The good news for the Mustangs is that Ryan O’Hearn, Wander Franco and Idaho Falls have left town. The better news is that third baseman Taylor Sparks might be coming into his own just nine games into his first professional season.
O’Hearn continued his onslaught against Mustangs pitching with two more hits Friday at Dehler Park, and the Chukars finished off a four-game sweep with a 6-4 victory.
O’Hearn hit .444 in the series (8 for 18) and raised his Pioneer League-leading batting average to .434 through 18 games. Franco entered Friday hitting a scalding .615 in the series, but was hit twice by pitches and also worked a walk while going 0 for 2 in the finale.
“You don’t like to see opposing players do so well, but it’s good to see talent,” Mustangs manager Dick Schofield said of O’Hearn. “It seemed like every time somebody was on base he was at the plate. He squared some balls up for four days in a row and made some nice defensive plays. He looks like a pretty good little player.”
Brawlun Gomez drove in four runs for the Chukars with a two-run double in the third and a two-run single in the fifth. He also singled and scored in the seventh.
Sparks, a second-round draft pick by the Cincinnati Reds in June, went 4 for 4 with a triple and three singles. He also shined defensively, making a barehanded play while charging a ball to retire Jerrell Allen in the fifth.
“I’m trying to get my timing down, from on-deck until I get into the box,” Sparks said. “My swing felt level today so I was able to barrel some (balls) up. Defensively I felt comfortable. It was good.”
The UC Irvine product raised his average to .379 (11 for 29).
After his season ended at UC Irvine this spring, Sparks went roughly three weeks without playing a game. He signed with the Reds on June 30 for a reported $972,800 signing bonus and joined the Mustangs in Helena on July 2. He had two hits in his first game with a double, two walks and a stolen base.
“I’m a guy that holds myself to high expectations,” said the 6-foot-4, 220-pound Sparks. “There’s no specific goals I’m setting. I’m just trying to be the best out there, whether that’s at the plate or on defense. I’m just trying to be where my skills and talent are. As long as I keep my mentality right, I’ll be good.”
“He’s very athletic for a big guy,” Schofield said. “He’s quick. Hopefully we see more of that. He’s done well. He’s getting his feet under him and he’s starting to feel comfortable.”
KEY MOMENT: Mustangs pitchers had a lapse in control and unleashed three hit-by-pitches. Reliever Jose Williams plunked both Franco and Corey Toups in the fifth, and also walked O’Hearn. That led to Gomez’s two-RBI single that gave the Chukars the lead.
ON THE MOUND: Chukars reliever Eric Stout shut down the Mustangs in the fourth, fifth and sixth innings. Stout allowed two hits in the three innings while striking out two. Tejay Antone started for Billings, throwing 56 pitches through 2 2/3 innings. He gave up two earned runs. Williams (1-1) took the loss. Left-handed reliever Jacob Moody was strong, striking out four in 1 2/3 innings.
AT THE PLATE: The Mustangs again had too many fly-ball outs (eight total), including Brian O’Grady’s flyout to right field to end the game while representing the tying run. But O’Grady, pinch hitting in the seventh, blasted a solo home run to right field to ignite the Mustangs. It was his second homer of the year. Aristides Aquino doubled and tripled, pushing his average up to .301.
ON DECK: The Mustangs begin a three-game series with Ogden on Saturday at Dehler Park. The Raptors, who are managed by 1993 American League Cy Young Award winner Jack McDowell, are in the midst of an 11-game road swing. They are 2-6 through the trip’s first eight games.