JOLIET – A home opener represents a fresh start.
In the case of the Joliet Slammers, Tuesday night’s home opener at newly turfed Joliet Route 66 Stadium qualified as a fresh start and a seesaw ride as Evansville had four different one-run leads before breaking it open to lead 6-3 after seven innings at Herald-News press time.
“Every opening day is even more exciting than other days,” Slammers second baseman Ridge Hoopii-Haslam said while relaxing in the dugout 90 minutes before the game. “All the hard work we put in, we have a chance to come and show what we have.”
Hoopii-Haslam noted there were some “rough edges” that showed up over the weekend, when the Slammers were swept in their three-game, season-opening series at Florence.
“But that’s history,” he said.
The new beginning was created Tuesday when the Slammers thrice battled back to tie after trailing by a run. The game itself was only part of the story, however. Evansville center fielder and No. 2 hitter Zach Welz, a California native who played at Texas State University, met several Joliet-based relatives, who were seated behind the visitors’ dugout, for the first time.
“That’s really cool,” Welz said when informed beforehand there could be as many as 30 of his relatives at the game. Welz did his part, belting a 3-1 pitch from Slammers starter Duke von Schamann down the left field line for a home run in the first inning to put Evansville ahead, 1-0.
Some older fans on hand might have recognized Evansville batting coach and former major league outfielder Boots Day, who began his activities by pitching batting practice, then coached first base.
“I’ve been in baseball 53 years,” said Day, who played from 1969 until 1974 with the Cardinals, Cubs and Expos and was traded for Rich Nye and Jack Hiatt at various times. “It’s good to see the young kids in this league playing the game.
“Kids today are much bigger and stronger than when I played. When I played, we got fined if we lifted more than those 15-pound dumbells. Now, they’re working out all the time.”
When the Slammers were at bat, longtime Coal City High School coach Jerry McDowell coached first base.
“Jerry is like our quality-control guy,” Slammers manager Jeff Isom said.
The sort of muscle Day described was displayed early as Evansville’s Toby Thomas, the batter following Welz, smacked a long flyout to left field. Then in the Slammers’ first inning, Travis Bolin reached on a two-base throwing error and came around to score on RJ Thompson’s long fly to right and Justin Garcia’s long sacrifice fly to left.
Hoopii-Haslam followed suit in the second, lofting a flyout to the track in right that would have been a home run in the beach last season. Then in the third with Joliet down, 2-1, Bolin was robbed on a drive to the wall in right-center field with a runner on base. The Slammers did get even that inning, scoring on an errant pickoff throw to first.
Caleb Eldridge homered in the fourth for a 3-2 Evansville lead, but Chaz Meadows singled and eventually scored on a passed ball in the fifth to tie again, 3-3.
But when Von Schamann reached his pitch count after 5 2/3 innings, Corey Kimber relieved and yielded Eldridge’s RBI single as the Otters grabbed their fourth one-run lead. They tacked on two in the seventh on Toby Thomas’ clutch single.
Then in the bottom of the seventh, Joliet threatened another comeback, putting two runners on with two out. Left-hander Sean Adler relieved, and left-handed hitting Trenton Hill took a disputed third strike to end the inning and leave the Otters’ 6-3 lead intact.