Four members of the Joliet Slammers participated in Wednesday’s Frontier League All-Star Game and all three of their rookie selections earned starting spots, including pitcher Liam O’Sullivan.
In the first year of the new All-Star Game format in which the Experienced team played the Rookies team, the veterans struck quickly and enjoyed the upper hand.
Normal’s Derrick Loveless hit a three-run homer, and teammate Chris Iriart hit a solo blast, both off O’Sullivan, as the Experienced team took a 4-0 lead in the first inning and won, 8-3. Loveless added another home run and had five RBIs, and was selected as the MVP.
Danny Zardon batted once for the Experienced team, while Trey Fulton went 2 for 3 and Trenton Hill was 1 for 3 for the Rookies. The three Slammers rookies each made their All-Star debut, while Zardon was an all-star in 2017. Another local athlete, Lake Erie’s Sean Renzi, who is a Plainfield North graduate, struck out the side in the fifth for the Experienced team.
Shifting the focus back to the regular season, Slammers manager Jeff Isom’s team is thinking about reaching the playoffs for the second time in three years. Trailing East Division leader Washington by three games, Joliet is in second place, just one-half game ahead of Lake Erie and Schaumburg.
Other than their first series back, where they play at last-place Windy City this weekend, the next several series figure to be critical because of where the teams are in the standings.
Next week, they’ll host three games each against River City and Florence. River City, which swept the Slammers just before the break, took a two-game lead for first place in the West Division, and Florence is 31/2 games back in that division.
Then from July 24 to 26, Joliet will play at Washington before hosting Schaumburg, and then it’s on to Evansville from July 31 to Aug. 2. Evansville is in second place in the West Division, two games behind River City.
Following a road trip to last-place Gateway, the Slammers host a series with Washington before playing three games apiece at both Schaumburg and Lake Erie.
That sequence of 10 series from July 13 to Aug. 16 features games against teams who are in the top-four in their divisions and two series against teams that Joliet is battling in the East, Washington and Schaumburg.
If the Slammers are going to fare well during that stretch, they will need to rely on quality starts from their pitching staff. Isom has done a good job of assembling a rotation that keeps his team in games, and he’s also closer to finding the right spots for his relievers.
O’Sullivan has led the way for the staff with five straight quality starts in which he went 4-0 with three complete games, allowing three earned runs in 41 innings. He’s 5-2 with a 3.07 ERA. Joliet’s team ERA has moved toward the middle of the pack at 4.16.
The Slammers are seventh in average (.251) and eighth in hits (419) but have been opportunistic at the plate and aggressive on the bases. They’re first in walks (213) and stolen bases (70), second in runs (255) and fourth in RBIs (220) and on-base percentage (.342).
Hill leads the league with a .348 average and a .458 on-base percentage, while Fulton owns a .320 average but doesn’t have enough at-bats to qualify.
Justin Garcia ranks third in home runs (12) and RBIs (39), and L.J. Kalawaia is sixth in on-base percentage (.406).
In addition to his 32 RBIs, Zardon only has made one error at third base and owns a .991 fielding percentage. He went 40 games before committing his lone error.
While the pieces of the puzzle seem to be in place and Isom has a history of getting the job done, this next month may determine Joliet’s playoff prospects.