Baseball: Windy City ThunderBolts start camp, eye fast start
By Steve Millar For Sun-Times Media May 2, 2014 5:58PM
ThunderBolts catcher Nick Hladek fields a throw at the first day of practice for the Windy City ThunderBolts, Friday, May 2nd, 2014 in Crestwood. | Gary Middendorf/for Sun-Times Media
Updated: June 5, 2014 6:45AM
The Windy City ThunderBolts took the field Friday at Standard Bank Stadium for the first time in 2014 after rain forced them to remain indoors for Thursday’s official start of spring training.
Conditions were far from ideal Friday, but spirits were high as the T-Bolts and second-year manager Ron Biga look to improve on a 50-46 2013 season and reach the Frontier League playoffs for the first time since 2010.
Here are four things to keep an eye on as Windy City gets set for the season, which begins May 16:
1. Building off last year
The T-Bolts were one of the hottest teams in the league at the end of last season, going 27-13 after the All-Star break, but they were doomed by a slow start, including a 3-11 May.
They’re hoping to pick up where they left off in September.
“Last year didn’t start how we wanted to,” outfielder Andrew Brauer said. “The second half, that’s how we want to play. We got a taste of both of it, and I know what I side I want to be on, the winning side.”
Getting off to a good start will be key.
“We learned that every game matters, whether it’s the first game or the 90th game,” third baseman Ryan Soares said.
2. Big shoes to fill
Zach Aakhus and Chad Cregar have their names all over the T-Bolts’ record book. Both retired after last season — Aakhus after five seasons with the team and Cregar after three.
Returning players, including Mike Torres, Evan Button, Brauer and Soares will have to help fill the void not just on the field, but in the clubhouse.
“Some of the older guys like Button and Soares, when you come to a new team last year, you’re not going to be as vocal because there are already leaders in place,” Biga said. “Now those guys can be that. You saw (Friday), we have a three-inning game to get pitchers some work and Button makes a diving play in the outfield. That sets the tone for the younger guys who are like ‘Wow.’ ”
3. Searching for scoring
The T-Bolts have struggled at the plate in recent years, finishing ninth in the league in runs (4.3 per game) last season.
With Soares (team-leading 110 hits, 49 RBI in 2013), Torres (.262, 43 RBI) and first baseman Kyle Robinson (.336) back, the infield looks solid.
Brauer and Button are returning outfielders, while Biga said to look for big things from newcomer Ryan McIntyre. Outfielder Max White hit a towering home run Friday.
“We have a lot of guys who can swing the bat,” Soares said. “I think we’re going to have one of the best offenses around. I’m excited to see how it comes together.”
4. Making the cut
The T-Bolts have 33 players in camp and will need to get down to 24 by May 14. Many of the cuts are likely to come to pitchers, as Windy City is carrying 19.
Along with Brauer — a Mokena native — another two other locals are trying to make the team: pitchers Jason Kafka (St. Rita) and Eric Meyerchick (T.F. South).