Baseball

Gateway Grizzlies set to open Frontier League season

The Gateway Grizzlies open their 2015 season on Friday with a new outlook, basically a whole new roster and a team which hopefully will contend for the Frontier League championship.

With baseball legend Pete Rose on hand along with a fireworks show among the opening night festivities, Gateway will begin its season with the first of a three-game series with Rockford on Friday beginning at 7:05 p.m at GCS Ballpark.

Beginning his ninth season as the Grizzlies manager, Phil Warren said he is optimistic following making his final round of cuts this week as he prepared his team for the start of the 2015 campaign.

“Its a necessary evil and one of the few things I dislike about my job. I mean, its tough to tell someone who often times you really like that you are going in a different direction and that they didn’t make the ballclub. This was a rough round of cuts this year,” Warren said. “But by the same token, I like what we’ve got on this ballcub and I think we’re all anxious to play some games and see how we stack up.

“This is a great time of year. Right now everybody is in first place and I’m anxious to see what this group of guys is all about. Hopefully we can put on a good show for the opener on Friday night.”

In contention for a Frontier League playoff spot until the final days of the 2014 season, Gateway finished with a 50-46 record a year ago, 11 games behind West Division champion River City.

From that team only JaVaun West returns with more than one year of service with Gateway. A Frontier League all-star a year ago, the veteran hurler was 7-3 with a 3.61 ERA last season.

“JaVaun is it in terms of guys who have more than one year with the ballclub,’’ Warren said. “But I like what I see in the make up of this team. We’ve got a good group of guys who know to prepare and know how to keep it at an even keel. Guys who won’t get wrapped up in the highs and lows and know how to get through an entire season that way.’’

West will be the ace of an otherwise, young and unproven pitching staff.

“JaVaun had another good year last year and he’s going to be our guy. He’s going to be our horse this season,’’ Warren said. “He’s gone from a guy who had great stuff when he got here to someone who has become a great pitcher. But as with anybody, he’s got to stay healthy. If he does that, I look for him to have another big year for us.’’

After a solid rookie season, Tyler Thompson returns for second year in the Grizzlies rotation and will start game two of the season Saturday against Rockford.

The rest of the rotation was still a question mark earlier this week with four pitchers battling for three spots. Ryan DeJesus, who last pitched in the Pacific Association was battling former Florence Freedom hurler Michael O’Neal, Dejai Oliver and rookie Max Schonfeld for those spots.

“We had a two-day competition with those four guys going for the last three spots,’’ Warren said. “All four have looked good. Michael O’Neal is a guy who has kind of reinvented himself and worked hard to do what it takes to stay in the league and Max (Schonfeld) is a true rookie out of upstate New York. Dejai (Oliver) was actually our opening day starter last year, who struggled with his control last year and we’re hoping he can get back to the level he was at the start of last season.”

Out of the bullpen will be be Brett Zawacki, who saw action for the Grizzlies last season. Others include David Murillo, Scott Harkin, Robbie Buller, Troy Barton and Brandon Hallifod.

Anchoring the Grizzlies infield will be returning first baseman Ben Waldrip. A power-hitting left-handed hitter, Waldrip clubbed 12 home runs and drove in 51 runs a year ago. Another returning player, Richard Seigel can also play first base but will also see time in the outfield.

Grant Buckner will start the season at third base while newcomers Rolando Gomez and Jorge Chavvarria will team with returnee Josh Adams to make up the Grizzlies middle infield.

In the outfield will be Madison Beaird, who was a mainstay for Gateway last season when he hit .289 with four home runs and 42 RBI. Blake Brown, Shawn Payne and Bradon Reitano will also be keys in the outfield for Gateway in 2015.

Contact reporter Dean Criddle at dcriddle@bnd.com or 618-239-2661.

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