The first time Bart Zeller saw the Washington Wild Things last year, he was manager of the Joliet Slammers and the latter was in the midst of a seven-game losing streak and dreadful start to the Frontier League season.
Joliet won two of three games from Washington in that an early-season series, including a 15-2 pasting in the opener.
The next time the Slammers and Wild Things met – three months later – Washington was a changed team. The Wild Things had turned over the roster (several times) and developed a core group that played better than. 500 ball for the second half of the season. Washington swept Joliet in that late-August series, outscoring the Slammers 32-6.
Zeller noticed a difference in the Wild Things in all the right areas.
“The attitude was different,” Zeller said. “They were winning their fair share of games and the pitching staff was starting to dominate. They were much more competitive the second time we faced them.”
Tonight, when the Wild Things open their 12th season on the road against the Schaumburg Boomers, Zeller will be calling the shots for the Wild Things as their new manager, the third in as many years and fifth in six seasons. And Zeller will have many of those same players who dominated Joliet late last year.
Washington returns 14 players (8 fielders and 6 pitchers).
“Yes, I think that momentum they built at the end of last season can carry over to this year,” Zeller said. “The guys who were here talk about the last 30 days of the season were a lot of fun. They won their share of games and it motivated them during the offseason.”
Among the pitchers returning is 28-year-old Gary Lee, who was thurst into the role of player/pitching coach at midseason last year. He responded by being a stabilizing force on the team’s young pitchers and became one of the top starters in the league, posting a 7-5 record and 2.89 ERA. Lee will start tonight’s opener.
Also back are starting pitchers Shawn Smith (3-4, 2.94) and Justin Hall (6-7, 4.11). The bullpen appears solid with lefty setup man Al Yevoli (1-2, 2.62) and right-handed closer Orlando Santos (1-1, 11 saves, 1.20) back to pitch the late innings.
Washington added several pitchers who were released this spring from major league organizations. Among them are right-handers Shawn Sanford and William Scott, each of whom made starts in Class AAA last year.
“The pitching staff is a bunch of experienced guys, and that is by design,” Zeller said. “That’s what you need to win in this league.”
Zeller knows a little about winning in the Frontier League. He spent four years as a coach with the Southern Illinois Miners, helping develop that franchise into a perennial playoff contender. In 2011, Zeller became manager at Joliet and guided a team put together from scratch to the league championship in its first season, Last year, the Slammers finished 37-58 and Zeller was let go when the franchise changed ownership at season’s end.
Zeller inherits a lineup that is heavy on players brought in by former manager Chris Bando, who resigned in March, citing complications from hip-replacement surgery as his reason for not returning.
Among the returning position players are left fielder Andrew Heck, who had a team-best .310 batting average as a rookie last year, and speedy center fielder Darian Sandford, who was acquired in a late-season trade with Southern Illinois. Sandford set the league record with 71 stolen bases last year.
Also returning are second baseman Shain Stoner (team-high 10 home runs); catcher/first baseman Rick Devereaux, a former Pitt and West Allegheny High School standout; shortstop A.J. Nunziato (only 3 errors in 51 games) and catcher Jim Vahalik, who spent the spring in the Baltimore Orioles’ minor-league spring training. All four players, like Heck, were rookies last year.
“A guy like Andrew Heck cut his teeth in professional baseball last year. If everything goes right, he should be much better this year,” Zeller said. “The same thing goes with guys like Vahalik and Devereaux and Stoner. These kids still have the fire to move up the ladder to an affiliated organization, and that’s what I put stock in.”
Washington made an effort to add power to its lineup and picked up Rogelio Noris, who was third in the league in home runs last season with 21, in an offseason trade with Gateway. Noris, however, is still in Mexico awaiting a visa. It’s unknown when he will be available.
There has been a general belief around Consol Energy Park this month that the Wild Things are an improved team. Just how much improved, in terms of wins and losses, nobody is willing to calculate. Last year, Washington was 44-52.
“So far, the chemistry with this team is the strongest I’ve witnessed here,” said Hall, who is in his third season with Washington and has 16 wins. “I hope that translates into more wins on the field. We have more motivation for winning. We acquired some guys late last year who have been a positive influence.
“We have a better approach to everything this year. We have short-term goals set out for us. Bart has divided the season into 10-game segments and told us that if we win six out of each of those 10 games, then we should make the playoffs. I had never looked at a season in that way.”
Schaumburg opened the season Thursday night at home against Windy City. … Washington ended the exhibition schedule Sunday by winning at Lake Erie 8-1 in a seven-inning game with Lee, Smith and Matt Phillips combining on a one-hitter. … The Wild Things’ home opener is Friday, May 24 against defending league champion Southern Illinois.