GARDEN CITY — On their worst days, the Chukars resemble an amusement park. There’s plenty to keep visitors entertained: An electric offense, starting pitchers with creative off-speed stuff, even an occasional stolen base from players who don’t traffick in speed.
Wander deeper into the park, though, and you get to the rollercoaster. Here, the operator is the bullpen, which has long been Idaho Falls’ biggest question mark. Some days the driver keeps the train on track and earns some trust. On others, the operator falls asleep, the cars careen off the spirals and the entire enterprise collapses in a heap.
In Idaho Falls’ 13-11 loss to Boise Thursday night, the operator failed to even show up.
“We scored enough runs,” Chukars manager Billy Gardner Jr. said, “but we couldn’t hold the leads when we had them.”
The Chukars’ offense dazzled but their bullpen imploded, which led to the team’s second straight loss to Boise in this six-game series. The Hawks dealt the knockout blow in the eighth, registering three runs total off Keagan McGinnis and Jon Nunnally, the latter of whom served up a two-run triple to Brock Burton.
Idaho Falls’ sharpest weapon is its offense, but for the second straight night, the club couldn’t use it to rally from a late deficit. In the top of the ninth, Kona Quiggle cracked a single up the middle for a run, but the Chukars couldn’t come all the way back. In a four-hour, 12-minute affair, Idaho Falls left 11 on base and committed three errors.
In truth, the Chukars (41-18, 7-4 second half) looked far better on offense on Thursday night. Twenty-four hours after logging just four hits in Game 1 of this series, they plated 11 runs on 13 hits, including a 3-for-3, four-RBI outing from catcher Hunter Hisky. Andrew Don and Thomas DeBonville each drove in runs with doubles.
The only Chukar who didn’t record a hit was outfielder Sam Little, who has started each of these first two games in part because everyday second baseman Tyler Kelly is nursing a hand injury that has left him day-to-day, according to Gardner, whose lineup shuffles have pressed Little into action. Sam’s brother, Webb Little, left the game in the fourth when he fouled a pitch off his knee. Gardner said he will likely require a game or two off for rest.
In any case, when Idaho Falls revs its offense to life like this, it typically amounts to a winning formula. It failed on this occasion because the team’s bullpen reared the ugly side of its head.
Starter Austin Dubsky permitted six runs (five earned) in 4 2/3 innings, but with his team’s offense, that can sometimes be enough to win.
Instead, after Yeison Medina procured the final out of the fifth, he crumbled in the sixth. The 28-year-old allowed the first seven Hawks to reach base. He allowed an RBI single to Jason Dicochea. He walked in a run two batters later. That’s when Gardner replaced him with Victor Rodriguez, who yielded a two-run single to Christian Funk.
“Command. He just didn’t command the ball,” Gardner said of Medina and his struggles. “He walked people. Missed on his arm slot a lot. Couldn’t land his slider.”
The loss stings particularly hard for Idaho Falls, though, because unlike Wednesday night, its offense was there.
The Chukars plated one in the first — via RBI groundout from Andrew Don — and four in the third. In that inning, Matt Feinstein drove in one. Don belted an RBI double. Then Hisky roped a two-run double into right.
It felt like a breakthrough for Idaho Falls, which dropped Wednesday’s series-opener in large part because its offense never kicked into gear. The Chukars used their offense to generate a multi-run lead, which is typically a winning recipe for this team.
But Boise got two of those runs back in the bottom half of the frame. Wladimir Galindo used a sacrifice fly to drive in the second run of the inning off Dubsky. He didn’t fare much better in the fifth, when he allowed the first five batters to reach base: Walk, single, walk, single, error. When Greg White scored on a throwing error from Daniel Martins-Molinari, the hosts tied the game at six.
From there, Idaho Falls couldn’t hold a lead, which is why the club now trails Billings by one game in the Northern Division second half standings. The Chukars’ next opportunity to make a dent in that lead is Friday night in Game 3 of this Highway Series.
“I think it’s consistency. They’re searching for it,” Gardner said of his team’s relief corps. “We see some really good outings from guys who come out of the bullpen for us, and other times we haven’t seen it. Just searching for the right consistency, being able to locate and execute pitches when they need to.”