Minor League Baseball: Joliet Slammers set to defend title
By Tim Tierney For Sun-Times Media May 16, 2012 9:10PM
Brian Smith (above) and his dad, Bill, have begun a youth indoor baseball training facility in Mokena called Baseball Institute. | File photo
What to Watch
Balls and strikes
Command of the strike zone wasn’t a problem last year for reliever Brian Smith. The 6-foot-3 right-hander walked just four while striking out 31 in 432/3 innings. The Slammers setup man had a stingy 1.24 ERA in 40 regular-season appearances.
‘Is this heaven?’
Former University of Iowa standout and Lockport graduate Trevor Willis will bat leadoff and play center field for the Slammers. Willis was All-Big Ten in 2011 and led the Hawkeyes in stolen bases and total bases.
Among the promotions at the Slammers’ 48 home games: Bark in the Park Days (dogs at the park) May 27 and Aug. 19; Route 66 Night on June 17, with a classic car show before the game; Rat Pack Night on June 22; and Military Appreciation Night on Aug. 8.
They said it
“It’s basically Kenny Williams on a smaller scale. I hire the coaches, I find the players through various ways.’’
— Slammers vice president of baseball operations Ron Biga.
“Independent baseball is year to year. We faced a team (Tuesday) that only had one guy off their roster from last year as a position player.’’
— Slammers manager Bart Zeller.
“A lot of the players tweet me or send text messages and ask if I’m actually doing things that I had them do.’’ — Slammers reliever and University of St. Francis pitching coach Brian Smith.
Around the horn
The Slammers return their entire 2011 infield from third to first: Abel Nieves at third base, Brad Netzel at shortstop, Hector Pellot at second and Kyle Maunus at first. “That makes a whale of a difference for us,’’ manager Bart Zeller said, “because everybody knows one another, they get to know their habits, where they’re supposed to be.’’
Updated: June 29, 2012 9:05AM
When he was younger and playing on travel teams, Trevor Willis got on Silver Cross Field a few times with his teammates for special events.
Now the Lockport graduate is going to be playing there.
“I grew up watching these guys when they were the JackHammers,’’ Willis said. “I’m excited to play on this field for real now and be a part of a great team.’’
Willis will bat leadoff and play center field Thursday night when the defending Frontier League champion Joliet Slammers open their season against the Windy City ThunderBolts in Crestwood.
Willis went undrafted in 2011 and participated in a few major league tryouts. The University of Iowa product worked out for the Slammers at the end of the summer during their playoff run and signed during the offseason.
“Defense was my biggest strength,’’ Willis said of his college career. “I have a different mentality going up to the plate now, a little more aggressive. I have a lot more confidence now.’’
There’s no shortage of confidence among the Slammers, who return their infield, catcher and left fielder for the team’s second season.
“I’m not going to guarantee anything,’’ said Erik Lis, who hit a team-leading 20 home runs in 2011, “but we should be a great baseball team.’’
Here’s the Opening Day lineup put together by reigning Frontier League Manager of the Year Bart Zeller:
“What I’ve had all spring — Trevor Willis starting out in center. Second would be Abel Nieves, a Triple-A experienced ballplayer at third base. Hector Pellot, a returning guy at second base. Erik Lis DH — had an outstanding year last year. In the 5-hole we’ll start off with Kyle Maunus, first base. Six-hole probably Zach Mandelblatt in right field. David Fox in left field. The catcher probably will be Trey Manz and Brad Netzel at shortstop in the 9-hole.’’
Lis will double as hitting coach for the Slammers, who were 4-1 in the preseason.
“I’ll help the young guys out with their swings,’’ Lis said. “If they have any questions, try to fill them with as much knowledge as I learned through my playing career.’’
The starting rotation will consist of Gaby Hernandez, Tommy Mendoza, Steven Maxwell, Jeremy Tietze and Jake Renshaw, the latter of whom led the league last season with 13 victories.
“As a whole, as a pitching staff we are deeper this year, no doubt about it,’’ pitching coach Carmen Pignatiello said. “Yes, we did lose (Ryan) Quigley — that will hurt. He was the top reliever in this league. But we’ve got some new arms who will fill in nicely in that role and we’ll keep Brian Smith in the eighth inning.’’
Smith, the pitching coach for the University of St. Francis, is ready for a more active role.
“I don’t really like going into seasons with expectations,’’ Smith said. “I have a personal goal that whenever Bart gives me the ball, to shut down that inning.’’
The Slammers play Friday, Saturday and Sunday on the road against the Gateway Grizzlies before their home opener Tuesday against the Traverse City Beach Bums.
“We’ll get our rings that night,’’ Pignatiello said. “It should be an exciting night for us.’’
“I’m cautiously optimistic,’’ Zeller said of the season. “Last year, I honestly didn’t know what to expect. We hovered around .500 for the first 30 or 40 games. July 8 we got into first place and never lost it.
“I really like the makeup of our team compared to last year’s spring training when we broke from camp. We have known entities. Other teams get stronger, so it’s going to be more of a challenge.’’