05/21/2008 7:10 AM
A mix of quality returning players plus several key additions will lead the Windy City ThunderBolts professional baseball team for the 2008 season as the club looks to defend its Frontier League title. Along with winning the Central Division and Frontier League championship, the ThunderBolts’ .708 winning percentage was the best of the over 270 professional baseball teams last year.
Pitching was the strength for the ThunderBolts in 2007, as the team posted the Frontier League’s lowest ERA and led the second place team by the largest margin in the Frontier League’s 15 seasons. Hurlers Erik Fussell and Brock Hunton will return to anchor the rotation this season. Fussell, a native of Crestwood and graduate of Marist High School, led the team with a 12-2 record to go with a 3.26 ERA. Hunton was a Frontier League All-Star in 2007, finishing with a 10-6 record, 2.96 ERA (sixth in the FL), and 98 strikeouts (fourth in the FL). Joining them are Ross Stout, Charles O’Neal, and Stephen Flake. A former Arizona Diamondback farmhand, Stout was the Pitcher of the Year in the South Coast League last season, going 11-4 with a 2.38 ERA and 99 strikeouts in 102 innings for the Macon Music. O’Neal spent two seasons in the Cincinnati Reds system and another with the Florida Marlins. He split 2007 between the El Paso Diablos and Macon Music, combining for a 5-4 record in 23 games. Flake also comes out of the Marlins’ organization, where he went 2-1 with a 1.71 ERA and 22 strikeouts in 21 innings.
All-Star closer Matt Petty, the Frontier League’s Reliever of the Year, returns to the bullpen for the ThunderBolts. Petty set a FL record with 26 saves to go with a 2.66 ERA in 43 games. Set-up men Isaac Hess and Anthony Rebyanski will return as well. Lefty Hess, the MVP of the 2007 Frontier League Championship Series, will also be back. Hess went 10-2 with a 3.28 ERA with 60 strikeouts in 57.2 innings. Right-hander Rebyanski was another All-Star, as he went 3-0 with a 3.50 ERA in 41 games. Amos Ramon, who saw action on the pitching mound and in the infield in 2007, will provide another experienced arm. Ramon held opponents to a .177 average last season, the lowest mark on the staff, to go with a 5-2 record and 2.35 ERA in 46 innings. Desmond Jones and Jason Lowey round out the bullpen. Jones was a 11th round draft pick by the Washington Nationals in 2006, spending the past two campaigns in their organization, and Lowey had the lowest ERA among relievers in the South Coast League last season with a 1.55 mark.
Another strength for the ThunderBolts will be their infield play, as all four starters return, three of whom made the All-Star Team in 2007. First baseman Philip Hawke led the team in home runs (10) and RBI (78) last season while hitting .290. Second baseman Gilberto Mejia enters his seventh season of professional baseball, coming off a season where he hit .264 with three home runs, 25 RBI, and 23 stolen bases. Shortstop Wes Long was runner-up in the Frontier League’s MVP voting last year, when he led the team in batting average (.334), doubles (34), and stolen bases (31). Third baseman Josh Horn hit .302 with 19 doubles, seven home runs, and 53 RBI. New to the squad is Kevin Noles, who finished fifth in the South Coast League with a .325 batting average for the Anderson Joes.
All-Star outfielder Mike Coles returns to anchor the outfield, where he finished second on the ThunderBolts in batting average (.330), home runs (nine), RBI (69), and stolen bases (27). He will be joined by Brett Amyx and Phil Grau in the starting line-up. Amyx comes out of the Kansas City Royals’ system, where he hit .260 with three home runs and 26 RBI for the Burlington Royals of the Appalachian League, while Grau hit .243 over the past two seasons for the Reno Silver Sox and the Coastal Bend Aviators. Also in the outfield are returner Scott Billak, who hit .265 with four home runs, 40 RBI, and 12 stolen bases last year and LaFringe Hayes, a graduate of Walther Lutheran High School who spent time with the Traverse City Beach Bums last season.
Two new catchers will take the field this season, led by Ben Barrone, the NCAA Division II Player of the Year for Winona State in 2007. Barrone was drafted by the Oakland Athletics and finished with a .244 average in 25 games for their Arizona League affiliate. Danny Sawyer, a former All-Conference catcher at Alabama-Birmingham, will make his professional debut.
The biggest changes come on the coaching staff, where the success of last season led to former field manager Andy Haines taking a job with the Florida Marlins and former hitting coach Ronnie Deck joining the Baltimore Orioles. The only returning member of the staff is Mike Kashirsky, back for his fifth season as bench coach. Kashirsky was recently appointed the new head coach for Robert Morris College.
New field manager Brian Nelson followed Haines path to Crestwood, as he was the hitting coach for the Northern League champion Gary RailCats in 2007. New pitching coach Jim Miksis worked with the Florida Marlins last year, while hitting coach Kevin Wilson played for five seasons before serving as the hitting coach for the Cotuit Kettelers of the Cape Cod League last year.
The 2008 ThunderBolts begin the season on the road in Wednesday, May 23 before returning home on Tuesday, May 27. Tuesday’s game will feature the championship ring ceremony and banner unveiling, a magnetic schedule giveaway compliments of National City Bank, and post-game fireworks. The ThunderBolts remain at home through Sunday, June 1. Wednesday’s game features a special 11:05 am start time and free backpacks for the first 1,000 kids compliments of Olive Garden. Thursday and Friday are both $1.00 draft beer and fountain soda nights while Saturday features a Standard Bank Stadium replica giveaway and postgame fireworks compliments of Standard Bank. Sunday is a Standard Bank Sunday, with discounted admission for Standard Bank customers.
For fans unable to make it to the ballgame, all 96 regular season contests will be available for free at www.sportsjuice.com, with Jesse Goldberg-Strassler and Nick Kovatch calling the action.
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