On Independence Day, when pitcher Eric Brodkowitz joined the Israeli National Team and retired from the Chukars, he was ostensibly leaving Idaho Falls in a tricky spot. The team was losing one of its starters, for one, but also one of its best.
Instead, Idaho Falls hasn’t missed a beat because reliever Nick Floyd has transitioned over to the starting rotation, turning in sterling performances like the one he did in the Chukars’ 9-4 series-opening win over the Vibes Wednesday night at Melaleuca Field. He has been steady and sharp, unfurling long outings that he didn’t get the chance to out of the bullpen.
To suitors, Floyd was always billed as a long reliever, a right-hander who could give you three innings where others could offer one. Until July, Idaho Falls kept him on a short leash because they had the personnel to. Only recently have the Chukars taken advantage of his stamina. They are reaping the rewards by the bushel, which becomes obvious when Floyd turns in outings like Wednesday’s: 6 2/3 innings, 5 hits, 2 runs (1 earned), 3 walks and one strikeout.
The difference in the two roles, Floyd says, is the preparation: Getting built up for longer innings and executing accordingly.
“The only way to do that is to run a little bit, get your legs underneath you, build up your legs,” Floyd said, “as well as just throw. My bullpens have been around 40 or 45 pitches, which is pretty long. Usually they’re around 30. So I’ve been pushing a little bit to build up.”
To those outside the team, Floyd’s Wednesday outing might not register on a large scale, but they matter when the team’s offense — by its lofty standards — can’t generate comfortable leads. The Vibes may be one of the Pioneer League’s worst teams, but on Wednesday, Floyd held them in check long enough for his team’s offense to roar to life.
Early on, Idaho Falls (37-15) had little trouble doing that. The hosts took a 6-0 lead into the second inning behind an RBI single from Thomas DeBonville, a three-run moonshot from outfielder Kona Quiggle and a two-run triple from shortstop Tyler Van Marter, a recent acquisition who has impressed on both sides of the ball.
But a sizzling start turned to muted offense. The Chukars went silent until the sixth inning, when third baseman Steve Barmakian plated Brady West and Van Marter with a double to the warning track. A frame later, Quiggle muscled his second double of the game and Tyler Kelly followed with a triple off the wall in left.
Soon, Idaho Falls looked like itself, mashing extra-base hits, roping doubles into left and triples into right. The league’s best offense — by any number of measures — tallied 14 hits in the team’s 13th straight win over Rocky Mountain. Every Chukar in the lineup recorded a hit.
These wins, for what it’s worth, have not been close. Idaho Falls’ average win margin over Rocky Mountain this season is nine.
“Getting six in the first was huge. Run support for Nick,” Chukars manager Billy Gardner Jr. said. “We did a good job in terms of controlling the strike zone. We stayed in it, didn’t get out. We had some advantage counts, put some good swings on balls and squared some pitches up.”
On Wednesday, you also saw part of why the Chukars have looked like the league’s best team over the last few weeks. When Floyd exited, it was time for the bullpen to take over, which was bad news for the club early in the season. Now, it more closely resembles a strength. Jon Nunnally tossed 1 1/3 scoreless innings. Nate Jenkins secured the final two outs in an uneventful showing.
If Idaho Falls experienced a hiccup, it came between those two outings. New acquisition Matt Geoffrion came on for the ninth, but he only recorded one out, yielding two runs on three hits and a walk. That’s why Jenkins came in to shut the door.
The truth is that the Chukars’ bullpen has come a long way, but like many in this league, it isn’t perfect. Relievers still produce outings that inspire anxiety. But Idaho Falls wins games in large part thanks to its offense, which oftentimes is enough to cover for whatever struggles the relief corps encounters. Against Rocky Mountain, that has almost always been the case.
“These guys did tonight what they do every night,” Gardner said, “which is just continue to grind at-bats out.”
Hitting coach Butler remains away from team
Chukars hitting coach Billy Butler has been away from the team for about a week now, Gardner said, coaching the USA Baseball 18U team in Cary, North Carolina.
Before the season, Butler and Gardner agreed that Butler wouldn’t be at every game, including sometimes to coach his daughter’s softball team in Idaho Falls. So this isn’t anything unexpected.
Gardner said he expects Butler to return around Aug. 1, which is a day after the USA Baseball team is scheduled to complete its season. Gardner said he couldn’t be sure, though.
Idaho Falls’ first home game next month is set for Aug. 4, a series-opener against Boise.