The first half of the Pioneer League season couldn’t have ended more dramatically. Or with more heartbreak for the Idaho Falls Chukars.
The Chukars rallied in the ninth inning to force a tie with the Missoula Osprey and restore life into their first-half title chances. But before the buzz from the three-run top half of the ninth wore off, Missoula walked off with a 5-4 win Wednesday at Ogren Park Allegiance Field.
I.F.’s loss handed Orem its third straight Pioneer League South Division first-half title.
The Chukars were the Pioneer League’s best scoring team in the first half, and it wasn’t particularly close. They scored 303 runs (7.97 per game) over their first 38 contests, good for 42 more than Orem, the league’s second most prolific team.
But I.F.’s dynamic offense was nowhere to be found for most of its final two games against Missoula. The Chukars lost to the Osprey 2-1 in 10 innings on Tuesday and trailed 4-1 heading into the ninth on Wednesday.
With a title on the line, the offense woke up.
Orem and I.F. both had 22-15 records heading into Wednesday. Since the Owlz owned the tiebreaker, the Chukars had to beat Missoula, and Billings had to beat Orem in order for I.F. to claim the first-half title.
The Orem-Billings game ended as the Chukars were batting in the ninth. The Owlz lost 7-5.
Almost on queue, the Chukars began to rally. Yeison Melo walked and Meibrys Viloria singled to lead off the inning. With one out, Jordan Ebert singled home Melo.
Viloria scored a batter later on a fielder’s choice groundout by Nick Heath. If not for Heath’s speed, the Osprey would have turned a double play and the game would have ended.
Angelo Castellano came up next and crushed an Erbert Gonzalez pitch to center field. The ball was feet away from clearing the fence, according to Chukars broadcaster Andrew Haynes, but I.F. wasn’t complaining. Heath came all the way around from first to score.
Rudy Martin grounded out on a close play, according to Haynes, to end the inning.
Gonzalez had allowed three earned runs in his previous 14 innings pitched (1.93 ERA). The Chukars saddled him with three earned runs in the ninth, alone.
All-Star reliever Brian Bayliss returned for his second inning of work in the bottom of the ninth. He struck out Billy Endris to bring up Jacy Cave with one out and nobody one. In a 1-0 count, Cave drove a Bayliss pitch toward left-center field. It cleared the wall, giving Missoula its second straight walkoff win.
The Chukars have not won a first-half South Division title since 2007.
Player of the game
Missoula right fielder Jacy Cave
Cave did more than launch the game’s biggest hit. He also hit a triple and went 4 for 5 on the night.
The Chukars (22-16) begin the second half at Melaleuca Field Thursday at 7:15 p.m. against the Grand Junction Rockies (16-22). Lefty Matt Portland (6.43 ERA) will get the start for I.F. against righty Mike Nikorak (2.89).