Firebirds looking to take final step
By TRISTAN HOBBES
ORLEANS -- The Orleans Firebirds have been to the playoffs the past two years. Each time, they have lost to the eventual Cape Cod Baseball League champions.
“It’s really disappointing to lose those (series),” manager Kelly Nicholson said. “The Harwich game (an epic 1-0 18-inning loss) still eats at me and I think about that Bourne series (2-0 sweep) too often. I hope I can learn from that.”
As the season approaches, Nicholson and the Firebirds are once again preparing for a run at the championship. Leading the way will be four returning players from last year’s team. Matt Koch(Loyola Marymount), Steve Selsky (Arizona), Riccio Torrez (Arizona State) and Josh Poytress(Fresno State) all return to the ‘Birds in 2010.
“We are obviously excited to have all four back,” Nicholson said. “Kids in their second summer seem to do pretty well and we are excited to see Josh recover from his injury.”
The injury was a life-threatening blood clot that formed in Poytress’ shoulder blade before the right-hander could throw a pitch for the Firebirds last summer. He was taken to Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston and underwent eight surgeries to remove the clots. He has come back strong this spring and is currently 5-3 with a 4.47 ERA in 15 appearances for the Bulldogs.
Koch has rebounded at Loyola this spring after hitting only .191 for the Firebirds in ‘09. He’s averaging .264 with 11 doubles, 10 home runs and 29 RBI.
Selsky has exploded this spring, hitting .420 for the Wildcats with 44 runs scored and 39 RBI through 39 games.
Torrez hit .346 last summer in just 17 games for the Firebirds, with seven of his 18 hits going for extra bases. This spring, he’s hitting .384 for the Sun Devils with 16 doubles and 36 RBI.
Nicholson has turned Orleans into one of the best pitching staffs in the league year in and year out thanks to coach Chris Beck. Since Beck took over in 2005, Orleans has led the league in ERA four times, including last year. However, he will not be returning to the Firebirds bench because his wife is pregnant. Taking his place will be assistant coach Jason Brown.
“We are going to miss Beck, he’s one of the best at any level,” Nicholson said. “But we have a super, super guy in Browny to run our staff.”
That staff features lefties Mitchell Lambson (Arizona State) and Alex Panteliodis (Florida). Lambson was a first team Freshman All-American last year and is 4-2 with three saves and a 2.53 ERA for the Sun Devils this season. He has struck out 56 and walked just 13 in 46 innings.
Panteliodis is also having a strong spring for the Gators with a 6-2 record and 3.18 ERA in 10 appearances.
Marcus Stroman (Duke) is having an excellent freshman campaign, with a 5-1 record, three saves and a 3.79 ERA.
One pitcher that may not be joining Orleans is Tyler Anderson (Oregon). Anderson, along with fellow Firebird Nick Ramirez (Cal State-Fullerton) has been invited to play for Team USA. In 10 starts, Anderson is 6-3 for the Ducks and Ramirez has five saves and is hitting .368 for the Titans.
Offensively, Torrez will be joined by fellow Sun Devil Drew Maggi. The sophomore shortstop is hitting .385 in 40 games, has scored 42 runs and has stolen 24 bases. Preston Tucker (Florida) is also in the mix as the Gator sophomore is averaging .342 with 11 doubles and eight home runs. Last year, Tucker earned the NCBWA Freshman Hitter of the Year Award, shared SEC Freshman of the Year honors and was first team Freshman All-American. He drove in a Gator record 85 runs and tied an SEC record with 11 RBI in a 16-3 win over UCF in his first season.
A new addition, Jason Esposito (Vanderbilt), is second on the Commodores with a .341 average and leads the team in runs (41), RBI (51) and stolen bases (21).
All of the Firebirds will be in for a treat when they get to Orleans as Eldredge Field underwent renovations in the offseason. In phase one of a three-phase process, new dugouts were constructed, a new backstop and field netting systems were installed and a brick knee-wall and outfield fencing capped off the construction. The field netting systems will provide fans sitting on the first base hill more protection from foul balls. The final two phases will include a field irrigation system, a warning track, upgraded bullpens and an expansion of the Bird’s Nest and Home Plate shop.
“It’s going to be neat,” Nicholson said. “That’s my home. That’s where I live in the summer.”