By John Bohnenkamp
The Burlington Bees will end their first season in the Prospect League with Wednesday’s home game with the Quincy Gems.
It was an uncertain time for baseball in the southeast Iowa community after Major League Baseball’s contraction of Minor League Baseball cost the city its Class A Midwest League franchise.
More than 2,000 people showed up for the Memorial Day weekend opener against the Clinton LumberKings — another contracted Midwest League team — beginning a summer of baseball that had some interesting story lines.
A look at five of the top stories:
Jackson Jones’ chase of the league’s home run record. The catcher-outfielder from Marietta, Georgia was one of the league’s best sluggers. Jones is batting .302 with a league-leading 18 home runs, two off the league’s single-season record, and a league-high 17 doubles.
Jones hit a rough stretch in recent weeks — he has just five hits in his last 37 at-bats — compounded by a hand injury suffered when he was hit by a pitch in the July 28 game against Quincy. He sat out Sunday’s game against Springfield after playing in Saturday’s doubleheader against Normal.
The quiet hitting of Zane Zielinski. The infielder from Chicago, Ill., leads the team with a .313 batting average.
Zielinski isn’t a power hitter — he has just four doubles and two home runs — but he’s become a reliable part of the Bees’ offense. He is batting .385 in the Bees’ last 10 games.
“He’s had a really good season offensively,” Bees manager Gary McClure said. “He’s been hitting the baseball well. He’s been getting a couple of hits a game, and just had really good at-bats.”
The locals. Jack Gray pitched at Notre Dame High School. Reece Wissinger pitched for Burlington High School. This season, they got a chance to play for the hometown team.
Wissinger had a dominant season out of the Bees’ bullpen. The right-hander, who played at Southeastern Community College last season, was 3-0 with four saves and a 1.92 earned run average. Wissinger struck out 41 in 18 ⅔ innings, while walking just four. He gave up four earned runs, three of those coming in a June 26 loss to the Cape Catfish.
Gray had a family connection to the franchise — his grandfather, Ed Larson, was a former president of the Burlington Baseball Association and was a long-time Midwest League vice-president. Gray has thrown 30 innings in 21 games, with a 2-2 record and a 5.40 ERA.
Pitching success. The Bees had several pitchers who had strong seasons.
• Garrett Langrell went 5-1 with a 1.40 ERA.
• McLain Harris went 3-2 with a 2.95 ERA. He struck out 55 in 45 ⅔ innings.
• Chas Sagedahl had a strong finish to the season. He didn’t allow a run in three of his last five starts. Sagedahl had a 2.86 earned run average in those last five starts, and he struck out 10 in 6 ⅓ innings in Friday’s 2-1 win at Quincy.
• Jalen Evans was a late arrival, but he struck out 35 in 31 innings. Evans left the team in mid-July to begin his professional career, signing with Cleburne in the independent American Association.
Setting the baseline. The first season for the Bees in a new league was going to have its ups and downs. The team was built late, since it wasn’t until December when the official word came down that the franchise would lose its affiliation with MLB.
Now there’s a foundation. The players who have been here, whether on the Bees’ roster or with visiting teams, have seen the facility and what it offers. That will make it easier to put together a roster for next season.
The community has seen what the league is like as well. There’s stability within the organization, and the questions that have hung over the franchise in the last two years as MLB planned its contraction are gone.
The season ends on Wednesday. But it’s been a good beginning for the future.
Photo: The Clinton LumberKings and Burlington Bees stand for the national anthem before the home season opener in May. (Steve Cirinna/Burlington Bees)