IDAHO FALLS — It was a celebration that seemed unlikely just a few weeks ago.
The Idaho Falls Chukars, who started the season 13-1 and looked invincible early on, found themselves mired in a summer-long funk that dropped them from the top of the Pioneer League North standings to the bottom during the second half of the season.
That long rough patch seemed like a distant memory on Thursday as the Chukars celebrated a 6-4 victory over the Billings Mustangs at Melaleuca Field to win the North Division playoffs and earn a spot in the Pioneer League championship series against the Ogden Raptors.
“We were playing as well as anybody and we kind of hit a wall it seemed like,” pitcher Brady Cox said. “It got to the point we had a rough patch and everybody started trying to do too much.”
Clay Dungan had the big hit Thursday, blasting a three-run homer to right in the bottom of the seventh to break a 3-3 tie and give Idaho Falls a 6-3 advantage. Billings never recovered.
“These guys, I guess they can flip the switch on and off,” manager Omar Ramirez said after a postgame celebration outside the team’s clubhouse where players doused each other with sparkling cider, danced, and posed for pictures.
The regular season was indeed a rollercoaster as the Chukars rode that 13-1 start all the way to the top spot in the North Division for the first half and secured the playoff berth.
They somehow flipped that switch to win the best-of-3 series against North Division second-half winner Billings two games to one.
The best-of-3 Pioneer League championship series against South champion Ogden begins Friday at 7:15 p.m. at Melaleuca Field. The final two games will be played at Ogden on Saturday and Sunday (if necessary).
Thursday’s deciding game took three days to complete after rain washed out Tuesday’s game in the second inning. Rain and sloppy field conditions kept the game from being played on Wednesday, setting up Thursday’s matinee in which the Chukars resumed the game by coming to bat in the bottom of the second inning.
Trailing 1-0, the Chukars wasted no time as Isaiah Henry doubled in a run and Stephan Vidal added an RBI single.
The Mustangs tied the game in the third. The game was tied 3-3 in the seventh as both teams relied on their bullpens. With two out and two on in the bottom of the seventh, Billings had a mound visit but pitcher Johnnie Schneider stayed in the game and Dungan lined the first pitch over the right-field wall.
“They’d been pounding me in all weekend, so I was just looking for that fastball in and trying to get the barrel to it,” Dungan said.
The Mustangs brought the tying run to the plate in the eighth, but reliever Brad Bonnenfant got out of the jam. After the Mustangs scored a run in the ninth, Cox, a converted catcher in his first year as a pitcher, got the final two outs to set off the improbable celebration.
“We’re playing just about as good as we can at the right time,” Cox said. “It’s a long season and there are ups and downs, but I feel like we’ve done a good job weathering the storm … For the most part we like where we’re at, but we have to keep pushing. It’s not done yet.”
Reliever Derrick Adams earned the win, giving up one run in 3 2/3 innings.