Thursday, July 31, 2014

Pursuing the pennant

When does a pennant race start?

After the all-star break? The final three weeks of the season? At the start of the season?

It has been my belief a pennant race begins in August. The Dog Days. The days when some teams wilt and others get hot and surge to a division championship or a playoff berth.

Today is Aug. 1.

That means the Wild Things, who are tied for first place in the Frontier League's East Division with Evansville but only a game away from being in third place, are in a pennant race for the first time since ... oh, let's say 2008.

The last time the Wild Things played August games that had any kind of serious impact on their playoff chances was back in 2009, when Mark Mason was the manager. Washington was in third place on Aug. 1, 7 games behind first-place Kalamazoo and 3 1/2 games behind second-place Lake Erie.

The Wild Things were coming off a sweep at Florence, then promptly opened August by getting swept by the Midwest Sliders in Yipsilanti, Mich., and disappearing from contention. Being 7 games back and then, for all intents and purposes, being eliminated before playing a home game in August doesn't exactly count as being in a playoff race.

So, we'll go back to 2008, when Greg Jelks was the Wild Things' manager. Washington entered August six games above .500 and in second place in the East. However, they faded down the stretch and Consol Energy Park hasn't seen an important August game since 2008.

That is, until this month, which promises to be interesting and entertaining. If you're a Wild Things fan and have been for a long time, then this is the month you've waited six years to experience.

Washington has 21 games remaining against teams currently at .500 or better. Evansville plays 16 games against teams with winning records. Southern Illinois plays only nine. The Wild Things and Otters will meet six more times, including the final three games of the season at Consol Energy Park. Because of the Frontier League's goofy scheduling format, Southern Illinois does not play Evansville or Washington the rest of the season.

Sounds like a recipe for a fun month.

Big night for Ijames

Stewart Ijames with former Wild Things manager Bart Zeller in Arizona. Ijames is now playing for the Missoula Osprey of the short-season Pioneer League.

Wondering what happened to right fielder Stewart Ijames, who had his contract purchased by the Arizona Diamondbacks organization earlier this month?

Ijames played five games for the D-backs' affiliate in the Arizona Rookie League, then was assigned to the Missoula Osprey in the short-season Pioneer League. Last night, Ijames made his second appearance for the Osprey and went 2-for-5 with two home runs and four RBI in a 10-9 Missoula win. Both of Ijames' homers came in the game's first five innings.

It also was a good hitting night for another former Wild Things player, outfielder Robbie Garvey, who is playing for the Rancho Cucamonga Quakes, the Los Angeles Dodgers' affiliate in the Class A California League. Garvery, who played for Washington in 2012, went 2-for-4 with a home run against Lake Elsinore. For the season, he is batting .241 with eight triples, seven home runs, 42 RBI and 18 stolen bases for the Quakes.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Pine Tar game v2.0

As I was waiting for the Pirates-Giants game to move across the Associated sports wire late last night, I decided to scan some of the Frontier League boxscores from Tuesday. Low and behold, I found this gem from the Florence-Southern Illinois game:

SIL's Niko Vasxquez (sic) called out and ejected from game in bottom of fourth
inning for illegal use of pine tar on bat following complaint from Florence

Shades of George Brett and the famous Pine Tar Game in New York against the Yankees in 1983.

I did a quick Google News search and found one account of the game, but the pine tar wasn't mentioned. It simply focused on Southern Illinois scoring four runs in the bottom of the ninth inning to win the game 6-5 and move to within one game of the Wild Things and Evansville in the East Division standings.

A check of the Marion Daily Republican this morning sheds a little more light on what happened:

"... It was also important to sidestep any potential drama as a result of Niko Vasquez being called out and ejected from the game in the fourth inning for having pine tar too high on his bat, a result of a complaint by Florence manager Fran Riordan — who was one of the inaugural inductees into the Frontier League's new hall of fame last week — and the implementation of a rule that doesn't actually exist by home plate umpire John Hastings ..."

The pine tar rule doesn't exist? Or does it?

A quick check of the Major League Baseball rulebook revealed this in Section 1.10:

(c) The bat handle, for not more than 18 inches from its end, may be covered or treated

with any material or substance to improve the grip. Any such material or substance

that extends past the 18-inch limitation shall cause the bat to be removed from the


NOTE: If the umpire discovers that the bat does not conform to (c) above until a

time during or after which the bat has been used in play, it shall not be grounds for

declaring the batter out, or ejected from the game.

Rule 1.10(c) Comment: If pine tar extends past the 18-inch limitation, then the umpire, on

his own initiative or if alerted by the opposing team, shall order the batter to use a different bat. The

batter may use the bat later in the game only if the excess substance is removed. If no objections are

raised prior to a bat’s use, then a violation of Rule 1.10(c) on that play does not nullify any action or

play on the field and no protests of such play shall be allowed.

So, as I understand it, if Florence did not object to the umpire about Vasquez's bat with excessive pine tar until after his at-bat in question (which resulted in a single), then the play should have stood, Vasquez should not have been called out or ejected and the bat should have been removed from the game. Had Florence objected about the use of the bat earlier in the game, the umpire should have checked Vasquez's bat when he went to the plate and tossed it out but not ejected the player or called him out.

I checked with Washington's resident Rules of Baseball expert, Bob Gregg of WJPA Radio, and he threw out the possibility of the umpire in Southern Illinois enforcing Rule 6.06, which states ...

A batter is out for illegal action when ...

(d) He uses or attempts to use a bat that, in the umpire’s judgment, has been altered or tampered with in such a way to improve the distance factor or cause an unusual reaction on the baseball. This includes, bats that are filled, flat-surfaced, nailed, hollowed, grooved or covered with a substance such as paraffin, wax, etc.
No advancement on the bases will be allowed and any out or outs made during a play shall stand.
In addition to being called out, the player shall be ejected from the game and may be subject to additional penalties as determined by his League President.

Does pine tar improve the distance factor or cause an usual reaction of the baseball? I wouldn't think so, but this might have been the rule home plate umpire was thinking of when he ejected Vasquez.

As it played out, the umpire's decision and his ejection of Vasquez didn't matter because Southern Illinois won the game, which got the umpires out of a sticky situation (I had to say it).

Monday, July 28, 2014

Who's the ace?

At the time I write this, the Wild Things are tied for first place with Evansville. Southern Illinois is in third place, only 1 1/2 games behind.

Washington has a 39-24 record. Teams 15 games above .500 at this point in the season typically have that dominant pitcher, a true No. 1 starter. The Wild Things teams that were playoff clubs usually had that well-defined top-of-the-rotation pitcher with double-digit wins. Think Aaron Ledbetter, Ryan Douglass, Dave Bradley and Ben Ally (both in 2003) and Jared Howton.

So who is the ace of this year's team? That's a question that had different answers at different points in the season.

Scott Dunn, who was the Frontier League's Pitcher of the Year last season with Traverse City, was expected to be the ace and got the start on opening night. For his first half dozen starts, Dunn wasn't as sharp as he was last season, which made you think somebody else was the ace. Then, Dunn put together a string of six consecutive starts during which he gave up only seven earned runs (1.89 ERA) and you might have thought he was the ace again. But Dunn had a rocky start last week at Southern Illinois was put on the 7-day disabled list.

Shawn Blackwell, however, won his first five decisions and had an ERA was as low as 2.58 after a complete-game win over Southern Illinois early in July. He was the only Washington starting pitcher to make the all-star team, which had to make him the ace, right? Since the all-star break, Blackwell has made two starts and didn't make it to the fifth inning in either outing. Is he still the ace?

Tim Flight looked like he had ace potential before taking a line drive off his arm and suffering a season-ending injury. Chris Phelan was 5-2 and had a chance to make the all-star game when he suddenly retired. Neither are around to be the ace.

That leaves Zac Fuesser, who started the season in the bullpen. The lefty made his first start June 12 and is 4-0 in that role (6-1 overall). He also leads the league with a 1.72 ERA. That should make him the ace, right?

Well, along comes Troy Marks, a guy who has never played at Consol Energy Park. He was acquired by Washington from the Vallejo Admirals of the four-team independent Pacific Association. Marks, who was in camp last year with Schaumburg but was released before the regular season started, was 3-1 with a 2.57 for Vallejo. He was added to Washington's roster during the recent road trip and gave up one run in 5 1/3 innings to beat Normal last Wednesday.

Against Evansville Monday night, marks threw a gem. He allowed only two hits and struck out 11 as the Wild Things won, 2-0.

So is Marks the ace? Or Fuesser? Though neither was in the rotation in early June, Marks and Fuesser were the only pitchers to win at Southern Illinois and Evansville. Or is Blackwell still the ace? Or will Dunn come off the DL and return to his Pitcher of the Year form?

Maybe this year's Wild Things club is simply built more like the 2004 edition, a team that won 62 games but didn't have any pitcher win more than nine games. Ryan Ewin had nine wins that year, Matt Powell won eight games, Matt McDonell won seven and B.J. Borsa won seven times out of the bullpen.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Wild win in Marion

Here is a 50-second clip from the Wild Things' win Friday night over Southern Illinois, again from WSIL-TV. The footage includes Ryan Kresky's run-scoring triple.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Wild Things-Miners video

Here is some video from television station WSIL in Marion, Ill., from last night's Wild Things game at Rent One Park against the Southern Illinois Miners.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Best season ever?

Stewart Ijames
The Frontier League is different things for different people.

For those who play in the Frontier League, it could be a second chance, a way to get back to affiliated ball. Or it can be a way for a player, such as former Wild Things outfielder Stewart Ijames, who slipped through the cracks and went undrafted as a college senior to make a better impression and get his first shot in the affiliated ranks. Or it could simply be a way for a player to keep playing the game he loves and maybe move to a better-paying job in another independent league.

Or in the case of Windy City pitcher Josh Spence, it could be a way to get back to the major leagues.

The primary on-field purpose of the Frontier League is move players to some major-league team's minor-league affiliate. And this year, the league is having players sold to major league organizations at a record pace.

When Normal pitcher Ethan Elias had his contract purchased Wednesday by the Miami Marlins, he became the 29th player since the start of spring training to be moved to affiliated ball. That's a record  for this point in the season.

According to Frontier League deputy commissioner Steve Tahsler, there were 12 players who had their contracts purchased at this point last year, 10 in 2012, 12 in 2011 and only 5 in 2010.

Of the 29 players who have been picked up this year, 13 have been right-handed pitchers, six have been infielders, three have been outfielders, three have been catchers and there were three left-handed pitchers.

The team that has lost the most players is River City, which has moved six, including catcher Josh Ludy, who was picked up this week by Oakland. Ludy is leading the league in batting average and home runs (one more than Ijames). That the Rascals are only a half-game out of first place in the West Division at the time I write this is a credit to the work of manager Steve Brook, who does a solid job every season.

Every Frontier League team except two (Lake Erie and Traverse City) has had at least one player sold to the affiliated ranks.

UPDATE: The Traverse City Beach Bums sold the contract of closer D.J. Johnson to the Minnesota Twins on July 25. That leaves the Lake Erie Crushers as the only Frontier League team that has not moved a player to affiliated ball this season.