While there is understandable excitement about the way that the Joliet Slammers have been playing lately, there’s also a realization on the team that a lot of different scenarios still can unfold during the last four weeks of the regular season in the Frontier League.
Manager Jeff Isom’s Slammers obviously are pleased with their 13-6 showing since the All-Star break, and that has helped move their record to a league-best 40-30, which is good for a .571 winning percentage and first place in the East Division by one game over Washington heading into Saturday.
But Joliet received a good lesson about the importance of each game in Friday’s series opener at Gateway. While the Slammers entered the contest 11 games over .500 for the first time since 2011, the Grizzlies were 31-40 and were in last place in the West Division. And Joliet went with its most-reliable starter, all-star Liam O’Sullivan.
But Gateway took a 4-0 lead through five innings before the Slammers finally drew closer by scoring three times in the eighth. But they could not tie things or move ahead and wound up dropping a 4-3 decision to a squad that moved to just 5½ games out of first.
The Slammers still have 17 of their final 26 games on the road, which includes the final two games of the Gateway series. Joliet is 24-12 at home and 16-18 in away games.
Isom realizes that every game the rest of the way is important, so the focus is on just going out and trying to win as many games as the rest of the way and then hoping that will be good enough to help them either win their division and advance to the league playoffs for the seconds time in the past three seasons.
“Right now, it’s just a daily grind and we’re trying to win as many games as we can right now,” Isom said. “We’re trying to get a little bit of a lead so that we’re not pressing in the last week of the season since we’ve been there and done that. We’ve also been where we’ve had a little bit of a lead in the past and it’s a lot easier to win games now than down the stretch run, so we’re just going to try to win as many as we can.”
Joliet returns home Tuesday for a three-game series against Washington, which has the league’s second-best record at 39-31. Then they’ll play six in a row at Schaumburg and Lake Erie before a home series the weekend of Aug. 17 to 19 against Traverse City.
And the most challenging upcoming stretch for Isom’s squad will take place from Aug. 21 to 30 when they play a total of nine games at Lake Erie, Windy City and Traverse City, then concluding regular-season play from Aug. 31 to Sept. 2 at home against Schaumburg.
Going into Saturday’s games, the Slammers were three games up on Lake Erie and had a four-game lead over Schaumburg in the East Division. There’s a similar tale unfolding in the West Division, where Normal and River City were tied for first place. Southern Illinois, Florence, Evansville and Gateway still are in contention in the division.
In the league’s four-team playoff format, each division champion automatically qualifies and will be joined by the two teams that own the next-best records. As of now, there’s a good chance that three of the playoff squads could be from the East Division.
Other than its two games August 24 and 25 at Windy City, which owns the league’s worst record, Joliet will be meeting up with potential playoff teams the rest of the way.
Through Friday, the Slammers had several players who are ranked in the top-10 in the league. Justin Garcia leads in both home runs (19) and RBIs (60) while Trenton Hill ranks fourth in average (.335) and Danny Zardon is tied for ninth in RBIs (45).
As for their pitchers, Scot Hoffman and O’Sullivan are tied for fourth in victories with seven, just one behind the leaders. And in ERA, Corey Kimber ranks third (2.40) while O’Sullivan has the eighth-best ERA (3.25).