SAUGET, Ill. – In mid-July, the Gateway Grizzlies held the best record in the Frontier League.
Manager Phil Warren skippered the West team in the Frontier League All-Star Game at GCS Ballpark. Things were going great for the Grizzlies and a possible Frontier League championship seemed like a real possibility.
But the second half of the season saw the hope of Gateway winning its first league title since 2003 slowly disappear one loss at a time. The disappointing second half continued Sunday night in the home finale at GCS Ballpark as the Washington Wild Things completed a three-game sweep with a 6-0 victory in front of 6,568 fans.
“It sucks,” said Warren, whose team was eliminated from playoff contention with Sunday’s loss. “We didn’t do enough to earn a spot.
“We don’t deserve it. When you play bad at the professional level, you’re going to lose.”
The Wild Things, who clinched a playoff berth with an 11-4 victory on Saturday, struck first on Carter Bell’s solo home run to lead off the second inning.
The Wild Things (55-37) took a 2-0 lead on Sunday with a pair of bloop singles in the sixth. Garrett Rau, whose Texas Leaguer fell in front of Gateway left fielder Madison Beaird, scored on Scott Kalamar’s flare to center.
The Grizzlies (49-44) were stifled at the plate by Washington pitcher Zac Fuesser, who scattered four hits over six scoreless innings with seven strikeouts.
“He struggled his last couple starts, but pitched well (Sunday),” said Wild Things manager Bob Bozzuto, who began the season as the bench coach but took over managerial duties following the abrupt resignation of Bart Zeller in mid-July.
Nearly as good was Grizzlies starter Ja’Vaun West, who struck out 11 batters across seven innings with four hits and two earned runs.
Photo: Paul Baillargeon
Gateway pitcher Ja’Vaun West struck out 11 batters and
“West pitched his butt off,” Warren said. “He had a gem, but he could’ve had a one-hitter and given up one run and we would’ve lost. You have to tip your hat to them; their pitcher pitched great.”
The Wild Things added insurance runs in the top of the ninth when catcher Garrett Vail errantly tossed the ball back to pitcher Richard Barrett, who had walked the bases loaded. The last base on balls was a two-out, intentional pass to Jose Dore. With Wild Things left fielder Andrew Heck at the plate, Vail tossed wide to Barrett and the error allowed Kalamar to score from third. Heck then drove in Bell and Dore with a two-run single up the middle.
Another Barrett walk to second baseman Austin Wobrock brought Warren from the dugout to replace Barrett with Andrew Aizenstadt, who tossed a wild pitch on his first attempt to allow Dore to score from third. Daniel Poma reached on an infield single to keep the inning alive before the Grizzlies bleeding finally stopped when Rau struck out following an eight-pitch at-bat.
It’s been a season of highs and lows for the Grizzlies, who set a league-high mark with 26 hits against Traverse City on July 19. But Gateway also holds the season-high for strikeouts with 22 against Rockford on July 8. The Grizzlies are third in the league in home runs, but lead the league in strikeouts. Gateway starting pitchers led the league in wins and Barrett was solid as the closer. But when the “pitching went south,” as Warren put it, the team’s offensive and defensive flaws were magnified.
“It really hasn’t been a season of highs and lows. It’s been high and then it’s been low,” said Warren, who has had three players signed by Major League teams this season. “This second half of the season has been downright miserable. We’ve played some of the worst baseball I’ve seen. It’s been a team collapse.”
Washington, which had two of its all-star players – CJ Beatty and Stewart Ijames – plucked by MLB teams, will make its first postseason appearance since 2007.
“Our guys don’t know it’s been seven years; they weren’t here,” Bozzuto said. “I was here and I know the feeling and I want them to have that feeling. Our team is very excited and I know the people in Washington are excited.”
The Wild Things could be any one of the six seeds, but most . Evansville and Southern Illinois are tied atop the East Division standings while River City and Schaumburg are neck-and-neck to lead the West.
“We control what we can control and that’s what we talk about,” Bozzuto said. “Enjoy the journey. There are going to be peaks and valleys. We can’t allow external things to get in our way. We just focus on baseball. So far, they’ve responded.
“We’re a baseball team. We’re not one guy. It has nothing to do with managing who’s doing what. It’s ‘we’ and it’s been like that all year. When Ijames went, we were happy for him; he’s part of our family. When Beatty went, we were proud. But we’ve had injuries to some of our better players, but we just responded by playing hard. They all believe they’ll get the opportunity to play in affiliated ball. There is no one player who is bigger than this team. It’s ‘we’ and each of our 24 guys is a piece of this puzzle.”
Washington finishes its 2014 regular season at home against Evansville, which is a game ahead of the Wild Things in the East standings. The Wild Things are a game-and-a-half back of Southern Illinois.
“We got our first goal of making the playoffs, the next one is the division,” Bozzuto said. “We’re going to set our sights when we go home and see if we can get it done.”
Gateway heads to Joliet for a three-game tilt that begins Tuesday. There will be no pep talk from Warren to get the team to end on a high note.
“Sooner or later, as a professional athlete, you’ve got to have some self-motivation,” Warren said. “I’ve fought and fought and haven’t given in, told these guys I believe in them.
“I’m going to sit back and evaluate the next three games to see who is self-motivated and who comes to play with nothing on the table.”