They did more than enough to maintain that lead Saturday.

I.F. piled up six errors, all through the first seven innings. Six of Grand Junction’s 14 runs were unearned.

Weirdly enough, those errors didn’t loom as large as one Grand Junction error in the bottom of the seventh.

With runners on second and third and two outs, Chukars right fielder Tanner Stanley hit a ground ball to the shortstop. Jose Gomez scooped it up and fired to first. The ball dove into the dirt, and Hunter Melton couldn’t handle it. Both runs scored to cut the Rockies’ lead to 13-10.

Two batters later, Yeison Melo hit a two-run double to tie it at 13-13. It capped a seven-run inning in which the Rockies committed both of their errors. Luckily for Grand Junction, the two miscues didn’t lead to a loss.

Viloria’s eventful night

I.F. catcher Meibrys Viloria caused some controversy Thursday night. In the bottom of the ninth, Viloria made a wide slide that clipped Jose Gomez on a double play attempt. Gomez dropped the ball, which allowed Colton Frabasilio to score the game-winning run.

Viloria hit his second home run of the season in the fourth inning Saturday, and he knew it right away. Viloria flipped his bat as soon as the three-run shot began its flight over the right field wall.

Viloria’s next plate appearance came in the bottom of the sixth. Heath Holder’s first pitch nicked Viloria in the back, and home plate umpire Steven Hodgins immediately ejected the right-hander.

Viloria and hitting coach Andre David, among other Chukars, lobbed angry words toward Grand Junction, but tensions cooled down after that.

Player of the game

Rockies first baseman Hunter Melton

Melton went 3 for 5 with a double, a walk and a two-run home run. The performance raised his batting average from .063 to .190.

Up next

The Chukars (8-7) and the Rockies (7-7) wrap up their four-game series at 4 p.m. Sunday. I.F.’s Arnaldo Hernandez is scheduled to face fellow righty Bryan Baker.

Chukars Notebook: Coaches find positive signs from poor first half

Idaho Falls Chukars' manager Justin Gemoll jogs out of the dugout during the Chukars opening game June 18 at Melaleuca Field.   (Pat Sutphin / psutphin@postregister.com)
Idaho Falls Chukars’ pitching coach Jeff Suppan jogs out of the dugout during the Chukars opening game June 18 at Melaleuca Field. (Pat Sutphin / psutphin@postregister.com)

By VICTOR FLORES
vflores@postregister.com

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

FRIDAY’S COMEBACK

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.

WHO’S HOT?

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.

WHO’S NOT?

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.

Chukars can’t solve Great Falls’ starting pitcher in 5-2 loss

By VICTOR FLORES
vflores@postregister.com

The Idaho Falls Chukars have scored the Pioneer League’s third most runs per game, at 6.6.

On Tuesday night, right-hander Brannon Easterling made the Chukars look colder than Billings (4.9 runs per game).

Easterling was Tuesday’s starting pitcher for the Great Falls Voyagers. Great Falls’ offense wasn’t superb, but it didn’t matter. Easterling gave up one run in six innings, leading the Voyagers (16-13) to a 5-2 win in the series finale at Melaleuca Field.

The Chukars split the four-game series and went 5-2 on the homestand.

“Hats off to the starting pitcher,” Chukars hitting coach Andre David said. “He was on tonight. You give him credit, and you move on from that.”

Chukars starting pitcher Carter Hope gave up two runs in the first inning, and while he was only charged for one, he had a large hand in both.

Hope gave up a leadoff double to Landon Lassiter, who scored on a fielding error by Hope. A double and a sacrifice fly allowed another run, scored by Johan Cruz, who reached on Hope’s error.

Otherwise, Hope was excellent. The righty went five innings, giving up three runs (one earned) on eight hits, one walk and two strikeouts. His ERA dropped to 2.03 in 13.1 innings with Idaho Falls.

But Hope was overshadowed by Easterling, who allowed one earned run on four hits, no walks and four strikeouts. A solo home run from Chukars catcher Kyle Pollock (1 for 4) was responsible for Easterling’s only run allowed.

“I think we were just swinging at bad pitches and getting behind,” said Chukars third baseman Ryan Dale, who went 0 for 3 with a strikeout. “It wasn’t the pitcher. It was us.”

Easterling worked quickly between pitches, and his effectiveness combined with mistakes by Chukars hitters resulted in quick innings. The game finished in two hours and 29 minutes, despite a slow seventh, eighth and ninth.

“He had good rhythm and tempo, kept the ball down, changed speeds, located well,” David said of Easterling. “He commanded the fastball, and when he needed to go to anything other than that, he had command of that.”

The Chukars cut the deficit to 3-2 in the bottom of the seventh, but a two-run home run from Voyagers catcher Zach Fish off Alberto Rodriguez in the top of the ninth gave Great Falls a 5-2 lead. Those were Rodriguez’s first two earned runs of the season, breaking his 13-inning streak.

Chukars’ left fielder Roman Collins went 2 for 4 with a double, and first baseman Logan Nottebrok went 2 for 3 with a double.

Idaho Falls (12-21) gets today off and travels to Orem for a four-game series starting Thursday.

Logan Nottebrok, pitching lifts Idaho Falls in 5-1 win

Idaho Falls pitcher Daniel Concepcion releases a pitch during Monday night's game at Melaleuca Field. (Monte LaOrange / mlaorange@postregister.com)
Idaho Falls pitcher Daniel Concepcion releases a pitch during Monday night’s game at Melaleuca Field. (Monte LaOrange / mlaorange@postregister.com)

By VICTOR FLORES
vflores@postregister.com

Logan Nottebrok couldn’t speak a week ago. On Monday night, the first baseman was one of the Idaho Falls Chukars’ offensive stars.

Nottebrok tripled and scored the game-tying run in the sixth inning, then walked to drive in the go-ahead run in the seventh. That run was decisive in the Chukars’ 5-1 win over Great Falls Monday at Melaleuca Field.

“It feels good to hit the ball hard,” Nottebrok said.

Nottebrok has been battling strep throat and pneumonia since the Chukars’ road series against Great Falls from July 7-9. His performance reflected his illness. In three games from July 7-15, Nottebrok went 0 for 10 with a walk. His batting average and slugging percentage going into Monday were each .190 (team-lows).

“My energy’s been a little low, but that’s part of baseball,” said Nottebrok, a 2015 undrafted free agent from Texas A&M. “You have to come out and grind.”

Nottebrok has been guzzling energy drinks and the powdered vitamin drink mix Emergen-C to try to improve his condition. But his voice, while now audible, is hoarse.

Before Friday’s game against Missoula, Chukars hitting coach Andre David worked with Nottebrok on some adjustments: lowering his hands during his batting stance and using his lower body more during his swing. Neither David nor Nottebrok think Nottebrok’s improved performance since then is a coincidence.

Nottebrok went 1 for 4 on Friday with a walk and three hard-hit outs. On Monday, he was a crucial piece in turning Idaho Falls’ one-run deficit into a one-run lead that grew afterwards.

“Selection is better,” David said. “Mentally, I think he feels confident now. He knows if he gets something, he can take a pretty good swing. That’s all we ask.”

Nottebrok’s heroics on Monday would have been inconsequential if not for strong outing by the Chukars’ pitchers.

Great Falls' Antonio Rodriguez slides safely in to second base while Idaho Falls' D.J. Burt tries to make the catch during Monday night's game at Melaleuca Field. (Monte LaOrange / mlaorange@postregister.com)
Great Falls’ Antonio Rodriguez slides safely in to second base while Idaho Falls’ D.J. Burt tries to make the catch during Monday night’s game at Melaleuca Field. (Monte LaOrange / mlaorange@postregister.com)

Right-hander Daniel Concepcion made his second start for Idaho Falls, going four scoreless innings on four hits, three walks and two strikeouts.

Fellow righty Josh Staumont, who walked five batters in 0.2 innings Thursday against Missoula, was more accurate Monday. He gave up one run (earned) on one hit, two walks and four strikeouts in two innings. His fastball touched 99 miles per hour.

Lefty Hunter Haynes pitched the final three innings and didn’t give up a run. He allowed a hit and two walks while striking out four.

“Especially in this league, guys are going to walk guys. The key is how they bounce back,” Chukars manager Justin Gemoll said. “(Pitching coach Jeff Suppan) does a great job with these kids of getting them to trust their stuff and attack the zone.”

Right fielder Brawlun Gomez hit a 453-foot two-run home run in the bottom of the eighth to increase Idaho Falls’ lead to 4-1.

Idaho Falls has now won five of its last six games.

The Chukars (12-20) go for the series victory over the Voyagers (15-13) tonight at 7:15 p.m.

Sunday’s extra-inning thriller

The Orem Owlz’s 7-4 win over Helena on Sunday eliminated the Chukars from first half Pioneer League South Division contention. But the Chukars did all they could to stay alive for at least another day.

Idaho Falls defeated Great Falls 4-3 in Sunday afternoon’s up-and-down, 11-inning contest.

The Chukars took a 2-0 lead into the fifth inning, but Great Falls scored three combined runs in the fifth and sixth to take a 3-2 lead.

With one out in the ninth inning, third baseman Jeckson Flores walked and scored the game-tying run on a double from Pedro Gonzalez, sending it into extra innings.

In the bottom of the 11th, shortstop Marten Gasparini hit a leadoff single and Flores bunted him over. Gasparini then stole third and Gonzalez was intentionally walked. Designated hitter Ryan Dale came up and dropped down a suicide squeeze bunt. It rolled past the pitcher and scored Gasparini for a Chukars victory.

Chukars shortstop Marten Gasparini adjusts to life away from Italy

Idaho Falls Chukars shortstop Marten Gasparini, 18, has committed 10 fielding errors this season, but people in the Kansas City Royals organization believe he has the tools to be a good fielder.  (Pat Sutphin / psutphin@postregister.com)
Idaho Falls Chukars shortstop Marten Gasparini, 18, has committed 10 fielding errors this season, but people in the Kansas City Royals organization believe he has the tools to be a good fielder. (Pat Sutphin / psutphin@postregister.com)

By VICTOR FLORES
vflores@postregister.com

Marten Gasparini yearned for some home cooking.

He had just moved away from home. His parents were excellent cooks. He could barely make pasta.

College freshmen can relate to Gasparini’s pain. They can’t relate to much else.

Gasparini was in Burlington, N.C., for the start of his professional baseball career — 4,500 miles away from his native Italy.

A year earlier, Gasparini signed a contract with the Kansas City Royals, about a month after his 16th birthday. His $1.3 million signing bonus is still the European amateur record.

The shortstop has been with the Idaho Falls Chukars (a Kansas City Rookie-level affiliate) this entire season. Gasparini, 18, has struggled 23 games in, but he’s confident he’ll turn it around. He’s confident his community back home will remember him for more than the $1.3 million.

“The community is really going to appreciate my actions the moment I get to the highest level,” Gasparini told the Post Register. “At the moment, big number or not, I’m still in the minor leagues.”

Gasparini saw the 1999 baseball movie “For Love of the Game” around the age of 8. Before that, he knew hardly anything about baseball. Shortly after, Gasparini’s father bought him a baseball bat, and Gasparini discovered a club baseball team near his hometown of Alture.

Baseball isn’t a huge sport in Italy, but its relative obscurity helped attract Gasparini.

“Not from a hipster point of view, but yeah, it was something different,” Gasparini said. “As a 10-year-old, I wanted to do something new. It was a breath of fresh air.”

All of these factors led him to embrace America’s pastime.

Seven Italian-born players have played Major League Baseball, according to Baseball-Reference. One of them, Alex Liddi, currently plays for the Northwest Arkansas Naturals, Kansas City’s Double-A affiliate.

But Alex Maestri, an Italian pitcher formerly in the Chicago Cubs organization, was more responsible for Gasparini’s path.

Maestri once played for the Italian Baseball Academy. A 13-year-old Gasparini learned this and got in touch with then-Cubs scout Bill Holmberg, who is currently the Academy’s director.

“As soon as I saw him at 13, I knew we had a chance to create a superior player if we could work with him for a couple years,” Holmberg told Baseball America in 2013.

At 14, Gasparini joined the Academy, and he quickly caught the eyes of major league scouts.

Before he signed his contract with the Royals, some MLB scouts considered him the best European prospect they had ever seen, according to Baseball America. His MLB contract reflected that.

Gasparini’s $1.3 million signing bonus shattered the previous European record of $800,000, given to German outfielder Max Kepler by the Minnesota Twins.

“I did not expect anything like that coming,” Gasparini said. “People go crazy about it, but I try not to think about it. I try to take care of my family — my brother, my sister, my dad, my mom. What I earned is for them.”

The money helped ease his transition to the United States, despite Gasparini’s inability to cook much more than pasta and chicken (“Not pasta with chicken, though. [Italians] don’t do that,” he said). The Academy helped Gasparini learn English, and he was fluent by the age of 16.

“The excitement to be here as a professional baseball player overcame the fear of being in a new country,” Gasparini said.

The 6-foot, 165-pound Gasparini hit .191/.225/.250 (batting average/on-base percentage/slugging percentage) in 68 at-bats with Burlington last year, but his slash line skyrocketed to .455/.500/.727 in 11 at-bats with the Chukars last summer.

Gasparini, ranked Kansas City’s 20th best prospect by FanGraphs.com before the season, has hit .233/.295/.349 with Idaho Falls this season (through Thursday).

But Gasparini’s slow start doesn’t concern his organization.

Royals’ senior coordinator for player development John Wathan is impressed with Gasparini’s speed and defensive tools (strong arm, good instincts), despite 12 fielding errors this season.

“He’ll be a good player one day,” Wathan said.

Idaho Falls hitting coach Andre David is encouraged by Gasparini’s development, namely with hitting fastballs and breaking balls. However, David said Gasparini needs to lay off tough pitches more often (Gasparini has 35 strikeouts, tied for the most in the Pioneer League) and get less down on himself after a bad performance.

The soft-spoken Gasparini said he’s more comfortable two seasons into his professional career. His accent is hardly noticeable, especially when he utilizes his vast English vocabulary. And the baseball struggles don’t worry him. He’s 18, and like David, he believes he’s developing.

Gasparini still misses his parents’ home cooking, though.

“I kinda got spoiled in Italy,” Gasparini said. “But that’s such a minor thing. It says a lot about how comfortable I am here in the United States.”

Clarification (7/11/15): This story has been updated to reflect that Gasparini was ranked the 20th best prospect by FanGraphs.com in the Kansas City organization.

Alexis “Baby Panda” Rivera is having a break-out season for the Chukars

By VICTOR FLORES
vflores@postregister.com

Alexis Rivera is nicknamed the Baby Panda.

Alexis Rivera rounds the bases against the Ogden Raptors Tuesday at Melaleuca Field.  (Pat Sutphin / psutphin@postregister.com)
Alexis Rivera rounds the bases against the Ogden Raptors Tuesday at Melaleuca Field. (Pat Sutphin / psutphin@postregister.com)

Former Idaho Falls Chukars radio broadcaster Chris Lewis and current broadcaster John Balginy gave Rivera the nickname two years ago. It was inspired by Boston Red Sox third baseman Pablo Sandoval, whose nickname is the Kung Fu Panda.

“He’s a shorter, stout dude who’s pretty quick and has a big swing like Pablo,” said Lewis, now a broadcaster for Boise State. “It’s amazing he’s still there (in Idaho Falls).”

At this rate, Rivera — an outfielder and first baseman for the Chukars — won’t be around much longer.

A new approach at the plate, a mechanical adjustment and maturity have transformed the 6-foot-2, 225-pound Rivera, 21, from a struggling free-swinger into one of the Pioneer League’s best hitters.

“Last year, I chased a lot (of pitches),” Rivera said. “This year, discipline is a lot better. Try to get my pitch to hit instead of the pitcher’s pitch.”

Rivera, who moved from Puerto Rico to Florida when he was 6 years old, was drafted by the Royals in the 10th round of the 2012 MLB draft. He was 18 and fresh out of high school during his first minor league season with the Arizona League Royals, when he hit .341/.413/.477 (batting average/on-base percentage/slugging percentage) in 206 plate appearances.

He his numbers fell off the next season — exclusively with the Chukars — at .269/.349/.363 in 240 plate appearances, and they plummeted in 2014, when he hit .198/.275/.271 in 230 plate appearances (183 with the Single-A Lexington Legends, 47 with the Chukars).

“Second year, I tried to do too much,” Rivera said. “Last year, I got moved up and instead of doing what I was doing here, I tried to do way too much.”

Over the last two seasons, he constantly chased bad pitches, another trait of Sandoval’s. Rivera tried to pull the ball, rather than focusing on making good contact.

This year, the Sandoval-esque free swinging has vanished. Rivera focuses on hitting the ball to the center of the field. At the plate, his hands are lower, now level with his shoulders, making it easier for him to start his batting windup when the pitcher starts his.

“Before this year, I was trying to get way too big, instead of just using my hands,” Rivera said. “This year, I try to use my hands, and I have five home runs already.”

Rivera said that before Wednesday’s game versus Ogden. That night, he hit a two-run home run. The following night, he hit a grand slam. Going into Friday’s game, Rivera led the Pioneer League with seven home runs, 24 RBIs and 14 walks. His slash line was .386/.514/.842.

“I can count on one hand, really, him chasing,” Chukars hitting coach Andre David said. “For the most part, he’s got a pretty good feel for the strike zone. He doesn’t panic up there.”

David discussed a Rivera at-bat from Tuesday’s series opener against Ogden. Down 6-5 with two outs in the bottom of the seventh inning, Rivera came up with two runners on. He worked a 3-2 count and fouled three pitches back. Then, he laced a single into right field, scoring both runners.

“He got the big hit, but if he didn’t, for development concerns, it was a good at-bat, ” David said. “We’re not concerned about results here. It’s the process.”

Rivera struggled with process the last two years. Those struggles are gone this season, leading to monster results. Results that will move the Baby Panda up Kansas City’s affiliate chain if he keeps them up.

“My routine’s a lot better than last year, and I’m finally 21,” Rivera said. “I’m a man now.”