The eight times Bridgeport and Lancaster face each other this month--every one of them at The Ballpark at Harbor Yard in Connecticut--seem like cruel scheduling in one sense in that the two second half division leaders know they likely have to stay on top in order to make it to next month's playoffs. Neither team excelled in the first half so if Southern Maryland or Somerset rebound to take a second consecutive half-season crown another team is much more likely to get the wild card slot.
First-year Bridgeport Manager Ricky VanAsselberg likes the starting pitching the Bluefish have been getting, the "lights out" work of his bullpen, the timely hitting and the improved play in one-run games, but he is fretting because he is about to lose three players, starter Kameron Loe (4-2), reliever Eric Niesen (0.77) and outfielder and recent addition Brandon Jones (.243). Jones has already departed.
"Every game is super important now," VanAsselberg said. "Our goal is to win every series". A proven winner in previous Independent leagues, he believes he needs to find two starters and a left-handed reliever to keep the lead in the Liberty Division, which was at one game over Somerset after the Bluefish handled Lancaster 6-2 in the opener of the current four-game series.
VanAsselberg, who has already called on 53 players this season (26 pitchers), is counting on such recent acquisitions as infielders Josh Prince and Bryant Nelson (with Lancaster earlier this year) and center fielder Ethan Chapman.
He also will lean heavily on Patrick Mincey (20 saves, 1.78) who the manager said "I'd put up against any" of the Atlantic League rival closers. The 25-year-old "pounds the strike zone" with a fastball, slider and a sort of change/forkball. "I call it his two-fingered forkball", VanAsselberg laughed in his customary Louisiana drawl.
"We are playing better," admitted Lancaster's Butch Hobson, who has his team three games up on Freedom Division rival York and at 16-9 in the 70-game second half, but the veteran field boss could hardly stop talking about the two youthful players currently batting 1-2 for the Barnstormers. That would be center fielder Zach Collier and versatile Anderson Feliz.
In a league loaded with players who are considerably older, Feliz is 23 and Collier will not reach 25 until next month. Feliz "can bunt, run...play anywhere on the field", Hobson praised of the switch-hitting Dominican native, who already has six seasons in the New York Yankees system and entered this series hitting .241 and had been directly responsible for 39 runs in his first 53 games.
Collier, who some say is fortunate to even be alive because of a second heart surgery only five months ago when he was in the Chicago Cubs system, started the series hitting .375 with four homers and 15 runs batted in in his last 16 games. He was at .326 overall for 23 games with Lancaster.
Hobson said Collier, a first-round draft choice of the Philadelphia Phillies (34th overall) in '08, had his first heart issue when he was a junior in high school. He is "an awesome human being", lauded the manager.
Previously the chief spokesman for Commissioners Bowie Kuhn and Peter Ueberroth, Bob Wirz has been writing extensively about the Atlantic League and Independent Baseball since 2003. He is a frequent contributor to this site as well as writing his blog, www.IndyBaseballChatter.com.