Tag: Marten Gasparini

Chukars Notebook: A heartbreaking end to a strong first half

Bayliss
Bayliss

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.

LUNA’S STATUS

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

MLB.com released its updated overall and team prospect lists this week. The Royals’ new top 30 looks similar to their preseason list, but several players have moved around.

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.

Chukars Notebook: Divergent first-half records

Viloria
Viloria

The first half of the Pioneer League baseball season will conclude in four days, and the Idaho Falls Chukars are tied for first place in the South Division. The Chukars have already won 20 games, a mark they didn’t reach last summer until August.

With 20 new players this season, I.F. was bound to play differently than last year’s team. But this much improvement is impossible to predict. Here are a few key areas of success for I.F. this half:

Deep lineup 

Alexis Rivera was one of the Pioneer League’s best hitters last season before moving up to Single-A Lexington (he was released this spring but signed a minor-league contract with the Los Angeles Angels). Josh Banuelos and Amalani Fukofuka painted the field with hits, as well, especially in the first half. The dropoff between those three and the rest of the lineup was Yellowstone Falls-esque.

Shortstop Marten Gasparini and second baseman D.J. Burt hovered around the Mendoza line. When right fielder Brawlun Gomez wasn’t hitting home runs, he was probably striking out. Third baseman Ryan Dale was never productive.

This year’s lineup is as deep as it relentless. I.F. has five wins this season when it trailed in the seventh inning or later, and that’s despite an error-prone defense and a shaky bullpen.

The bats are highlighted by catcher Meibrys Viloria, who transcends hyperbole. He leads the Pioneer League in five categories: batting average, on-base percentage, OPS, doubles and RBIs.

Viloria’s season has rendered many of his teammates underrated, namely third baseman Manny Olloque, right fielder Yeison Melo, outfielder Luke Willis and first baseman David Edwards.

Outfielder Tanner Stanley and first basemen Colton Frabasilio and Brandon Dulin were all promoted after each hitting over .300 in I.F. Newer starters like second baseman Jordan Ebert and outfielders Nick Heath and Rudy Martin have filled in admirably.

The only mediocre everyday hitters are Ricky Aracena and Angelo Castellano, and even the 5-foot-8 Aracena has trouble fitting into that category. The shortstop was hitting .282 with a .702 OPS through Friday.

The Chukars have already scored 274 runs (8.1 per game) this summer. They mustered 238 (6.3 per game) in the first half of 2015.

Improved pitching 

None of I.F.’s 2016 starters own ERAs worse than 7.00. Three I.F. starters had ERAs above 7.00 at this point last season, which led to more innings for a shaky bullpen. This year’s bullpen has been inconsistent, but manager Justin Gemoll has three arms with sub-4.00 ERAs at his disposal.

The biggest difference between these two staffs: strikes.

I.F. had issued 3.4 walks per game going into Saturday. Last year’s team averaged 3.8. Like nearly every 2015 pitching stat, that number was much higher in the first half.

Home comfort

The Chukars are 5-10 on the road this season, not far off from their 5-13 record away from home in the first half last season. The obvious key difference is at home.

I.F.’s home record this summer is 15-4, easily the best in the Pioneer League. The Chukars’ home run differential is plus-60, as well. The club went 8-12 at Melaleuca Field in first half last year, and they were outscored by 12 runs in those 20 games.

CC RAKING IN KC 

Cheslor Cuthbert moved up from Triple-A to the Kansas City Royals in May to fill-in for another former Chukar, Mike Moustakas. The All-Star third baseman is out for the season with a torn ACL, but Cuthbert has done his best to fix the broken hearts in Kansas City.

A 2-for-3 performance Saturday lifted Cuthbert’s batting average over .300 and his OPS over .800, the second time that’s happened in 63 games this season (the first time was in his fourth game).

Cuthbert’s progression has been linear. He hit .253 with a .601 OPS in May, .283 and .844 in June and .377 and .958 thus far in July. He also has nine home runs on the year.

Cuthbert played 14 games for I.F. in 2010 as a 17-year-old. He got a cup of coffee with Kansas City last season, when he hit .217 with a .650 OPS in 19 games.

ROSTER MOVES 

The Royals haven’t initiated much movement with the Chukars roster the last two weeks. In fact, I.F. has undergone just two makeovers since July 5.

July 13: Chukars outfielder Tanner Stanley moves up to Lexington. Fellow outfielder Leland Clemmons is released. Second baseman Jordan Ebert, outfielder Rudy Martin and right-handed pitcher Paul Young are promoted from the Arizona League to I.F.

July 16: Double-A Northwest Arkansas activates left-hander Sam Selman from the 7-day disabled list, ending his rehab assignment with the Chukars.

WHO’S HOT? 

RHP Andres Machado 

Machado had a 13.50 ERA after his first start. That number shriveled to 4.00 after Monday’s gem against Missoula.

Machado didn’t allow a run or a walk in five innings against the Osprey. He gave up one hit and struck out four.

Machado’s stinginess doesn’t end there. He has allowed one earned run on 11 hits, one walk and 17 strikeouts in his last 14 innings pitched.

WHO’S NOT? 

INF Angelo Castellano

Castellano’s batting average was as high as .280 on July 4. Since then he’s gone 12 for 56 (.214). He still has a solid OBP (.350 through Friday), but his patience has waned lately. And Castellano has only hit five extra-base hits all season, including none for home runs.

Chukars Notebook: Raul Mondesi highlights Royals’ prospect rankings

chukars-extra-125x125

Since returning from 50-game suspension, Raul Mondesi has been all over the place.

The Kansas City Royals shortstop prospect was suspended on May 10 after testing positive for a performance-enhancing drug. Mondesi returned on June 25 as a member of the Wilmington Blue Rocks, Kansas City’s Advanced Single-A affiliate. On July 4, he moved up to Double-A Northwest Arkansas, where he played prior to the suspension. And finally, Mondesi was called up to Triple-A Omaha on Friday.

That’s not quite all. Baseball America came out with its midseason top 100 prospects list the same day Mondesi moved up to Omaha. No. 55 on the list? Mondesi. He’s one of several former Idaho Falls Chukars on various prospect lists.

Mondesi is the only Royals prospect to make Baseball America’s midseason list, and he actually moved down 26 spots from the website’s preseason list (fellow Royals prospect Kyle Zimmer was No. 85 on that list).

Mondesi is still ranked No. 1 on almost every online Royals prospect rankings. Zimmer is Kansas City’s consensus No. 2 prospect, and he also played for the Chukars. The right-handed pitcher threw 4.2 innings for Idaho Falls in 2014, posting a 1.93 ERA. Mondesi spent all of 2012 with the Chukars, hitting .290 with a .733 OPS in 207 at-bats.

The next highest former Chukar on MLB.com’s Royals prospect list is shortstop Marten Gasparini. The Italy native is ranked No. 8 on MLB’s list and No. 7 on Baseball America’s, although most other scouting websites are not that high on him. Gasparini is hitting .197 with a .587 OPS for Single-A Lexington this season. He batted .259 with a .752 OPS with the Chukars last summer.

Northwest Arkansas first baseman Ryan O’Hearn is No. 5 on FanGraphs.com’s Royals list, which is also high compared to most rankings. Unlike Gasparini, O’Hearn has produced at just about every level. His career minor league batting average is .300 and his OPS is .898. O’Hearn was named the Pioneer League Player of the Year with the Chukars in 2014, thanks to a .361 average and a 1.034 OPS.

MLB.com ranks Northwest Arkansas lefty Matt Strahm No. 10 in the Royals’ system. Strahm pitched 30.1 innings for I.F. in 2012 and 19.2 in 2014, posting 5.64 and 2.29 ERAs, respectively.

One current Chukar made the top 30 of MLB.com’s rankings. Shortstop Ricky Aracena is No. 25.

Some other notable former Chukars:

Omaha third baseman Hunter Dozier (played for I.F. in 2013) is ranked N0. 10 on Baseball Prospectus’ Kansas City rankings.

Omaha righty Alec Mills (I.F. 2014) is No. 13 on MLB.com’s list.

Wilmington righty Josh Staumont (I.F. 2015) is No. 17 on MLB.com’s list.

Lexington outfielder Amalani Fukofuka (I.F. 2015) is No. 19 on MLB.com’s list.

Righty Brooks Pounders (I.F. 2014 and 2015) is No. 28 on MLB.com’s list. Pounders made his MLB debut on Tuesday at Toronto. He’s allowed one earned run in three relief innings for Kansas City so far.

Roster move

July 5: Chukars first baseman/catcher Colton Frabasilio moves up to Advanced Single-A Wilmington. Frabasilio’s call-up stemmed from an injury to Zane Evans of the Double-A Northwest Arkansas Naturals, according to the Chukars. Evans was placed on the disabled list, which led to a promotion for Wilmington catcher Luis Villegas. Frabasilio filled Villegas’ vacant roster spot.

Frabasilio hit .348 (16 for 48) with a .936 OPS in 12 games for I.F. this summer.

Standings update

The Chukars improved to 12-10 with their 10-8 win over Orem on Saturday. I.F. now sits two games behind the Owlz (14-8) with 16 games left in the first half.

Who’s hot?

3B Manny Olloque

Olloque was named the Pioneer League Player of the Week for his performance from June 27 through July 3. He hit .429 (12 for 28) with three doubles and two home runs during the week.

Olloque was a bit quieter this week. Then came Saturday, when he went 4 for 5 against Orem to extend his hitting streak to eight games. Olloque is now hitting .350 on the season with an OPS over .900.

Who’s not?

LHP Sam Selman

Selman joined the Chukars on a rehab assignment. He started the season with Northwest Arkansas and has reached as high as Omaha (in 2014). With the Chukars in 2012, he earned the Pioneer League Pitcher of the Year thanks to a 2.09 ERA in 60.1 innings.

Selman has not improved that resume with I.F. this summer.

Selman’s ERA with the Chukars dropped to 9.35 after 1.2 innings pitched on Friday at Orem. But he still allowed two unearned run on two hits.

The lefty allowed three earned runs in each of his first two outings with the Chukars, and his opponents’ batting average is .356. Selman has, however, struck out eight batters and walked only two.

Chukars beat Missoula 5-3, force winner-take-all title game

By BILL SPELTZ
The Missoulian

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.”

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

Osprey pound Chukars 17-9 in Pioneer League championship-opener

By VICTOR FLORES
vflores@postregister.com

Sunday marked the Idaho Falls Chukars’ final home game of 2015. It was game one of the Pioneer League championship series.

It ended up being one of Idaho Falls’ worst losses of the season.

Aided by four home runs, the Missoula Osprey pounded the Chukars 17-9 in front of 1,044 fans Sunday at Melaleuca Field. One more win will net the Osprey their fourth Pioneer League title.

“We’re playing a pretty dang good team, if not the hottest team in the league,” Missoula’s first-year manager Joe Mather said. “By no means is the series over. We’re going to come out and work hard on Tuesday and not take anything for granted.”

I.F. gave up 16 runs in each of its first two games of the season, both losses to Grand Junction. The Chukars went 77 games without giving up that many runs in a game. The streak ended at the worst time.

Arnaldo Hernandez made his second start for I.F. after being called up from the Arizona League on Sept. 7. He lasted gave up three runs — all in the top of the second — in three innings. All three runs were unearned due to an error by shortstop Marten Gasparini, but Hernandez was not blameless. He gave up two hits, four walks and a 441-foot two-run home run to Kal Simmons (4 for 5, six RBIs).

Todd Eaton relieved Hernandez in the fourth, but he lasted 0.1 innings. Eaton gave up four runs (all earned) for a game ERA of 108.00.

Cruz Guevara replaced Eaton and gave up a 452-foot two-run home run to Jason Morozowski.

“We left some balls up, and they took advantage of our mistakes,” Chukars manager Justin Gemoll said. “We have to do a better job executing.”

The Osprey increased their lead to 16-4 in the top of the seventh inning on a grand slam from shortstop Isan Diaz.

In six games from Sept. 6 to Sept. 9, Missoula scored 16 total runs. They hadn’t scored more than 10 runs since Aug. 25.

Sunday’s win extended Missoula’s three-game playoff winning streak. They scored 13 total runs in their two wins over Billings. The Osprey’s 17 runs on Sunday are a season-high and the most they’ve scored in a game since their 22 on July 25, 2014.

“The bats have really come on at the right time,” Mather said. “We were fortunate enough to get pitches to hit, and the guys executed.”

First baseman Josh Banuelos (3 for 4, walk), left fielder Roman Collins (3 for 5, double) and third baseman Jose Martinez (3 for 4, triple, walk) each had three hits for the Chukars.

Monday is a travel day for each team, so the series will resume in Missoula Tuesday at 7:05 p.m. I.F. sends right-hander Derek Gordon to the mound to face lefty Cameron Smith.

A win would net the Osprey their first Pioneer League title since 2012.

Two wins would give the Chukars their second Pioneer League championship since becoming a Kansas City Royals affiliate in 2004.

“I’m proud of the way these guys have battled all year,” Gemoll said. “I couldn’t ask for anything more.”

Dini’s hit in extras sends Chukars to Pioneer League championship

The second-half magic continued in the postseason for the Idaho Falls Chukars.

Nick Dini hit an RBI single in the top of the 10th inning, Jacob Bodner tossed a perfect bottom of the 10th and the Chukars beat the Orem Owlz 4-3 in the decisive third game of the Pioneer League South Division playoff series Friday at Brent Brown Ballpark in Orem, Utah.

Dini
Dini

The win sends Idaho Falls into the championship series for the second time in three years. Game 1 of the series is scheduled for 4 p.m. Sunday against North Division champion Missoula at Melaleuca Field. Idaho Falls went 3-4 against the Osprey this year, losing four straight in Montana before taking the next three games at Melaleuca.

Friday’s game was close throughout, with neither team holding more than a one-run lead.

Orem, which won the first-half South Division title, grabbed a 1-0 lead in the first on a one-out double by David Fletcher and an RBI single from Jeff Boehm.

Idaho Falls answered in the third when Jose Martinez singled with one out, moved to second on a groundout and scored on D.J. Burt’s triple to center field. The hit extended Burt’s on-base streak to 57 games.

The Chukars grabbed a 2-1 lead in the fourth when Josh Banuelos led off with a single, moved to second on Marten Gasparini’s single and scored on Roman Collins’ two-out single to center.

Orem came back to tie it in the fifth on a leadoff walk and stolen base from Fletcher and a single from Boehm. The Owlz went back ahead in the seventh when Kenny Towns belted a one-out double to score Brandon Sanger.

Banuelos
Banuelos

Pioneer League RBI leader Banuelos tied the game back up, smacking the first pitch he saw over the fence in right leading off the eighth.

Tripp Davis got out of a jam in the bottom of the ninth, striking out Jared Walsh with runners on first and third.

Idaho Falls took advantage of the chance when Brandon Dulin reached on a wild-pitch strikeout with one out. He was replaced by Rudy Martin, who stole second. After Gasparini struck out, Dini smacked a line-drive single to center to score Martin with the go-ahead run.

Bodner, a late-season call-up making just his third appearance for the Chukars, pitched a 1-2-3 10th to begin the celebration.

The Chukars’ bullpen was lights out, allowing just an unearned run in five innings on three hits and two walks while striking out three. Banuelos had a big night, going 3 for 5 with two runs scored and an RBI while Dini and Collins each went 2 for 5 with an RBI.

Chukars surrender three-run lead in eighth, lose 6-5 to Orem

The Idaho Falls Chukars held a three-run lead with six outs remaining. Then they led by one with two outs.

If they preserved the lead, they’d be headed to the Pioneer League championship.

Now they’re heading to an elimination game.

The Orem Owlz clawed back from a 5-2 eighth-inning deficit and earned a 6-5 walkoff win in game two of the Pioneer League South Division championship series Thursday at Orem, Utah. Tonight’s game in Orem will determine who advances to the championship.

After three scoreless innings, the Chukars took control of the game in the fourth.

First baseman Josh Banuelos (1 for 4) drove in second baseman D.J. Burt with a two-out double. The next batter was designated hitter Brandon Dulin, who bombed a two-run home run for a 3-0 lead.

Orem’s designated hitter Jared Walsh answered, hitting solo home runs in the fourth and sixth innings to cut I.F.’s lead to 3-2.

But the Chukars extended the lead back to three in the top of the eighth. Right fielder Amalani Fukofuka (1 for 4) hit an RBI double, and he scored two batters later on a single from Dulin (2 for 4).

I.F.’s bullpen woes began with Matt Ditman, who loaded the bases with no outs to start the bottom of the eighth. Orem scored one run on a groundout, and another came in on an error from shortstop Marten Gasparini. Ditman suddenly had a one-run lead to work with, and the bases were loaded with one out, but he escaped the threat.

Brian Bayliss recorded the first out of the ninth inning, but he subsequently walked first baseman Jeff Boehm. The next batter was center fielder Jared Foster, who drove Boehm in with a double. Bayliss walked the next two batters, bringing up catcher Angel Genao. He grounded to Burt, but the Chukars couldn’t complete the double play, and the Owlz forced another game.

Chukars starter Bryan Brickhouse gave up one run (earned) on four hits, a walk and three strikeouts in his four innings of work.

Julio Pinto gets the start tonight for the Chukars in their playoff rubber-match at Orem. First pitch is scheduled for 6:15.

In the North Division, Missoula knotted up its series with Billings after a 7-5 win Thursday night.

Royals honor Fukofuka, Gordon

On Thursday, the Kansas City Royals announced their players and pitchers of the year for each minor league affiliate. Fukofuka was named I.F.’s player of the year, and Derek Gordon was named its pitcher of the year.

Chukars roll over Orem 6-2 in playoff opener

Idaho Falls Chukars second baseman DJ Burt dives on an infield grounder during the first game of the Pioneer League South Division playoffs against the Orem Owlz Wednesday at Melaleuca Field. (Pat Sutphin / psutphin@postregister.com)
Idaho Falls Chukars second baseman DJ Burt dives on an infield grounder during the first game of the Pioneer League South Division playoffs against the Orem Owlz Wednesday at Melaleuca Field. (Pat Sutphin / psutphin@postregister.com)

By VICTOR FLORES
vflores@postregister.com

Wednesday might have marked the Idaho Falls Chukars’ final home game of 2015.

But they seem on track to play at Melaleuca Field one more time.

I.F. hosted the Orem Owlz on Wednesday night for the first game of the Pioneer League South Division championship series. The game played out like so many in the second half. The Chukars won 6-2.

“They have fun together, and it seems like a different guy is stepping up every night,” Chukars manager Justin Gemoll said.

Idaho Falls Chukars pitcher Derek Gordon throws for a strike against the Orem Owlz during the Pioneer League South Division playoffs Game one Wednesday at Melaleuca Field.  (Pat Sutphin / psutphin@postregister.com)
Idaho Falls Chukars pitcher Derek Gordon throws for a strike against the Orem Owlz during the Pioneer League South Division playoffs Game one Wednesday at Melaleuca Field. (Pat Sutphin / psutphin@postregister.com)

After a 13-25 first half, the Chukars won the second-half division title with a 25-13 record. The turnaround was incredible by itself, but the second half was also historic. Before this season, I.F.’s best half since becoming a Kansas City Royals’ Rookie affiliate in 2004 came in 2009, when it went 23-14 in the second half.

If anyone expected playoff jitters from the Chukars, they didn’t appear during the first few innings of Wednesday’s game.

I.F. starting pitcher Derek Gordon retired Orem’s first six batters on 13 pitches. The Chukars scored once in the first inning and four times in the second inning, although Orem should have limited the damage to one run in the second.

With the bases loaded and one out in the bottom of the second inning, second baseman D.J. Burt grounded back to pitcher Jeff Malm. The left-hander got a forceout at home, and catcher Tanner Lubach tried to double up Burt at first. But first baseman Jeff Boehm couldn’t corral the throw, and the inning went on.

Right fielder Amalani Fukofuka came up next and smoked the first pitch down the right-field line. Ten seconds later, Fukofuka was standing at third base and the Chukars led 5-0.

Fukofuka (1 for 4) has continued to rake since last week, when he missed two games to attend the funeral for his cousin, Medina.

“I think about her before every game, and it keeps me going,” Fukofuka said. “I know she’s up there looking after me.”

Gordon never looked in trouble during his seven innings of work. He gave up two earned runs on five hits, a walk and five strikeouts. Gemoll lauded the righty’s fastball command and aggression.

“I just treated it like any other start,” Gordon said. “I went out there and tried to compete.”

Flame-throwing right-hander Josh Staumont threw two scoreless innings to preserve the 6-2 win.

Idaho Falls Chukars center fielder Cody Jones runs to first base after a line drive to left field during the Pioneer League South Division playoffs game one against the Orem Owlz Wednesday at Melaleuca Field. (Pat Sutphin / psutphin@postregister.com)
Idaho Falls Chukars center fielder Cody Jones runs to first base after a line drive to left field during the Pioneer League South Division playoffs game one against the Orem Owlz Wednesday at Melaleuca Field. (Pat Sutphin / psutphin@postregister.com)

Shortstop Marten Gasparini went 3 for 4 with two stolen bases in his third game back from Japan, where he represented Team Italy in the World Baseball and Softball Confederation U-18 Baseball World Cup.

“My head was with the (Chukars) the whole time I was over there,” Gasparini said. “I was ready to play in the playoffs. I was looking forward to this moment since the start of the second half.”

Center fielder Cody Jones went 2 for 3 with a walk and third baseman Jose Martinez went 1 for 2 with a walk.

I.F. hopes to clinch the series tonight at Orem, Utah. First pitch is scheduled for 6:15, and Bryan Brickhouse will start on the mound for the Chukars.

If the Owlz win tonight, both teams will play at Orem again Friday to determine who will go to the Pioneer League championship. I.F. would host the first championship game on Sunday if it gets past Orem. In the North Division series, Billings took a 1-0 series lead with a 5-2 win over Missoula.

Chukars lose 4-3 to Orem, finish regular season at .500

In the final game of the regular season, the Idaho Falls Chukars fell to the Orem Owlz 4-3 at Orem, Utah.

The Chukars finished the season at .500 and will host Orem tonight for the first game of the Pioneer League South Division playoffs.

I.F. took a 3-0 lead after one and a half innings, but Orem scored three runs in the bottom of the second off Chukars’ left-hander Brandon Thomas.

Owlz designated hitter Angel Genao hit a solo home run off Thomas in the fourth inning, and that proved to be the winning run.

Gasparini
Gasparini

Chukars center fielder Amalani Fukofuka and second baseman D.J. Burt each went 2 for 4. Burt, who also stole two bases, extended his on-base streak to 54 games.

Shortstop Marten Gasparini went 1 for 3 with a walk in his second game with I.F. since Aug. 24. Gasparini spent the previous two weeks in Japan representing Team Italy in the World Baseball and Softball Confederation U-18 Baseball World Cup.

The Chukars had a Pioneer League-best 25-13 record in the second half, flipping their league-worst 13-25 record from the first half.

I.F. plays the Owlz at Melaleuca Field at 7:15 tonight, then travels to Orem for the second playoff game Thursday and a third game (if necessary) Friday.

The Missoula Osprey and the Billings Mustangs will battle in the North playoffs. Whoever wins that series will get homefield advantage in the championship series. The winner of the South series will host the North championship representative starting Sunday.

Banuelos’ walkoff double lifts Chukars into first place alone

By JEFF PINKHAM
jpinkham@postregister.com

Josh Banuelos let a couple fastballs go by without a swing early in Wednesday’s Pioneer League South Division first-place showdown with Ogden.

Banuelos
Banuelos

He wasn’t about to let another one pass him by.

The Idaho Falls first baseman and Pioneer League RBI leader drove a 1-1 pitch just over the head of Ogden center fielder Gage Green, scoring Roman Collins from first base for his third walkoff hit of the season to send the Chukars to a 5-4 win in front of 2,299 fans at Melaleuca Field.

The victory gave Idaho Falls a two-game sweep of Ogden and a one-game lead over the Raptors in the Pioneer League South Division second-half standings with six games left. The Chukars also own the tie-breaker after winning the season series against Ogden 9-7.

“We’re locked in so much,” said Banuelos, who pushed his RBI total to 57. “When we were down in Grand Junction last week, someone said, ‘you guys are having so much fun, no wonder you’re winning.’ We just want to keep it going.”

As has been the case throughout the second half, there were plenty of reasons to smile.

Second baseman DJ Burt, who extended his on-base streak to 50 games in the second inning, started the ninth-inning rally by working his way back from an 0-2 count to draw a leadoff walk.

“DJ had a great at-bat,” Chukars manager Justin Gemoll said. “He laid off a couple tough pitches and found a way to get on base. He’s been doing that all year.”

Roman Collins tried to move Burt up a base but his bunt fell too close to the catcher and Burt was thrown out at second. That brought up Banuelos, who had a plan for his at-bat against reliever Marcus Crescentini. He had seen Crescentini earlier this year, and remembered that he struggled with his curve-ball control.

“I was looking for a fastball to hit,” Banuelos said.

He got one on the second pitch but swung through it. He didn’t miss the third pitch, hitting it hard to center. The only question was whether Green would track it down. He didn’t, Collins made a good read on the play and scored without a throw.

“I was just hoping he would make it,” Banuelos said. “I’m tired. I’ve played about 18 games in a row and I didn’t want to play any more tonight.”

The Chukars might not have had a chance to win it if not for starter Derek Gordon and a host of newcomers to the roster.

Gordon has been Idaho Falls’ most consistent starter all season, and he was again Wednesday. The 6-foot-6 right-hander allowed the first two batters of the game to reach base and eventually score, but he minimized the damage and left with two outs in the top of the sixth and the Chukars leading 4-2.

“He’s on top of his game,” Gemoll said. “He’s been making pitches all year.”

Brian Bayliss allowed the tying runs in the seventh, but Pioneer League All-Star Tripp Davis got the final eight outs to preserve the win.

“He came in and did his job,” Gemoll said.

And with several regulars out with injury, Amalani Fukofuka away for personal reasons and Marten Gasparini playing for the Italian national team, the Chukars got a lift from several recent additions.

Shortstop Gabriel Noriega, in Idaho Falls on a rehab stint from Triple-A Omaha, went 2 for 4 and belted an RBI double in the four-run second.

Designated hitter Brandon Dulin, catcher Xavier Fernandez and third baseman Jose Martinez, all call-ups from Burlington (N.C.), went a combined 3 for 10 with two walks, a double (from Fernandez in the second) and two runs scored.

“Those guys are all key players for us,” Banuelos said.

Now the Chukars hope to carry the good vibes to the final six games, all against South Division first-half winner Orem. The Chukars (35-35, 22-10 second half) and Owlz (38-32, 14-18) play tonight and Friday in Orem, Saturday and Sunday in Idaho Falls and Monday and Tuesday back in Utah. If the Chukars could go 4-2, Ogden would have to win all six games against last-place Grand Junction to grab the second-half title.