'Still chasing the championship': New-look Grizzlies about to be unveiled

News-DemocratMay 15, 2014 

With the start of every baseball season comes that optimistic outlook from coaches, players and fans alike that this will be their year.

The season that will end with their team winning a championship.

In 2014, the Gateway Grizzlies, armed with many new players, new additions and improvements to GCS Ballpark and the same all-out aggressive style of baseball which has made them one of the premier franchises in the Frontier League, hope this is their year.

The Grizzlies quest for their first league title since 2003 begins today, when they open the season by hosting the Traverse City Beach Bums in the first of a three-game series, beginning at 7:05 p.m.

Manager Phil Warren begins his eighth year at the helm with 358 wins, sixth in league history. And while wins are nice, what drives Warren is the dream of a championship.

"Eight years and still chasing the championship,'' Warren said. "It's what it's all about for me and what it should be all about for every player on this team.''

The Frontier League's fourth-oldest franchise now in its 14th year, Gateway finished 53-43 a year ago in a season of highs and lows. The Grizzlies jumped out to a 32-19 start, only to struggle down the stretch and miss the playoffs.

The Grizzlies roster has gone through a major facelift since the end of the 2013 season. Gone are all-stars such as Jon Myers, Chris McClendon and pitching ace Tim Brown, among others.

They have been replaced by a group of young, talented players looking to make their marks in the Frontier League.

Now after a preseason which saw Gateway go 4-1 in exhibition play, the new-look Grizzlies are about to be unveiled.

"We had a very competitive training camp, because everyone was good, We did a good job of bringing guys in and we had guys from last year's squad that we released,'' Warren said. "We had some tough decisions to make and time will tell if they were the right ones or not.

"But I like what I see from this group. The chemistry in the clubhouse seems good and we're looking forward to a good season.''

The season will start without catcher Landon Hernandez.

An multi-time all-star and one of the top overall players in the Frontier League, Hernandez is an assistant coach at the University of Hawaii where he works with the catchers.

With Hawaii not concluding its season until the end of the month, Hernandez isn't expected to be in the lineup until May 30..

Now in his fifth season with Gateway, Hernandez batted .290 with 16 home runs and 65 RBIs in 2013.

Newcomers Garrett Vail and Gabriel Molina will share catching duties until Hernandez returns.

The pitching staff looks solid with Tucker Jensen and Ja'Vaun West in the starting rotation for a second straight season.

The 24-year-old West enters his third year with Gateway. A native of Atlanta, Mo., West was an all-star a year ago when he finished 8-3 with a 3.02 ERA. Jensen, also 24, was 7-7 with a 3.98 ERA last season.

Carlyle native Aaron Newcomb, who attended Centralia High School, along with Andrew Aizenstadt and Dejai Oliver will round out Gateway's starting rotation.

Oliver, son of former Major League catcher Joe Oliver, is slated to get the opening night start against Traverse City.

The bullpen will be led by closer Richard Barrett.

Originally slated to move to the starting rotation, Barrett will try to improve on a 2013 season where he was 2-2 with 14 saves and a 3.15 ERA.

Also returning in the Grizzlies' bullpen will be the lone left-hander on the staff, Luke Westphal and Aaron Baker, Brett Higginbotham and Jake Stephens.

The lone newcomer in the bullpen is Chris DeBoo, who pitched last season with the Joliet Slammers.

"I'm not concerned with just having one left-handed pitcher on the staff because a good right-handed pitcher can still get a left-handed hitter out. With our roster I couldn't afford to keep a situational left-hander around,'' Warren said. "Right-handed or left-handed. It doesn't matter. The key is throwing strikes and getting hitters out.

"I like our starting rotation. All five guys throw strikes and they all have more than two pitches.''

The infield looks solid up the middle with veterans Jonathan Johnson and Michael Wing returning at second base and shortstop.

The catalyst of the Grizzlies offense for the past two years, Johnson hit .239 with five home runs and 34 RBIs last season.

A late season addition, Wing hit .387 with three home runs and 13 RBIs in 19 games last year.

Third baseman Niko Vasquez and power-hitting first baseman Ben Waldrip are rookies to the Grizzlies' lineup, while Tommy Richards will be used as a utility man in the infield.

The Grizzlies outfield is new and athletic with Mike Faulkner in center field, Madison Beaird in left field and Xavier Macklin in right field.

Blake Shepherd will be the Grizzlies fourth outfielder.

Ballpark changes

A concession area down the right-field line and video screen beyond the right-center field wall are among the scheduled additions to GCS Ballpark this season.

Completion of the video screen is set for late May.

On the air

KFNS-AM 590 and KJFF-AM 1400 will serve as radio home of the Grizzlies during the season with Adam Young and Sam Levitt handling play-by-play duties.

Weekend schedule

The Grizzlies-Beach Bums series continues Saturday at 7:05 p.m. and concludes with a 3:05 p.m. game on Sunday.

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