The Gateway Grizzlies open their 2011 Frontier League season tonight at GCS Ballpark against the reigning West Division champions Southern Illinois.
“I like everything about our roster,” said Gateway manager Phil Warren, who is entering his fifth season as the Grizzlies skipper. “Put some wins up to start the season and I’ll like it even more. We are ready to go.”
First pitch is slated for 7:05 p.m.
The Grizzlies return four of their five starting pitchers from 2010, including opening-day starter Mark Brackman. Brackman is entering his third year for Gateway and looks to build off his 13-win season.
Aaron Shafer replaces Tim Clubb in the starting rotation and will start the second game.
“Losing Tim Clubb hurt, but adding Aaron Shafer really helped,” Warren said. “I don’t think we will miss a beat there.”
Shafer won 11 games as a freshman at Wichita State University, earning him Missouri Valley Conference Pitcher of the Year and Freshman of the Year honors. Shafer, 24, notched eight wins as a sophomore and spent the past three seasons in the Cubs minor-league system.
Returning to handle the pitching staff is 2010 Frontier League MVP Charlie Lisk. Lisk owns the Frontier League record for career home runs and has set the Grizzlies’ franchise record for total hits, runs scored and total bases during his career.
Gateway also returns first baseman Logan Parker and outfielders Brandon Peters and Jason Patton. Those three returnees combined for 43 home runs, 168 RBI and a .303 batting average.
The area where the Grizzlies lack experience is the bullpen. Jake Shafer, Aaron’s older brother, and Nick Walters return but will be joined by four new arms. Jake and Walters combined to save 14 of Gateway’s 20 saves last summer.
“The thing I’ll be studying the hardest at the beginning of the season is the four new guys in the bullpen,” Warren said. “They all have what it takes to get it done but we will see if they can do it. If they can’t get it done then we will have to adjust.”
Warren believes this team’s strength is the balance of the roster. With the returning of four starting pitchers, five 2010 Frontier League All-Stars and key new additions such as Aaron Shafer and infielder Ryan Khoury, who spent time with the Boston Red Sox Triple-A team in 2010, the Grizzlies have all three aspects needed to compete for a championship.
“We have good hitting, good pitching and good defense,” Warren said. “A lot of times you have two out of the three and the one you are missing sets a team back. We’ve upgraded defensively and on the mound. We should definitely be better pitching and defensively.”
The Grizzlies, who finished last season in third place at 54-40, in the West are looking to make the postseason for the first time since 2008. Gateway’s last Frontier League championship was in 2003.
“Expectations are the playoffs. Goal is a ring and a championship flag,” Warren said. “That’s what we build for. We don’t just build to put a decent team out there and hope it happens. We build a team that can accomplish those things.”
The West Division features the reigning league champion, and Gateway’s cross-town rival, the River City Rascals and the regular season division winner Southern Illinois.
“Our division is traditionally tough,” Warren said. “I don’t think there is a weak spot in our division. Everyone in our division upgraded going into the year so it should be a competitive season.”