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Missoula PaddleHeads Advance to Pioneer League Championship for First Time in Six Years

September 12, 2021

MISSOULA — With a well-devised pitching plan and plenty of offense early, the Missoula PaddleHeads punched their ticket into the Pioneer League championship series Saturday night. PaddleHeads manager Michael Schlact went with lefty Chris Burica as starting pitcher to counter Idaho Falls' abundance of left-handed hitters in its starting lineup.

MISSOULA — With a well-devised pitching plan and plenty of offense early, the Missoula PaddleHeads punched their ticket into the Pioneer League championship series Saturday night.

PaddleHeads manager Michael Schlact went with lefty Chris Burica as starting pitcher to counter Idaho Falls' abundance of left-handed hitters in its starting lineup. Burica delivered one of his best efforts of the summer, throwing five scoreless innings in helping propel Missoula to an 11-2 win over the defending champion Chukars at Ogren-Allegiance Park.

Missoula (66-31) will host either the Boise Hawks or Ogden Raptors on Monday at 7:05 p.m. in the first game of the best-of-3 championship series. Game Two and Game Three, if necessary, will be road games for the PaddleHeads.

Burica entered the weekend with a 9.09 earned run average and a 1-3 record. But he blanked one of the best offenses in the league for more than half the game, striking out four while scattering five hits.

"The biggest thing for us coming in was how were we going to match up with their lineup," Missoula manager Michael Schlact said. "The guys that do the most damage are the lefties that are able to pull the ball with power, and in this ballpark we wanted somebody that could combat that.

"He's got a breaking ball that goes away from the lefties, a cutter, a lot of pitches. We've watched him get better, so to us, even if it was a short-term start, at least we set the tone with him."

The PaddleHeads set the tone with three runs on four hits in the first inning off Chukars starting pitcher Nick Floyd (8-3). Cam Thompson started the rally with a walk and McClain O'Connor followed with a seeing-eye single.

The runners moved up on a wild pitch. Thompson then scored on an A.J. Wright base hit and O'Connor came home on the same play when Idaho Falls left fielder Matt Feinstein failed to field the ball cleanly. Zac Almond later added an RBI single.

Idaho Falls (58-39) looked as though it would answer in the second inning, landing runners on second and third with no outs. Burica buckled down, holding the Chukars scoreless with the help of two strikeouts.

Missoula added four insurance runs with a big two-out rally in the fifth. Dean Nevarez smacked an RBI double and Brandon Riley blasted a three-run homer over the right field fence, just to the right of the Missoulian sign.

The PaddleHeads added another insurance run in the Peanut Inning (sixth). Thompson singled, moved to second on a wild pitch and later scored from third on a Nick Gatewood sacrifice fly.

Missoula tallied three more insurance runs in the seventh. Jayson Newman hit a 405-foot solo home run to right center field. Two more runs scored on RBI ground-outs by Jacob Talamante and Thompson.

After Burica and Matt Mogollon held the Chukars scoreless for seven innings, the visitors got on the board in the eighth. Missoula reliever Cole Cook surrendered two runs, one coming home on a wild pitch.

Missoula last made the Pioneer League championship in 2015. They won the title that summer.