Ryan O’Hearn nearly took off Luke Moran’s head with a liner up the middle in the first inning. Three innings later O’Hearn took Moran deep.
That might have been the only mistake — if you can call it that — of the night for Moran, the Billings Mustangs starter who was a hard-luck loser in a 3-1 defeat to O’Hearn and the Idaho Falls Chukars on Thursday night at Dehler Park.
It was the third solid start in a row for Moran, a 12th-round pick from 2012. But the two runs allowed in six innings were too many on a night when a trio of Chukars’ pitchers was even better.
“He was great tonight, just no run support,” Mustangs manager Dick Schofield said. “I thought he did a great job.”
Baseball’s a funny game. One of Moran’s worst starts this season was his first, giving up five runs in five innings to Helena last month. But that’s the only game in which he’s earned a victory despite pitching to a 2.65 ERA in his last three starts, a span of 17 innings. Moran, who dropped to 1-1 with the loss, has allowed just 12 hits in those three starts since giving up 14 hits in his first 82/3 innings.
“The first two games I was getting behind all the hitters, throwing a lot of balls,” said Moran, who didn’t do that against the Chukars by firing 19 of 24 first-pitch strikes. “The past three I’ve thrown a lot of strikes. I’ve gotten ahead in the count, giving myself a chance to strike them out or get a weak ground ball or fly ball, something like that.”
O’Hearn’s opposite-field home run wasn’t of the weak variety, though it appeared that way at first. The left-hander, who entered the game with a league-leading batting average of .420, sliced a high fly to left. But it kept carrying and carrying and carrying until it cleared the Dehler Park fence to tie the score at 1-1 in the top of the fourth.
“It was a good pitch … he’s a solid hitter,” said Moran, who said he didn’t feel at first that the ball would go out. “I was like, ‘why is the outfielder still running?’ Then all of a sudden it’s in the stands, I’m like, hmm.”
Moran’s manager was deceived by O’Hearn’s shot, as well.
“He hit it and I thought, ‘Well, all right … OK … fly ball,” Schofield said. “It was a fly ball, but it went over the fence. But he still hit it good. He’s a strong, young man and an extremely good hitter.”
KEY MOMENT: After being stifled all night by Idaho Falls pitching, the Mustangs put two runners on via walks to Garrett Boulware and Alex Greer off Cruz Guevara and Jon Fitzsimmons in the eighth inning. But Fitzsimmons struck out Ty Washington to end the threat and retired the Mustangs in order in the ninth for his second save.
AT THE PLATE: The Chukars scored their other run off Moran on a two-out double by Desmond Henry and a single by Luis Villanueva in the fourth. O’Hearn, an eighth-round draft choice of the Kansas City Royals in June, finished with two hits and raised his average to .431, and his home run was his fifth of the season. Cory Thompson drove in the only run for the Mustangs on a first-inning sacrifice fly.
ON THE MOUND: Brian O’Grady and Taylor Sparks were the only Mustangs to get hits off Guevara, Fitzsimmons and starter Alec Mills (1-2), who went five innings. After O’Grady led off the home half of the first with a double, Mills retired the next 12 and faced just one over the minimum by the time he departed the game. Mustangs reliever Brennan Bernardino hasn’t allowed an earned run this season, a span of 91/3 innings covering eight appearances, after his 11/3 shutout innings Thursday night.
ON DECK: The Mustangs (11-13) try to end their three-game losing streak to Idaho Falls (13-11) in the series finale Friday night at 7:05. The Chukars have won four in a row overall. “They’ve played very well against us,” Schofield said.