Life in the Minors
Closer keeps streaking Thunderbolts loose
So far this season, all is well in the south suburbs of Chicago. I stress, "so far," because there is still a long way to go for us this season, and I know a lot can happen between now and Sept. 4.
Through the first 36 games of our season, we have raced out to a 29-7 record to establish a 10-game lead in the Frontier League's Central Division and the best overall mark in the circuit. Our pitching staff has enjoyed a fine start as well, as we have led the league in team ERA for the past two weeks.
When things are going as well as they have been for us, well, we like to count our blessings. Currently on an 11-game win streak, we reserve our cautious optimism for the end of our ballgames, to avoid any risk of bachi. Before and during our games each night, our manager, Andy Haines; our hitting coach, Ronnie Deck; and I don't dare speak of how good we think this ballclub can be, and how much success we've already had in a little over a third of our season.
After games each night, as we sit in our clubhouse, we allow ourselves to bask in the glory just a little bit ... but not too much. We don't want to upset the baseball gods. Yesterday, we also received official word from the league that the Windy City Thunderbolts' coaching staff had earned the right to coach the North All-Stars in the Frontier League All-Star Game to be held in Florence, Ky., in about two weeks.
Another great by-product of our early success has been the perma-smiles pasted on all of our faces and the outstanding team camaraderie we have all been a part of. Since spring training, our team has proven the importance of team chemistry in putting together a winning ballclub. As the season has progressed, the many characters and personalities of the Thunderbolts players have come to the surface.
The comic relief of our team has come from our closer, Matt Petty. Called "Tom" by just about everyone on our team in reference to rock star Tom Petty, Matt has come to show us all that he has dual personalities.
On the field, the serious Petty emerges. Sporting a Mike Fetters-esque death stare before each pitch on the mound, Petty pours every ounce of hate and anger he may have into each pitch. With his top three buttons undone and his cap bill pulled down to hide his eyes, Petty has been our savior at the back end of our bullpen this season, racking up a league-leading 10 saves so far with an ERA of 0.80.
With excellent command of his fastball on both sides of the plate, a solid changeup and a big league breaking ball, Petty has quickly established himself as one of the top closers in the Frontier League.
So many times this year we have made the call to Petty to put out a fire in the ninth, and each time he has been up to the challenge.
Petty really earned his money last night in our 4-3 win on the road here in Traverse City, Michigan. With our starter Billy Philips shutting down the Traverse City Beach Bums for the first eight frames to the tune of a 4-0 lead, it seemed as if we would not need the services of our highly dependable bullpen.
But in the bottom of the ninth, things got hot real quick for us. A leadoff homer and a double brought an end to Phillips' night, as we brought in our hard-throwing reliever Anthony Rebyanski. A few tough breaks, a couple of fielding miscues and the suddenly hot bats of the Beach Bums rapidly changed the face of the game, and the next thing we knew, it was 4-3 and the tying run was at second base with just one out.
So with the game on the line and the momentum shifted from our dugout to theirs, Petty made his way to the pitcher's mound. The first batter he faced hit a grounder to short for what seemed to be the second out of the inning, but a low throw to first base gave Traverse City runners at first and third, and another chance to complete their comeback.
But Petty settled things down quickly, using back-to-back breaking balls to induce the 4-6-3 double play to end the game and extend our win streak to 10 games.
Off the field, you wouldn't even recognize Petty. Teaming with his partner in crime, fellow reliever Mike Causey, Petty is usually right in the middle of the laughs in the clubhouse or on the bus. With his quick wit, odd ways and easy demeanor, Petty keeps us all loose off the field.
When riding the stationary bike in the training room at our stadium back in Crestwood, Petty wears his Oakley sunglasses to help him get "into the zone," as he says. When I handed out our pitchers' manuals to our pitching staff, Petty was again in rare form. Following our meeting to discuss the manual, Petty approached me about the healthy eating section.
Reading to me the part where it is suggested that players drink a glass of water with every alcoholic beverage taken with dinner, Petty came to me with palms up and said, "I don't know if I can drink that much water, Coach."
During our road trip here in Traverse City this week, the team has had a lot of time to kill on our 20-minute commutes between the stadium and our hotel on the shore of Lake Michigan. So last night, Petty broke out a DVD from his personal vault to entertain us on the drive home.
The video was a homemade movie short called "Emporia 911." One of the co-stars was our very own Matt Petty. I guess he and some of his college buddies at Emporia State University in Kansas got bored one weekend and decided to create their own rendition of satire along the lines of the "Reno 911" series.
"Emporia 911" actually had respectable production quality, complete with graphics, credits and titles. Petty played officer Richard "Dick" Shenkler, who was shadowed by the mock film crew along with his bicycle patrol partner. Several references were made to Shenkler's unfortunate accident involving the top of a chain-link fence, and a very unnatural castration.
The short film had us all in stitches and certainly made the bus trip a little bit shorter that night. Keeping us loose and laughing off the field and closing out ballgame after ballgame on it, Petty has been a tremendous asset to the Thunderbolts' early season success.
Personally, I hope Matt sticks to his day job on the pitchers' mounds of the Midwest. I think Dick Shenkler can wait.