If there’s one constant in the Pioneer League, it’s that hitters sit on fastballs.
Helena’s Dustin DeMuth, who’s currently hitting .403, admitted as much after a game in Billings last week. And Idaho Falls’ Ryan O’Hearn, who entered Tuesday as the league’s leading hitter at .448, said the same thing after his team battered the Mustangs 10-6 at Dehler Park.
Mustangs starter Tyler Mahle had trouble locating his offspeed pitches, and that made his fastballs, which were up in the strike zone, that much more tantalizing to Chukars hitters.
The first six that strolled to the plate reached base versus Mahle, many of them on two strike counts, and Idaho Falls led 4-0 before a good chunk of the 3,504 in attendance found their seats. That included O’Hearn, who drove a Mahle offering the other way into left field to push across the Chukars’ first run.
“I was getting ahead (in the count) on foul balls. And they weren’t really missing them,” offered the 19-year-old Mahle, who’s had an up-and-down go of things through the first four weeks of the season.
“It looked like they were missing them, but they were sitting on (fastballs) and hitting them foul. And that’s what they’d end up getting their hits on after I threw balls in the dirt. I threw my offspeed outside or down or up or whatever the case was.”
Mahle has struggled at home but has been solid on the road. In his previous start in Missoula last Wednesday Mahle threw five shutout innings. The start before that, at home against Helena, he allowed 10 hits and eight earned runs in 2 1/3 innings. That’s been the pattern.
A seventh-round draft choice by the Reds in 2013, Mahle isn’t sold on his stats -- even when they’re good.
“The last game, for instance, it might have seemed like I had a good game, but guys were hitting the ball,” Mahle said. “Even though some days I’ve got five shutout innings, I still got hit and guys aren’t off balance.
“The whole season guys have been sitting on my fastball, and I’ve got to work on getting them off balance.”
To date, Mahle is 1-2 with a 7.78 ERA in 19 2/3 innings. He’s struck out 19 but has allowed only six walks.
“All pitchers try to have fastball command, and hitters are taught to track fastballs and whack them,” said Mustangs manager Dick Schofield. “If the kids can’t hit fastballs at this level then they really have a hard time doing it anywhere else.
“Sometimes it’s good for guys to have a little failure to enjoy success. (Mahle’s) been really good, bad, really good, bad … and next time he goes out there we’ll count on him to do his job.”
KEY MOMENT: Mahle had a two-strike count on leadoff hitter Luis Valenzuela in the first inning but surrendered a double. Corey Toups then singled, also on two strikes. Soon the floodgates opened. O’Hearn, Wander Franco and Kyle Pollock each had RBIs to put the Chukars up 4-0. They never looked back.
ON THE MOUND: Mustangs players were heard talking in the clubhouse about their difficulty facing Idaho Falls reliever Tim Hill. Hill, a left-handed side-armer, struck out five in the eighth and ninth to close the game.
AT THE PLATE: Franco went 4 for 5 and finished a triple shy of the cycle. Billings’ Jimmy Pickens hit his second home run of the season, a solo shot in the fourth. Pickens came into the game hitting just .130.
ON DECK: RHP Jeremy Kivel takes the hill for the Mustangs on Wednesday. Kivel (0-1, 5.17) still seeks his first professional win. He’ll oppose Chukars RHP Torey Deshazier (1-0, 2.16). Schofield said Kivel “is the type of kid that sits at 95 (mph) when he’s just letting it go. And that’s hard to hit at any level.”