After an early outburst, it appeared the Idaho Falls Chukars would fall in their season finale and end the campaign with the same overall record as the South division's first-half champion Orem Owlz.
The memory of four straight scoreless frames and a one-run deficit quickly disappeared, however, in the seventh inning. After Yeison Melo opened with a single, Joe Dudek went yard off a light standard in left-center field to give the Chukars a lead and Manny Olloque followed up with a solo shot to left to put the finishing touches on Idaho Falls' 10-8 victory Thursday night.
The contest began with a 42-minute first inning featuring a combined nine runs and nine hits. Orem plated three in the top half on two doubles, two singles and an error, but Idaho Falls doubled their total. The Chukars loaded the bases with one out before Dudek launched a bases-clearing double off the wall in right-center field. Olloque doubled in Dudek, and Angelo Castellano and Luke Willis followed with RBI singles.
Ricky Aracena helped extend the lead to 7-3 in the second when he led off with a triple before a Melo two-base hit brought him in.
The Owlz' top of the order came up again in the third and laced five hits to pull within a run, and they took an 8-7 lead on a two-run double in the fifth before the Chukars' comeback in the seventh.
Despite the Chukars missing the playoffs, Idaho Falls turned in a successful season. They finished with the best overall record in the Pioneer League South division at 40-36 - only the second time since 2010 that the Royals' affiliate finished with at least 40 wins.
Idaho Falls came within one win of a playoff spot in the first half. They had the best home record in the league, 15-4, and scored more than 300 runs in the first 38 games. The team's downfall came on the road, however. Of their 12 road losses, nine came by one run and seven were walk-offs.
The first half provided more ups than downs. In the season opener, Arnaldo Hernandez and two relievers combined for no walks in a win over Ogden. In that game, Hernandez showed off a pickoff move that would baffle runners all season long by nailing two runners in one inning.
The team's first road trip of the season featured an offensive outburst at Grand Junction. In an 18-7 win on June 26, six different Chukars combined for 10 doubles, just two off the Pioneer League's single-game mark, and all but one hitter notched multiple hits. Alex Luna helped out from the mound that night with nine strikeouts.
When the Chukars returned to Idaho Falls in early July, the home fans were treated to multiple memorable moments. First, Jason Freeman pulled off a baseball rarity with four strikeouts in an inning (thanks to one batter reaching base on a wild pitch) against Grand Junction on July 2. In the same game, the hosts scored seven runs to tie the game in the seventh before ultimately falling by one.
The next night, Idaho Falls launched five home runs and scored in each of the first six innings to beat the Rockies, 17-8. Olloque drove in six runs that night on three hits.
The Fourth of July was a game no one in attendance will forget. In front of a season-high 3,678 fans at Melaleuca Field, the Chukars trailed by seven runs early but fought back to take a lead into the ninth. Ogden knotted the game at 12, but that set up Meibrys Viloria for extra-innings heroics. In the 10th, with the bases loaded and two out, the catcher hit a walk-off grand slam to right field. The blast traveled 458 feet and gave Viloria six RBI on the night, the second-straight game in which a Chukar brought in half a dozen.
Other highlights of the first half included six runs in the ninth to top Orem on the road and a 6-1 homestand against Helena and Missoula. That stretch included the first shutout pitched by the Chukars, a 7-0 win over Missoula in which Andres Machado allowed just one hit in five innings.
Idaho Falls was alone in, or tied for, first place for the final 10 days of the half.
The final two games of the half were both one-run, walk-off losses at Missoula. The Chukars needed to win only one of those two to clinch the first-half South division title, but in the penultimate game they lost in the tenth inning when a pickoff throw to first base went awry and, with two out, the #9 hitter in the order singled up the middle. The first-half finale looked like a lost cause with Idaho Falls trailing, 4-1, heading to the ninth. But as they did multiple times before that, the offense woke up and tied the game on a Castellano double off the wall that missed being a home run by only a few feet. Missoula promptly hit a home run in the bottom of the ninth, however, to hand Orem the first-half championship.
The second half started on a good note with a series win against Grand Junction. On the final day of July Idaho Falls hit four home runs, including two off the bat of Olloque, and it appeared they wouldn't miss a beat in chasing the playoff spot that eluded them in the first half.
Then came 14 straight games against the top two teams from the North division, Great Falls and Billings. The Pioneer League's two best pitching staffs combined to shut down Idaho Falls to just over four runs per game and a .239 average.
The offense remained in a slump for much of the second half as the team fought to stay in the playoff race. They got as close as two-and-a-half games with a week to play, but alternating wins and losses dropped the Chukars out of contention.
They did turn in more great performances in the last half of the campaign. Dudek joined the team in late-July, homered twice in a game in Great Falls and finished with six home runs in his half-season. David Edwards led the team with eight round-trippers before a promotion to Lexington, including a pair at Grand Junction on August 21.
Machado turned in the team's best mound outing of the season August 28 against Ogden, when he pitched six innings and allowed just one hit while striking out nine.
Despite no shot at the playoffs, the team fought hard until the very end. They won four of their last five games, including two by one run on the road, and took the last three of the regular season from Orem. Idaho Falls' overall record in 2016 never fell below .500.
For their performance in 2016, the Chukars raked in many awards. Olloque, Melo and Edwards all earned Pioneer League Player of the Week nods, and Machado was Pitcher of the week for his first one-hit start.
Five Chukars made the midseason All-Star team, with Viloria and Olloque starting at catcher and third base, respectively, and Melo and reliever Brian Bayliss also playing in the game. Luna was selected but missed the game with an injury.
Finally, Viloria and Olloque were named to their positions on the league's End-of-Season All-Star Team, and Viloria was the Pioneer League's Ralph Nelles Award winner as league MVP after hitting a league-leading .376 with 28 doubles and 55 runs batted in (both of which also topped the charts). He was also on the league leaderboard in on-base percentage, slugging percentage, total bases, extra-base hits and runs scored.
Other Chukars hitters among the leaders included Nick Heath, who led the circuit with 36 stolen bases, Willis (batting average), Melo (at-bats, RBI, hits, doubles), Olloque (at-bats, RBI, hits and runs scored). In fact, Idaho Falls finished with the top three in the league in runs batted in. As a team, the Chukars topped the loop with a .306 average and 517 runs scored in addition to 132 stolen bases.
Off the field, the players made multiple appearances around town and the team held different nights for cancer awareness. The team also renewed its player development contract with the Kansas City Royals through 2018, extending a relationship that began in 2004.
The season attendance of nearly 97,000 was third in the league and second-best in Idaho Falls baseball history.
With great players and amazing fan support, the 2016 season was another highly successful year on and off the field in Idaho Falls. The Chukars look forward to many more years in the Royals organization and the Pioneer League, and thousands more smiling faces at Melaleuca Field!
This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.