JOLIET – While the Joliet Slammers weren't able to boast that they won their second Frontier League East Division title in the past three seasons, they accomplished something just as significant, which was tying for the league's best regular season record.
With a 7-3 victory over Schaumburg in Sunday's regular season finale at Joliet Route 66 Stadium, the Slammers wound up tying Washington for first place in the East with league-best 54-42 records but the Wild Things won the tiebreaker for the divisional championship and the top-seed overall in the four-team competition.
The next-best record in the league belonged to River City, who won the West Division title by one game with a 52-44 record to edge Evansville, who finished 51-45. The Rascals won 9-0 on Sunday over Florence to clinch their division and the third-seed overall.
As a result, River City will play a best-of-five series in Joliet on Tuesday and Wednesday at 7:05 p.m. before the action shifts to CarShield Field in O'Fallon, Missouri on Friday at 6:35 p.m. If necessary, Saturday's game will be at 7:05 p.m. and Sunday's contest is at 6:05 p.m.
Manager Jeff Isom's Slammers advanced to the Frontier League playoffs for the second time in three years and are in the playoffs for the third time in their history, winning the league title in their initial season of 2011.
The Rascals also advanced to the playoffs in 2016 when they beat Southern Illinois in the first round before falling 3-2 in the finals to Evansville, who had knocked out Joliet. This is their ninth playoff appearance since the Frontier League's debut season in 1993, which includes two visits under their franchise's original name, the Zanesville Greys.
The veteran Slammers skipper cites the stability that his squad had throughout the season as being one of the major reasons why they are back in playoff competition.
"When you start a season and are bringing all of these new faces in, you have an idea of what they're going to do on the field but you don't know how they'll all be in the clubhouse," Isom said. "As a manager, I look for guys who can play the game and also get along together and be a good citizen so I don't have to worry about things. This club has got some leaders on the team who take care of stuff so I don't have to and it's a very close-knit group here.
"And a lot of that is because we've only made a handful of changes all year so the majority of these players have been together since May first. Other teams have had to turn over their roster but we've kept it the same. We took our lumps early on and started out 0-5 but we didn't panic since we thought that we had the right guys. We waited these guys out and the pitching staff took over and that's a big reason why we're having a lot of our success."
In Sunday's regular season finale, the Slammers broke things open quickly by scoring three runs in the first inning and four more in the second.
Joliet moved ahead for good in its first trip to the plate When R.J. Thompson (2 for 4) got things started with a two-out solo homer. After Justin Garcia followed with a single, Danny Zardon (two RBIs) hit a two-run blast to give the hosts a quick 3-0 advantage.
It was more of the same in the second after Brian Parreira and Cody Clark led off with walks and then Chaz Meadows singled to load the bases. Travis Bolin (four RBIs) followed with a grand slam to give the Slammers a 7-0 advantage. The Boomers got a run in the fourth and then added two more scores in the eighth inning.
After starter Andrew Zellner allowed one run on five hits while striking out four in four innings, Manny Cruz didn't allow a hit or run over the next two frames to pick up the victory.
In an interesting twist, an individual from each team played at all nine positions during the game. Clark pulled off the feat for the Slammers while Kenny Towns did the same thing for Schaumburg, the defending league champions who finished with a 45-51 record.
Clark, who has caught throughout the season but also stepped in as a pitcher beside helping Isom with the staff, wanted to pull off the feat so that he co do something to recognize autism since his younger brother is on the autism spectrum.
In the other playoff series, Washington will play at Evansville on Tuesday and Wednesday before that set concludes in Washington, Pennsylvania. Thursday is a travel day in both series, unless it needs to be used because a Tuesday or Wednesday game is rained out.