By BILL SPELTZ
MISSOULA, Mont. — One fateful swing changed everything.
The Missoula Osprey appeared well on their way to a series-clinching win Tuesday night, leading Idaho Falls by three runs after four innings.
Then an error by Osprey third baseman Kal Simmons cracked the door in the fifth and Amalani Fukofuka pushed it open with a go-ahead, three-run blast.
The Osprey never recovered, dropping a 5-3 decision in Game 2 of their best-of-3 Pioneer League championship series in front of 1,568 fans at Ogren-Allegiance Park. The teams will battle tonight in a winner-take-all game at 7:05 p.m. in Missoula.
For nine innings this season, including four Tuesday, Osprey starting pitcher Cameron Smith owned the Chukars, refusing to allow a run. That all changed with two outs and two on in the fifth on an 0-2 pitch to Fukofuka.
“He battled off enough pitches and got enough of one to get it out of here and obviously that really ended up being the difference in the game,” Osprey manager Joe Mather said. “That’s their 3-hole hitter and it was against our best pitcher and he made a good swing on a pitch.”
— Peter Kearns (@pkearns) September 16, 2015
From there the momentum stayed on the Chukars’ side. Missoula finally got something going offensively in the ninth when Jason Morozowski hit a leadoff single and Luke Lowery was hit by a Josh Staumont pitch. But Staumont responded by striking out Matt Railey and retiring Joey Armstrong on a fly ball to center.
“Fuko got us out in front, but I thought our pitchers did an outstanding job,” Idaho Falls manager Justin Gemoll said. “(Starter Derek) Gordon, they got some runs off him early. It’s a really good baseball team here in Missoula, really good hitters. But I thought he bounced back well.”
Gordon was a warrior, allowing three runs on three hits in 62/3 innings. He also recorded 10 strikeouts, the most by a Chukars pitcher in a game all season.
From there Drew Milligan and Staumont shut down the hosts in relief.
“I actually thought (Gordon) pitched a pretty good game,” Mather said. “He was one of the better pitchers in the league. Maybe not win-loss wise but his ERA was good, he throws strikes.
“That was it. I don’t think our guys were necessarily pressing. We had 17 (runs) the game before and it’s hard to repeat that.”
The Osprey jumped on Gordon in the first inning, scoring two runs. Leadoff hitter Raymel Flores drew a walk and Morozowski drove him home on a one-out double to right center field.
The Osprey’s second run came as a result of an error by Idaho Falls first baseman Josh Banuelos. Byler hit a bouncer to first that Banuelos misplayed then threw away in haste, allowing Morozowski to score from second.
Banuelos hit a bloop single and moved to second in the Idaho Falls second inning. But Smith buckled down, striking out Marten Gasparini and Xavier Fernandez to end the threat.
Osprey catcher Francis Christy blasted a one-out solo home run to stretch his team’s lead to 3-0 in the bottom of the second. Idaho Falls had a baserunner in the fourth but again Smith slammed the door, striking out Gasparini.
The Chukars’ fifth-inning rally started when a Fernandez grounder scooted under Simmons’ glove at third and rolled into left field. Two outs later, DJ Burt lined a single up the middle to set the stage for Fukofuka’s three-run blast.
Idaho Falls added an insurance run in the eighth and will take momentum into Game 3 tonight after being humbled by the Osprey at home on Sunday. First pitch is scheduled for 7:05 p.m.
“The key (Wednesday) is going to be pitching and defense, that’s playoff baseball,” Mather said. “Hopefully we come out and score a bunch of runs early. We did that today but we couldn’t add on to it.
“These guys have a ton of fight in them left. I know they’re going to be itching to go.”
The Post Register contributed to this report