Life in the Minors
With playoffs looming, ThunderBolts bond with nonstop humor
OVER the past couple of weeks it became apparent that it's that time of the year in the Frontier League.
With the home stretch of our 96-game season just around the bend, league managers are watching scoreboards as they take deep breaths and cross their fingers in hopes of winning these last few games.
For the teams that have been mathematically eliminated from postseason contention and those who are teetering on the verge of it, this time of the year is all about working toward a strong finish. For players on these clubs, finishing strong may dictate whether they have a job next season. For their managers, a few wins piled on at the end of the season will do the same for their job security.
For the teams within striking distance of a playoff spot, this time of year brings pressure to win every night. The race for the lone wild-card spot in the Frontier League playoffs has been of special interest, since the top two teams in the running are both from our division.
At 44-33, the Kalamazoo Kings are just 2 1/2 games ahead of the Rockford Riverhawks in the wild-card standings, so it is safe to assume they are paying special attention to each other's scores each evening.
In our most recent series, we traveled down-state from Crestwood to play a three-game set with the Southern Illinois Miners in Marion, Ill. Just 4 1/2 games behind Kalamazoo for the wild card, the Miners played with a sense of urgency. We still managed to take two of three from them, hurting their chances to earn a postseason berth.
For us, this time of the year is a different situation. Moving to 55-25 for the season after our 1-0, 10-inning win here in southern Indiana against the Evansville Otters, we were able to remain 9 1/2 games up on Kalamazoo in the Frontier League's Central Division standings.
Thanks to a strong performance from starting pitcher Billy Phillips and a gargantuan solo homer from clean-up hitter Phillip Hawke, the Windy City ThunderBolts moved another step closer to securing a playoff spot.
With nearly a 10-game lead and just 16 games to go, we are just trying to keep our collective nose to the grindstone and play one game at a time as we have all season long. We don't dare look too far ahead, and we don't speak of the playoffs as a certainty to avoid the big "bachi." But we do know that if we just play to our ability each night, some good things could happen for us.
As has been the case all season long, the strength of our team comes from two things -- our talent and our chemistry. After the first month or so of the season, our guys knew that we were going to be pretty decent on the field. During the first month of the year, our guys also discovered that they really enjoy playing together, making it fun for the coaching staff as well.
Sure, getting off to a 33-8 start makes it easy for guys to get along, but even during a rough patch we went through a couple of weeks ago when we played under .500 for the first time all year, our guys' confidence never wavered much. They never hit the panic button, and, for that matter, neither did our staff.
The beginnings and ends of our bus trips are usually highlighted by humorous rag sessions which also prove that our guys have thick skin and a thicker bond. One of our rookie outfielders, Scott Billak, is a common target for the barbs spewed around the bus. Scotty gets ragged pretty hard by just about everyone, mostly because he is such a good sport.
The best rag directed at Scotty came a week ago as we pulled into the parking lot of our stadium at Hawkinson Ford Field, returning from a week-long trip to Pennsylvania. After having spent nearly 10 hours on the bus, most of our guys were sound asleep. But as we made our way into the parking lot off of the Midlothian Parkway, our right fielder, John McCarthy, shouted out, "Hey, someone remember to unbuckle Billak from his car seat." The bus erupted in laughter.
Near the midpoint of the season, we had a talkative pitcher on our team who rarely shut up. You could count on him reciting lines out loud as the movie was in progress.
One night, as we headed out on a road trip somewhere, that pitcher said about two words to someone at the back of the bus before our right-hander Eric Fussell yelled out, "Hey you, you just used up two words from your quota. You're on a five-word limit on this trip, so you better shut it!"
The bus rang with laughter and I swear I snorted because I was laughing so hard.
Our rookie starter, Brock Hunton, has developed a reputation as a talkative type. One trip he was teasing reserve infielder Ryan Graham about the amount of hits he had this season when someone from the back of the bus said, "Hey Hunton. Mix in a win before you pop off ... or at least a no-decision."
Brock went 5-1 in the first half of the year to earn a spot in the league's All-Star game. Since the All-Star break, he was 0-5, even though he really hadn't pitched badly. Even Brock laughed out loud when he heard that.
Heading to the ballpark in Evansville, one of our guys again rose to the occasion and found a way to keep things loose on our bus. On our way home from that trip to Pennsylvania a week ago, our bus broke down and forced us to endure a three-bus, 10-hour drive home. The culprit was a faulty starter.
On the way to the park, bus driver Lee Murphy got a little turned around. Thinking we could take a right to get to the stadium, Lee actually got us into the parking lot of an auto yard.
As Lee worked to reverse us out of the dead end and turn our behemoth bus around in a space better suited for a Civic, one of our relievers, Mike Causey, saw a sign on the fence of the auto yard that read, "WE HAVE ALTERNATORS AND STARTERS," and dropped one of his famous one-liners on us, saying, "Hey Lee, we might as well pick up a few starters while we're here."