Owlz sweep way to Pioneer League title
L.J. Kalawaia had yet to homer in 45 games as a pro, including the playoffs. On Friday, he chose the right night to crush his first long ball.
Behind Kalawaia's first career blast and three RBIs, Orem beat visiting Billings, 3-2, to sweep the best-of-3 Pioneer League Championship Series and capture its first title since 2009.
The 21st-round pick in this year's Draft finished the postseason with .348 average, a homer and five RBIs in five games.
"He gives us what we needed at the top of the lineup, and he can run really well," said Orem manager Dave Stapleton. "He began to grow confidence more and more in that leadoff spot and also controlling the outfield in center field. As the season progressed and we got in the playoffs, he took the opportunity and peaked at the right time.
"He's been getting better and better every day. We had seen it and we knew it was there. He had a really good playoffs."
Billings' Jose Siri led off fourth inning with an infield popup that was misplayed by third baseman Jose Rojas and ruled a double. Two straight groundouts gave the Mustangs a 1-0 lead.
With two outs in the fifth, Rojas ripped a single to right field to put a runner on for Kalawaia, who promptly unloaded a go-ahead, two-run shot to right-center field off Billings starter Wennington Romero.
"He's always showed power during batting practice, so we knew it would come," Stapleton said. "He was swinging the bat really well and his timing was better and all those things. We knew it was there, so it was a matter of him getting a good pitch and swinging hard. He got the home run at the right time."
Billings' Alberti Chavez singled to right leading off the sixth and came around to score on a single by No. 11 Reds prospect Taylor Trammell.
After Orem's John Schuknecht was plunked leading off the seventh and Keith Greihaber walked, both runners advanced on Keinner Pina's sacrifice. With one out, Rojas walked to load the bases for Kalawaia, who lifted a sacrifice fly to center that plated the go-ahead run.
"For us, we always just tell the players to get a good pitch and swing hard," Stapleton said. "It's not so much about trying to get a ball lifted [in the air in that situation], just swing hard and see what happens. He was dialed in."
Orem starter and Angels No. 30 prospect Jose Suarez allowed a run on two hits and a walk while striking out three over five innings. Greg Belton yielded a run on two hits and a walk with a strikeout while pitching the sixth.
Max Bethell (1-0) gave up three hits and struck out three over three scoreless frames.
"[Bethell] came in and really kept the hitters off-balance," Stapleton said. "We keep telling our pitchers about creating soft contact. Toward the end of the game, I told my pitching coach [John Slusarz], 'Hey, we're going to stay with him.' Billings hadn't seen him, and he threw strikes and mixed his pitches well. I'm really happy for him to have come up from Arizona to be such a vital part of the pitching staff this playoffs."
Bethell retired Cassidy Brown on a fly ball to right, setting off a celebration as the Owlz won their fourth championship in 12 years.
Romero gave up two runs on five hits and struck out two over five innings. Patrick Riehl (0-1) took over and gave up a run without surrendering a hit in the sixth.
Siri went 2-for-3 with the double and a walk, while Trammell and Michael Beltre each drove in a run for Billings.
Mack Burke is a contributor with MiLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @macburke18_MiLB