SAUGET — After a short and what turned out to be a successful weekend on Lake Erie, the Gateway Grizzlies return for their 2013 Frontier League home opener on Tuesday when the host the Joliet Slammers at GCS Ballpark.
The first pitch is set for 7:05 p.m. for the contest.
Fresh off their first Frontier League division title since 2008 a year ago, Gateway opened their season by winning two-of-three against Lake Erie, clinching the series on Sunday with a 6-1 win over the Crushers behind a solid pitching effort from left-hander Gregg Downing and a three-run home run veteran catcher Landon Hernandez.
The home run was the 37th of Hernandez Frontier League career.
But the story of the weekend was the Grizzlies pitching staff which, which behind solid starts from Tim Brown, Ja'Vaun West and Downing allowed just five runs in 30 innings.
Lake Erie's lone win came 2-1 in 12 innings on Saturday. But despite the loss, Gateway manager Phil Warren liked what he saw from his ballclub.
"I am happy with our start. We could have easily left Lake Erie with a sweep of the series,'' Warren said. "We did some good things up there but still have a lot to improve on, especially offensively.
"It's early so we will continue to strive to get better as a ball club each and every day.
What Warren saw from ace Tim Brown in an opening night 3-2 win, was something he has before. Coming off a sensational 2012 season, Brown allowed just one run and six hits in eight innings of work
"Tim Brown did what Tim Brown does. He commanded the strike zone all game. He enticed double plays when he needed them,'' Warren said. "Overall just a great individual performance by Tim. Our defense played very well behind.
Gateway also made progress at the plate as the series went on. After managing just four runs in the first two games, the Grizzlies offense came alive on Sunday.
Hernandez, who now has 37 home runs in his Grizzlies career, had the big hit with his three-run home run while Vladimir Frias added an RBI single and Jet Butler contributed a run scoring double.
Hernandez broke a 1-1 fifth inning tie with his home run. It was his third extra base hit of the weekend.
Jose Flores walked three times in the game.
Warren said that while the offense needs to pick up, some of it was to be expected.
"Offensively we struggled a bit. As is often the case, the pitching seemed to be ahead of the hitting a bit. That said, I think adrenaline and nerves may have factored a bit for our hitters as well. Either way, we have a lot of improving to do with our offense,'' Warren said. "We failed miserably as a whole in the situational hitting category, specifically sacrifice bunting.
"We also were a little too aggressive as a unit, swinging at pitches out of the strike zone as well as pitches not compliant with our approach at the plate. I saw more mental failures than physical so that is a good sign. We will continue to work on the mental approach with our offense. I know what this offense is capable of and look forward to watching it produce on all cylinders.''
Pitching was solid in Sunday's victory. Downing (1-0) got the start against Lake Erie and allowed just one run (unearned) on five hits in six innings to earn the win. The left-hander from Howard Beach, N.Y., struck out five batters.
Ryan Hartman, Zac Treece and Chris Enourato each pitched a scoreless inning of relief.
Newcomer Tucker Jensen gets the honor of starting on the mound for Gateway on Tuesday.
Jensen, 23, comes to Gateway after spending 2011 and 2012 in the Toronto Blue Jays organization. Jensen went 5-6 with a 4.31 ERA in 26 appearances (22 starts) with the Blue Jays. The 6-2 208-pound right-hander from State College, Pa., struck out 99 batters and walked only 27 in 110 2/3 innings. He reached High-A Dunedin in 2012.
"Tucker went to Embry-Riddle University and that school has become a hidden gem for us in finding talent," Warren said. "Phil Reamy went there and had success with us last year."
The Grizzlies-Joliet series continues on Wednesday and Thursday. Schaumburg then invades GCS Ballpark for the first of three on Friday.
All games on the homestand begin at 7:05 p.m. with the exception of Sunday which begins at 6:05 p.m.
Warren said opening night at home is special for everyone.
"Opening Day at your home ballpark is always special. Every fan, player, coach, and manager looks forward to it,'' Warren said. " I don't have any real concerns that I have not stated already. It's early and guys are getting their feet wet, channeling their excitement, and getting their approach's in order on the mound as well as at the plate.
"As long as we are throwing strikes and playing solid defense, we will win a lot of games. The offense will be there in the end.''