Chris Valaika's first professional hit was a home run for the Billings Mustangs on June 22. Unbeknownst to anyone, including himself, the blast was a sign of great things to come for the Cincinnnati Reds' third-round draft pick.
Valaika put together a Pioneer League-record 32-game hitting streak during his debut campaign, earning MiLB.com's Short-Season Offensive Player of the Year Award.
The 21-year-old shortstop batted .324 while leading the league in hits (89) and total bases (143). He also ranked second in RBIs (60), runs scored (58) and games (70) and finished third in extra-base hits (34) and doubles (22).
"It was a great feeling homering for my first hit and making the transition from aluminum to wood," said Valaika. "I went 2-for-4 that day. I wished I could have gone 2-for-4 all season."
At times, it looked like he would.
On July 22, Valaika began his hitting streak with a three-run, ninth-inning homer. He stretched it to 12 games on Aug. 4 with his best performance of the year, belting a grand slam and driving in five runs in the Mustangs' 10-9 win over Missoula.
"My family visited that game and it was the last day they were in town," he recalled. "So they got to see him me hit the grand slam, which was great since that was the only time they got to see me all year."
Valaika said he was unaware of the streak until he was on the verge of stretching it to a Minor League season-high 28 games.
"After that, I tried not to do anything different," he said. "I just tried to take the same approach every day."
Valaika went 11-for-22 with five straight multi-hit games from Aug. 20-25. Two days later against Ogden, however, the streak came to an end as Valaika went 0-for-3 with a walk before stepping to the plate with two outs in the ninth.
"We were down by nine runs and my team did a good job giving me a chance to bat in the ninth," he said. "I had a 3-2 count and the pitcher (Kalen Gearhart) threw me a breaking ball. It was outside, but I swung and missed. I wasn't going to walk."
During the run, Valaika hit .374 with four homers, three triples, 10 doubles, 35 RBIs and 29 runs scored. He tied three other players for the fifth-longest streak in the Minors over the past 20 years.
Three days after the streak ended, Valaika had four hits and two RBIs to raise his average to a season-high .340. He went 0-for-4 the following day and finished the year in a 1-for-16 slide.
"The teams we played were pitching well," said Valaika. "We play the same teams all season long and they get to see a lot of you. I went 32 days and it finally caught up on me."
Although he helped Billings (28-10) to the best record in the Pioneer League, Valaika went hitless in six postseason at-bats as the Mustangs were swept by the Osprey.
"Baseball is a funny game. One person is not going to win it for you," he said. "We just ran out of juice. It was tough not to advance.
"They were a good ballclub and I'm glad the winner came out of the Northern Division."