The 2016 season was a memorable one for manager Jeff Isom’s Joliet Slammers.
After posting four straight losing campaigns following its 2011 Frontier League title in its inaugural season, Joliet won the East Division title to earn one of the four playoff berths.
Although the 2017 Slammers would have a much different look than the team that won 51 games a year ago, hopes were high that Isom, the sixth-winningest manager in the league’s history, could assemble another quality squad.
Putting together consecutive playoff teams would obviously be a great way to cap a special season for the organization, which is hosting the Frontier League All-Star game festivities that run from July 10 to 12, with the actual game on the final day.
But despite opening its season with 16 of its first 24 games at home, Joliet got off to a rough start, posting an 8-16 record heading into last weekend’s series at Southern Illinois.
The Slammers went 3-0 in Marion for their first sweep of the season. They followed that up with a win over Normal on Tuesday before falling to the CornBelters Wednesday and Thursday night.
So although Isom’s squad is just 12-17 going into the start of a seven-game road trip, its second-longest away series this season, the veteran manager has seen enough from his squad to make him optimistic about the Slammers’ chances the rest of the way.
“Even in the games that we were losing, there always was an opportunity to come back and win,” Isom said. “That’s kind of what we had going on at Southern Illinois, but we ended up on the winning side, so it’s good that things kind of flipped on us, and now we’re riding that wave.
“We’re definitely playing some better baseball. We’ve got starting pitchers that are doing a better job, we’re bridging that gap between the sixth inning and getting to our closer. That’s definitely helping us out and giving us opportunities to win ballgames.”
A good example of how well the Slammers are performing of late was Tuesday’s 9-4 victory over Normal. They took an early 5-0 lead, saw that advantage cut to 5-4 and then regained control to claim a season-best fourth-straight win.
“There was no panic when they cut it to one run in the seventh inning,” Isom said. “We took advantage of some walks on their part and got some two-out hits to extend that lead. Once you start winning games, the mentality changes and it’s like, ‘All right, we can do this.’
“It’s a whole different ballclub from where we were a month ago. I don’t like to make a whole lot of moves, but I knew that we had to get more competitive. I like where we’re at right now.
“We’re more athletic in the outfield, we’ve got an infield that’s set and an offensive team that has a chance to put up some runs, and we’ve maneuvered our pitching staff where we have starters who are going deeper in games and strength in the bullpen, so there’s a lot to like.”
The immediate task at hand is putting together a nice run of success that helps get them back to the .500 mark. The Slammers have plenty of work ahead of them since they are nine games behind East Division leader Schaumburg and are last in the six-team division.
But going into Thursday’s action, they were only 4.5 games out of second place and are starting to demonstrate the qualities that a team needs if it wants to contend for a playoff spot.
“Last week I thought that we were pretty close to getting a pretty good run, and I hope this is the run that I was talking about,” Isom said. “I don’t think we’re exactly there yet, but I think that we’re getting closer to where we need to be.
“I want to get around .500 and then go from there. When we were eight games under .500, we didn’t give in, and we’ve cut into that. So I think that there’s going to be some good days ahead for us.”