HOOTS 9, BEES 1: Timely Hits Are Elusive In Loss

By John Bohnenkamp

The bases saw a lot of action on Thursday night.

Home plate didn’t, and that’s been a problem for the Burlington Bees in their last two games.

The 9-1 loss to the O’Fallon Hoots in a Prospect League game at Community Field was the second consecutive defeat in which the Bees scored just one run.

It’s not a matter of getting runners on base — Burlington (5-11) left 11 baserunners in this game — it’s a matter of getting them home.

“We just can’t seem to find a timely hit at all right now,” Bees manager Owen Oreskovich said. “Scored one run in, it might be the last three games, the last two for sure, and had plenty of runners on base in all of those games. Just waiting for somebody to step up and get a hit when we need it.”

It’s also hurting that the Bees aren’t putting the ball in play. They had 16 strikeouts in this game, 16 in Wednesday’s 9-1 loss at Illinois Valley. The Bees have 151 strikeouts this season, second-most in the league behind O’Fallon.

“We’ve got to cut down on the strikeouts,” Oreskovich said. “(Sixteen) last night, maybe 15 tonight. That’s just not going to win ball games when you’re striking out that many times. Put the ball in play, make them make a play, it could change it.

“I think it would go back on the approach in some ways. We’re fouling off balls too early in counts, not putting them in play, and now you’re in two-strike counts. You’ve got to capitalize on not fouling them off, putting them in play. And, especially with two strikes, just battle more than we have. Like I said, you put the ball in play, you don’t know what could happen. You might find a hole, you could get a little Texas Leaguer. I mean, anything can happen.”

Typical of the night for the Bees was a sequence of plays in the seventh. Sam Monroe and Spencer Nivens walked to open the inning. Kevin Santago then hit a broken-bat line drive off O’Fallon pitcher Geo Canfield, but the ball went to second baseman Will Doherty, who then turned a double play. Weston Fulk then struck out to end the inning.

O’Fallon (9-8) extended its winning streak to four games by taking control of the game early. The Hoots scored five runs in the first four innings off Bees starter Cauy Massner (0-1), who was sharp in the first innings, getting his first 11 pitches over for strikes.

Massner walked four in five innings, allowing five runs on seven hits.

O’Fallon added two runs in the sixth inning, then single runs in the eighth and ninth.

Burlington’s only run came in the second inning, when Dawson Estep doubled to right-center field to score Brandon Bickford.

ON DECK: The Bees play host to the Quincy Gems in a 6:30 p.m. game on Friday.

NOTES: Infielder Charlie Terrill has been placed on the injured list because of bone spurs. Terrill was hitting .400 in eight games. “That kid is one of the toughest kids I’ve ever been around,” Oreskovich said. “He was doing everything exactly the way we wanted it done.” … Santiago went 2-for-5 to extend his hitting streak to four games. Santiago, who is hitting .353 this season, is batting .389 in this streak. … Massner was the recipient of a crucial bounce in the second inning. O’Fallon had the bases loaded when a Massner pitch sailed over catcher Brady Logan. The ball hit off the backstop and caromed hard back to Logan, who waited at home plate to tag Ryan Malzahn, who was trying to score on the play.

Photo: Burlington Bees first baseman Ryan Grace tags O’Fallon’s Will Doherty on a pickoff play in the fifth inning. (Steve Cirinna/Burlington Bees)

THE MONDAY HIVE: Escarcega Finds Family Connection In Burlington

By John Bohnenkamp

Steven Escarcega wanted to work on his pitching when he decided to play for the Burlington Bees this summer.

What he didn’t know was he was coming to a city where there was a family connection.

Escarcega’s great-grandfather, Edward Boltz, and his great-uncle, Everett Boltz, grew up in Burlington.

“It’s pretty funny to know there were some roots for my family here,” Escarcega said. “I thought it was pretty cool to hear, because it was something I really didn’t know about.”

Escarcega is from Monrovia, California, and redshirted this season at Hawaii Pacific University.

His original plan was to play in a college league in northern California this summer, and when he changed his plans and decided to come to Burlington, that’s when he found out the family ties.

“I honestly didn’t know until I reached out to my uncle,” Escarcega said. “I originally was going to play in northern California, and my uncle lives up there. That was the first place I was going to play, and I was going to stay with him in the summer, hanging out with him.

“So I left him a message, saying I was going to Burlington, Iowa, instead and not coming there. Literally, he called me two minutes later, and he was like, ‘You will not believe this. Your great-grandfather grew up there.’”

Coming to Iowa has been a new experience for Escarcega.

“I don’t think I’ve ever been this far east and north,” he said. “I really like it here. It’s a great place.”

Escarcega went to Hawaii Pacific to pursue a degree in diplomacy and military studies — “I wanted to go somewhere that had a military studies major or something like that,” he said — and joined the baseball team. Escarcega didn’t play this season, and when his coach, Dane Fujinaka, saw on social media that Bees manager Owen Oreskovich was looking for pitchers, Fujinaka reached out.

“He said, ‘I’ve got this kid I want to send out there, if you guys would like him,’” Oreskovic said. “I said, ‘Absolutely.’”

“At the end of the year, (Fujinaka) wanted me to reach some goals, like increasing (velocity), gaining some weight,” Escarcega said. “So he wanted me to come here, to get some work.”

Escarcega has been a big part of the Bees’ pitching staff in the opening two weeks of the season. He is 1-0 in four appearances, with a 1.08 earned run average. He has allowed just four hits in 8 ⅓ innings while striking out five.

“Steve has been incredible for us coming out of the bullpen,” Oreskovich said. “He’s fresh (having not played this spring). But every time he’s gone out there this summer for us, it doesn’t look like that. That makes me happy.”

“I’ve been like, ‘Whatever you need me, put me in,’ because I haven’t really played since last June,” Escarcega said. “It has been almost 365 days since I pitched in an organized game.

“When I pitched in high school, I was facing sophomores, juniors. Now here, I’m facing guys that have played a couple of seasons of college. I haven’t seen competition like this in a long time. This is a new skill, a new competition for me. Guys are bigger, a lot better than what I’ve faced.”

The idea of meeting new people was something that Escarcega looked forward to coming to Burlington.

“The first day, when I got here, when they had the team dinner, I looked around and I thought, ‘Oh, geez, I’m not going to remember any names come morning,’” Escarcega said, laughing. “Every single day, it’s just about getting to know people, hearing their stories. It becomes more about making lifelong friends among your teammates.”

BY THE NUMBERS

• Weston Fulk, who redshirted at Iowa this season, is hitting .400 over the last three games. Fulk had his first two home runs of the season in back-to-back wins over the Cape Catfish Friday and Saturday.

• Sam Monroe had his six-game hitting streak snapped in Sunday’s 17-3 loss at Springfield. Monroe has four multi-hit games this season.

• A.J. Henkle has a three-game hitting streak, batting .385 in the streak.

UP NEXT

• At Illinois Valley Tuesday and Wednesday. The Pistol Shrimp are 6-5 and are on a three-game winning streak.

• Vs. O’Fallon on Thursday. The Bees return home for a short two-game homestand. O’Fallon swept the Bees in last Thursday’s doubleheader.

• Vs. Quincy on Friday. The Gems are back after the two teams split their season-opening two-game series at Community Field on June 1-2.

• At Quincy on Saturday and at Springfield on Sunday. The Bees make a weekend trip through central Illinois in two Western Conference games.

Photo: Bees pitcher Steven Escarcega is 1-0 in four appearances this season. (Steve Cirinna/Burlington Bees)

BEES 7, LUCKY HORSESHOES 0: Monroe Sparks The Top Of The Lineup

By John Bohnenkamp

It’s all about trust, Sam Monroe said, and that’s why he’s been comfortable at the top of the Burlington Bees’ lineup.

Monroe went 3 for 4, scored three runs, and drove in a run in the Bees’ 7-0 win over the Springfield Lucky Horseshoes in Wednesday’s Prospect League game at Community Field.

Garrett Moltzan, Nick Tampa, Steven Escarcega and Kyle Maurer combined for the three-hit shutout, the first of the season for the Bees (3-5).

Monroe is hitting .360 with a .515 on-base percentage this season, and is tied for the league lead in runs scored with 11.

“I just don’t try to get ahead of myself,” Monroe said. “I’m not thinking I’ve got to go 3 for 4, I’m thinking trust the guys behind me, get on base, and good things will happen.”

That is why Monroe is perfect for the leadoff spot, Bees manager Owen Oreskovich said.

“Oh, man, I can’t say enough good things about that kid,” Oreskovich said. “He’s an absolute competitor up there every time. He’s the perfect summer-league ballplayer, some might say. He wants to be here, he wants to play, he’s going to compete every time, he wants to win. He’s just absolutely incredible.”

Monroe singled, stole second, and scored on Kevin Santiago’s single in the first inning. He singled to lead off the fifth inning and scored on a two-out throwing error to give the Bees a 2-0 lead. Then he doubled home a run before scoring later in the Bees’ three-run sixth inning.

It was a night when there was plenty of traffic on the bases for the Bees — they had eight hits and eight walks. Ryan Grace was on base twice in the No. 7 spot in the lineup, Dawson Estep had two hits and got on base three times in the No. 8 spot, and Trey Adams got on once and had a sacrifice fly batting ninth.

“I think the bottom of the order has been huge for us lately,” said Monroe, who has driven in five runs this season. “It’s not common for the leadoff guy to drive in a lot of runs, but when you have guys who are hitting 8-9 getting on base, then that puts guys on for the top of the order.”

Monroe, who graduated from Southeastern Community College and will attend Missouri S&T in the fall, hit .283 with a .427 on-base percentage in his second season with the Blackhawks this spring. SCC plays most of its home games at Community Field in the spring and the fall, so Monroe said it feels like his “second home.”

“I tell you what, I’m not from Burlington,” said Monroe, who grew up in Moline, Ill. “But Burlington is growing on me.”

Moltzan (1-1) allowed two hits and struck out five in five innings. He threw just three innings in his first start of the season on June 2 in a home loss to the Quincy Gems.

“He threw five (innings) and only threw 74 pitches, I think it was,” Oreskovich said. “He was on a little bit of a pitch count thing (in his first game), because he threw a lot (for Texas Wesleyan) in their conference tournament. But he went out there today and just competed. He did absolutely everything we wanted from him.”

Tampa didn’t allow a hit in two innings, Escarcega had a perfect eighth inning, and Maurer struck out three in the ninth.

“We’ve got a lot of guys here who want to win,” Monroe said. “Like I said, it’s about trusting the guys behind you, don’t get ahead of yourself, and good things will happen.”

ON DECK: The Bees play a doubleheader at O’Fallon on Thursday night. It’s their third doubleheader in six days.

NOTES: The Bees start a seven-game road trip that also includes games against the Cape Catfish on Friday and Saturday, a game at Springfield on Sunday, and games at Illinois Valley on Tuesday and Wednesday. “I think more than anything, it’s going to be a bonding thing, getting that trust that you get on the road,” Oreskovich said. “They’re pretty good together already, I would say.” … Santiago, who went 1 for 4, is hitting .400 this season with a 1.184 OPS.

Photo: Sam Monroe singles to lead off the game in the Burlington Bees’ 7-0 win over the Springfield Lucky Horseshoes on Wednesday night. (Steve Cirinna/Burlington Bees)

BEES 5-3, CORNBELTERS 1-8: Townsend Helps Snap Streak In Doubleheader Split

By John Bohnenkamp

Jared Townsend’s breaking ball was working, and it helped the Burlington Bees snap their four-game losing streak.

Townsend got his first win in Prospect League play, combining with C.J. Lewis for a three-hitter in the Bees’ 5-1 win over the Normal CornBelters in the first game of Tuesday’s doubleheader at Community Field.

The CornBelters held the Bees to just four hits in the second game for an 8-3 win.

Townsend, who was the Bees’ starter in the season opener, only got through three innings in the 15-5 win over the Quincy Gems on June 1.

The left-hander was much more effective in this game, and that’s because his arsenal of pitches was better.

“He was really good out there today,” Bees manager Owen Oreskovich said. “He was filling up the (strike) zone more than last time.

“His curveball was working much better tonight. He didn’t have much of a feel for it the first time, so he was basically throwing fastballs. When teams learn that you’re only throwing fastballs, it becomes a little bit easier to hit. But he had his curveball today, and his splitter a little bit.”

Townsend allowed three hits and walked four, but also struck out four.

Lewis didn’t allow a hit over two innings, walking two and striking out one.

“He did a fantastic job of going out there and getting us out of that game with a win,” Oreskovich said.

The Bees scored four runs in the third inning. Sam Monroe drove in a run with a double, then A.J. Henkle followed with a two-run double. Joey Fitzgerald also had a run-scoring single in the inning.

Monroe’s double in the fourth scored Tucker Cole for the Bees’ final run.

The Bees hadn’t won since the season opener, and Oreskovich said there was some frustration.

“No one likes to lose,” he said. “We’re on a little bit of a skid right now. I think we’ll be all right going forward.”

Bees catcher Ben Tallman tags out Jackson Chatterton at the plate in the second game. (Steve Cirinna/Burlington Bees)

The Bees struggled to get any sort of offense going in the second game. All of their hits were singles.

“You’re not going to win many games with only four hits,” Oreskovich said.

Adrian Nery (0-1) took the loss, allowing six runs over four innings.

UP NEXT: The Bees play the Springfield Lucky Horseshoes in Wednesday’s 6:30 p.m. game at Community Field.

NOTES: Iowa catcher Ben Tallman has joined the team. Tallman played in the second game, going 0-for-3 with a walk. He picked off a baserunner at first base. … Oreskovich expects Spencer Nivens, an outfielder from Missouri State, to join the team last week. Nivens hit .346 with 11 home runs and 52 runs batted in for the Bears, who were eliminated from the NCAA tournament last weekend.

Top photo: Bees pitcher Jared Townsend picked up the win in the first game of Tuesday’s doubleheader. (Steve Cirinna/Burlington Bees)

THE MONDAY HIVE: Monroe Appreciates Summer League Opportunities

By John Bohnenkamp

A lesson Chris Monroe learned at the beginning of his summer league baseball coaching career is one he still carries with him.

Monroe was working in the Northwoods League when his team started the season with a two-week road trip.

“(The league schedule was) 73 games in 78 days,” said Monroe, who is an assistant coach with the Burlington Bees in the Prospect League this season. “(The manager) said if you really want to coach, you’re going to find out this summer, and you’re going to find out real quick.

“It was like day 10, and I’m dragging a little bit. I’m throwing (batting practice), I’m tired. He’s like, you better figure this out, if this is something you want to do.

Monroe figured it out.

“And here we are eight years later,” he said.

Monroe, who spent this college season as an assistant coach at Spoon River (Ill.) Community College, said the opportunities he’s been given coaching have been something he’s appreciated, especially in summer league baseball.

“People say, ‘Why do you like coaching summer ball so much?”” Monroe said. “Well, look at the atmospheres you’re in. The weather’s warmer, the fans are coming out to watch you play.”

Monroe found out about the Bees from Jack Gray, a Burlington native who pitched for the Bees last season, and who was coming back to be the team’s pitching coach this season. Monroe was Gray’s pitching coach when the two were at Western Illinois in the 2021 season.

“Jack called me and asked me if I was interested,” Monroe said. “I said, “Prospect League? Oh yeah.’ I had some interviews for some other jobs, but I talked to (Bees manager) Owen (Oreskovich) and I really liked what he said.”

“Chris was looking for an opportunity,” Oreskovich said. “He wants to get out here and learn anything he can.”

“I’m happy he’s here,” Gray said. “He’s going to fit right in with the coaches, the players, the atmosphere.”

Monroe said for players on summer-league teams, it’s often about getting out of a comfort zone.

“At some point, if you’re going to be a good ballplayer, you have to learn to do things yourself,” he said. “Take ownership of your career. The stage that you’re going to be on, a lot of the guys haven’t done that before. A lot of these guys are away from home, far away from home. That’s part of the growing-up process.”

Monroe has done the same thing. He grew up in Massachusetts, near Boston, so coming to the Midwest was a change.

“When I first got here, it was definitely a culture shock,” Monroe said. “I was so used to, on the East Coast especially, a lifestyle that was fast-paced. For me, I had to adjust to that. I had to be like, ‘Dude, you don’t have to get this done right now.’ You can be more personable.

“I think I’m doing a better job of adjusting to it. You don’t have to do everything right at this minute. You can take the time to evaluate something, make sure it’s done the right way. It’s definitely a place for me right now. I really enjoy it. I don’t see myself being anywhere else right now.”

Monroe grew up around summer league baseball, going to Cape Cod League games as a child.

“My family had a vacation house on the Cape,” he said. “It was real easy at 8, 9, 10 years old, to walk across the street and watch a game.”

The opportunities he’s had with the summer leagues are something he wants players who are considering playing professional baseball to experience.

“In my playing career, I wasn’t good enough to play collegiate summer ball,” Monroe said. “So if you’re one of these guys that say you want to take the summer off, well, number 1, you’re missing the opportunity to get out of your comfort zone. Number two, you say you want to play professional baseball but you don’t want to play another 60 games after playing 40 games of college ball, well, you’re lying to yourself.

“What’s it going to be? If you can’t play 80 games between college and summer ball, but you think you can get up for 162 (in Major League Baseball), it’s not happening. It’s a great privilege and a great opportunity to do this, so you may want to think twice before saying no.”

Oreskovich’s approach is for his players to have fun while working on their games, and Monroe shares that.

“The big thing is we want you to go back to school better than when you came to us this summer,” he said. “If we send you back to your school and you’re better than you were when you got here, then we did what we’re supposed to.

“The game rewards the players who go about their business every day. My college coach used to say that to me all of the time. He’d always say the best players are the ones who are most consistent. And consistency isn’t just your play. It’s your approach to the game. Are you a good teammate, are you good to the fans, are you good to that little kid who wants that signed baseball? When your host family asks you to respect your home, are you doing those things to the best of your ability? That’s all part of the process.”

The process Monroe has experienced has taken him to different places. It’s all about figuring things out.

“That’s how life works,” he said.

Photo: Bees assistant coach Chris Monroe (right) talks with Charlie Terrill during a game last week. (Steve Cirinna/Burlington Bees)

GEMS 8, BEES 7: Quincy’s Late Rally Leads To Win

By John Bohnenkamp

A team that just came together over the weekend is going to have its growing pains.

That was evident in the Burlington Bees’ 8-7 loss to the Quincy Gems in Thursday’s Prospect League game at Community Field.

Quincy (1-1) scored five runs in the eighth inning after the Bees (1-1) had built a 7-3 lead and seemed in control of the game.

“Those games happen,” Bees manager Owen Oreskovich said.

The Gems put pressure on after going down in order in the first two innings. They scored three runs in the third inning, and had runners in scoring position in the next four innings but didn’t score.

That changed in the eighth. Gabe Swansen homered to left field to bring Quincy within 7-4. Bees reliever Nick Tampa gave up a double and two walks to load the bases, and Oreskovich replaced him with Jaxon Ingram (0-1). Ingram gave up a broken-bat grounder to Lucas Loos for the first out, with Logan Voth scoring. Then Matthew Batts had a two-run double to tie the game, then Ingram gave up a single to Zach Stewart, and Quincy had the lead.

“That’s on me,” Oreskovich said. “I put Jaxon Ingram in a tough situation. I thought he pitched really well. But bases loaded, no one out, that’s a tough situation. That’s on me. I would like to, ideally, not put him in a bases-loaded, no-out situation.”

Oreskovich said he is still learning about his pitchers.

“I just met these kids, and watched them in real life — not on video — just a week ago,” Oreskovich said. “It’s just learning — what guys can handle what situations, what guys we want in certain situations. We’re still looking for our 4, 5 and maybe sixth starter right now, so that’s why you haven’t seen some of these guys pitch yet. We’re just trying to work through — we’ll have a better idea with the pitching by next week.”

The Bees got two shutout innings from reliever C.J. Lewis. Lewis allowed two hits and walked three while striking out two.

Lewis pitched just 3 1/3 innings at Toledo this season.

“I was very impressed with C.J. Lewis,” Oreskovich said. “He started working on a new arm slot this year, and he’s trying to figure it out. I was really impressed with him.”

The Bees, who scored 15 runs in Wednesday’s season opener, built their lead over the first five innings, but had just two baserunners over the last four innings.

“It’s timely hitting,” Oreskovich said. “You get a base hit here or there with runners in scoring position, move guys over, and you score runs, you have a better chance to win games. We just didn’t get that tonight. That’s OK. That’s baseball.”

Quincy’s Cael Kolacia (1-0) was the winning pitcher, allowing three hits in 4 2/3 innings.

The Bees have Friday off, then play a doubleheader at Normal on Saturday.

Photo: Bees reliever C.J. Lewis threw two scoreless innings in Thursday’s loss to Quincy. (Steve Cirinna/Burlington Bees)

BEES 15, GEMS 5: Henkle’s Grand Slam Completes Cycle On Opening Night

By John Bohnenkamp

A.J. Henkle’s college baseball season ended in his first at bat in the first game.

The bat flip as his seventh-inning grand slam left Community Field capped his return.

Henkle hit for the cycle, driving in six runs in the Burlington Bees’ 15-5 win over the Quincy Gems in the Prospect League opener for both teams on Wednesday night.

Henkle was 4-for-5 on a night when the Bees had 18 hits. He had an RBI double in the first inning, a single in the fourth, and a run-scoring triple in the fifth.

When he hit in the seventh, he knew what was on the line.

“It was definitely in my head,” Henkle said. “But I wasn’t swinging for it or anything.”

Henkle turned on what he called a “nice inside fastball” from Gems reliever Kolby Kiser, launching a home run to deep left field.

Henkle took three steps as he watched his home run that ended the game on the 10-run rule, then he flipped his bat while his teammates celebrated.

Henkle, a sophomore at Illinois-Chicago, tore a tendon in his left thumb in the Flames’ season opener at New Mexico State on February 18. He sat out the rest of the season, and was cleared to play for the Bees last week.

“He texted me, said, ‘I’m all cleared, O,’” said Bees manager Owen Oreskovich, who was a coach at McHenry County College when Henkle played there. “I was like, ‘I can’t wait.’”

“Just taking the field, it felt amazing,” Henkle said. “All of the hits, none of that mattered. Just running out there, that’s what really felt good.”

Henkle played for the Bees last season, and knew he wanted to return this summer.

“Coach O, I’ve known him since he was young,” Henkle said. “My host family last year was great. I knew the situation here would be good. I’d get a lot of (at bats).”

“I’ve known A.J. since he was a little guy,” Oreskovich said. “I’ve always wanted him to play for me.”

Henkle also threw out Quincy’s Andrew Fay at the plate after Gabe Swansen’s fourth-inning single.

“He was throwing about 93, 94, from the outfield back (at McHenry County),” Oreskovich said. “I knew he had it in him. And I know that’s his favorite thing to do besides hit.”

The Prospect League offers opportunities to players who didn’t get a lot of playing time this season, and Henkle wasn’t the only one taking advantage.

Bees first baseman Weston Fulk, who took a redshirt year at Iowa this season as a freshman, went 3-for-4 and drove in a run.

Starting pitcher Jared Townsend, who didn’t play at Iowa Western Community College this season after suffering a foot injury, threw 80 pitches in three innings, allowing four hits and four runs while striking out five.

Oreskovich said he wanted to keep Townsend around 50-60 pitches.

Townsend was at 60 pitches when he gave up a flyout to left field with runners on first and second with one out in the second inning. He was backing up the play at third base when Oreskovich advised him of the pitch count.

“I said, ‘You’re at 60,’ and he basically (waved it off), said, ‘I’m good,’” Oreskovich said, smiling. “In the dugout after that inning, he was like, ‘I want one more.’”

Steven Escarcega, who didn’t pitch this season at Hawaii Pacific, threw a scoreless seventh inning, allowing one hit while striking out one.

Townsend got a cushion because of the Bees’ five-run first inning. They added one more run in the third, three in the fourth and two in the fifth.

Adrian Nery (1-0) was the winning pitcher. Bennett Stice (0-1) took the loss.

Every Bees hitter got at least one hit. Charlie Terrill had three hits, while Chase Honeycutt and Sam Monroe had two. 

Oreskovich said he’s known he would have a good offensive team since the players arrived for their first workouts last weekend.

“Our guys have taken unbelievable BP in the last three days, four days, however long we’ve been here,” he said. “What I’ve preached since I’ve got here is these guys having fun. And when you’re having fun, you’re relaxed, and you’ll actually do well. That’s the mindset I’m trying to build in these kids this summer.”

Box score

Photo: A.J. Henkle (left) is greeted by Burlington Bees manager Owen Oreskovich after a grand slam to end Wednesday’s 15-5 win over the Quincy Gems. (Steve Cirinna/Burlington Bees)

Gray Feels At Home With Bees, Even As A Coach

By John Bohnenkamp

Playing for the Burlington Bees in the Prospect League last season was the finale of Jack Gray’s playing career.

It turned out to be the beginning of his coaching career.

The Burlington native spent this college season as the pitching coach at Carl Sandburg College. And he’s back with the Bees this summer, this time as the team’s pitching coach.

“I love it,” Gray said. “No place I’d rather be right now.”

Gray has a deep family connection with the Bees, dating to when the Bees were a franchise in the Class A Midwest League. Ed Larson, Gray’s grandfather, was a long-time Midwest League executive and also was president of the Burlington Baseball Association. Larson died in 2019 during the final season for the Bees in the Midwest League.

Gray played in college, starting at Carl Sandburg College before concluding his career at Western Illinois University last season. And when he finished with the Bees last season, his playing days were over and his coaching career was set to begin.

Gray didn’t hesitate when new Bees manager Owen Oreskovich, who was an assistant with the team last season, called Gray and asked him if he wanted to be on his staff.

“It took me about five seconds to say yes,” Gray said. “It was just a perfect fit, with all of the history with my family with the Bees.

“It was nice to end my playing time here, just because with my grandpa and everything, there’s been such a tradition here. And with it being the first year in a new league, it just worked perfectly. It was a lot of fun here. Having my career end here, I wouldn’t want it to end anywhere else.”

Now Gray has shifted into a new role.

“He is very willing and wants to learn to be a coach,” Oreskovich said. “I wanted to give him that opportunity, teach him some of the things I’ve learned, especially after being an assistant coach here.”

Gray’s coaching career was launched in between games of a doubleheader between the Bees and the Normal CornBelters last season. Carl Sandburg head coach Josh Foreman, who was an assistant with CornBelters, asked Gray if he wanted to join his staff. Gray, whose college playing career included playing for Foreman at Carl Sandburg, thought it was a great opportunity.

“I learned a lot,” he said. “It’s a bit of a jump going from player to coach right away.

“One of the main things I learned is that basically not everyone is going to learn the exact same thing the exact same way. Some guys are going to interpret it a little differently.”

Gray took a hands-off approach working with the Sandburg pitchers, and he’s going to do the same thing with the Bees.

“I’m not a big ‘I’ve got to change all of your mechanics’ guy,” Gray said. “I threw weird, so if they’re comfortable throwing weird and they can throw strikes and be efficient, why not? If it works for them, I’ll fine-tune what I can, but let them be comfortable with what they’re doing.

“With the summer league, I’ll do a little bit of instruction. But basically, a lot of the guys are here to get innings — either they didn’t get to play a lot in the spring, or they want to work on something and this is a perfect time to work on it. I’ll let them work on their own, and if they need some help, I’ll be there to help them.”

Eight of Gray’s teammates from last season have returned. Being their coach will be an adjustment, Gray said.

“They know I’m a coach now, and they respect that,” Gray said. “Don’t get me wrong, they’re still friends of mine. It is a little weird coaching your friends. But from what I’ve seen, they’re going to listen to me exactly like a coach.”

“It will be good for Jack to be our pitching coach,” said Bees assistant coach Chris Monroe, who was Gray’s pitching coach at Western Illinois. “He’s going to learn his own style on how to do things, how he wants things done. And there’s no better place to do it than a few blocks down the street from his house. You can’t beat that.”

It is that connection, and the fact that he’s still wearing a Bees uniform, that made this a perfect place for Gray.

“Kind of keeping it in the family,” Gray said. “I know my grandpa would like it. I figure he’s somewhere watching all of this and smiling.”

Photo: Jack Gray (right) signs an autograph for a fan after a game last season at Community Field. (Steve Cirinna/Burlington Bees)

Bees’ Roster Gets The Final Pieces

By John Bohnenkamp

Owen Oreskovich said putting together the Burlington Bees’ roster was a lot like putting together a college baseball team, something he has done as an assistant coach.

Now that the Bees’ manager got his players, though, he wants them to approach this summer as if they were on a professional team, something he learned last year as an assistant coach with the team in the Prospect League.

“(Former Bees manager) Gary (McClure) ran it like a pro team,” Oreskovich said. “And I really liked that from a summer aspect. I’m not your school’s coach — I’m not going to have a stretching program, that kind of stuff. You do what you’ve got to do — whatever you do at school, you go do it, however much time you need. You want me to go throw (batting practice), I’ll go throw it. Come ask. I’m a personable guy.

“I’m going to run it like a pro team runs things. I just want these kids to have fun. That’s what baseball is about, in a good league. Treat them like pro baseball players.”

The Bees open the season on Wednesday night against the Quincy Gems at Community Field.

Oreskovich said finding players was similar to his job as an assistant at Mount Mercy University in Cedar Rapids.

“It’s just the same old thing I do every day,” he said. “It’s just recruiting.”

Still, Oreskovich had to scramble in the days before the team reported to Community Field this weekend to find the final pieces to the 30-man roster.

“It’s tougher to find arms nowadays,” Oreskovich said. “But I found some guys and I really think we have a good team here.”

Eight players are back from last season’s team, which was in its first year in the Prospect League.

Finding the rest of the roster required some work.

“It’s all about asking coaches, people you know,” Oreskovich said. “Some of the kids, you see them on Twitter, you reach out to them. That’s how you do a lot of baseball recruiting these days. You go on (social media), you see video. And you reach out to them.”

A look at the Bees’ roster:

PITCHERS

Steven Escarcega (RHP, Hawaii Pacific) — Has not pitched this season.

Weston Fulk (LHP, Iowa) — Redshirted this season for the Hawkeyes. A first-team all-state selection in Iowa last summer after going 6-3 with a 2.42 ERA at Ankeny High School, where he was teammates with Iowa pitcher Brody Brecht. Can play first base as well.

Devin Holmes (LHP, Highland CC) — 1-0 in eight appearances. Struck out 15 in 10 ⅔ innings.

Jaxon Ingram (RHP, Texas Wesleyan) — 1-0 in three appearances this season.

Ian Landreneau (RHP, Texas Wesleyan) — 3-5 with a 5.59 ERA in 14 appearances. He has 34 strikeouts in 48 1/3 innings.

C.J. Lewis (RHP, Toledo) — 0-0 with a 2.70 ERA in three appearances this season.

Cauy Massner (RHP, Iowa Wesleyan) — Only local players on the team — graduated from Mediapolis High School. 

Kyle Maurer (RHP, Fort Wayne) — 0-0 with a 10.03 ERA in 13 appearances. Maurer pitched in four games for the Bees last season.

Osvaldo Mendez (LHP, Alabama State) — 5-2 with a 4.83 ERA. Struck out 62 in 50 ⅓ innings. Pitching for the Puerto Rico U23 team, and will join the team in late June.

Garrett Moltzan (RHP, Texas Wesleyan) — 3-1 with a 3.71 ERA in 20 appearances, with 58 strikeouts in 51 innings. Went 1-3 with a 6.81 ERA for the Bees last season.

Adrian Nery (RHP, Morton College) — 2-2 with a 7.03 ERA. Struck out 20 in 24 ⅓ innings.

Owen Rice (LHP, McHenry County CC) — 3-2 with a 4.50 ERA, with 37 strikeouts in 30 innings.

Nick Tampa (RHP, Morton College) — 1-0 with 1 save in 5 appearances. Struck out 10 in 6 ⅓ innings.

Jared Townsend (LHP, Iowa Western CC) — Hasn’t played this season, but will be the Bees’ Opening Day starter.

Paolo Zavala (RHP, Morton College) — 5-1 with a 3.72 ERA, with 29 strikeouts in 38 ⅔ innings.

CATCHERS

Chase Honeycutt (Jones College) — Hit .171 with 2 home runs and 15 runs batted in. Hit .261 with 14 RBIs for the Bees last season.

Brady Logan (Northwest Mississippi CC) — Hit .308 with 1 home run and 17 RBIs.

Ben Tallman (Iowa) — Hit .244 in 35 games with the Hawkeyes, with 1 home run and 11 RBIs.

INFIELDERS

Trey Adams (Northeastern JC) — Hit .353 with 4 home runs and 33 RBIs. Has 16 stolen bases.

Tucker Cole (Black Hawk College) — Hit .224 with 2 home runs and 18 RBIs.

Dawson Estep (Connors State College) — Hit .313 in 9 games.

Joey Fitzgerald (Harper College) — Hit .262 with 2 home runs and 20 RBIs. Hit .218 with the Bees last season.

Ryan Grace (Quinnipiac) — Redshirted this season.

Kevin Santiago (Texas Wesleyan) — Hit .352 with 10 home runs and 42 RBIs. Has a .697 slugging percentage and a .420 on-base percentage. Hit .271 with 7 home runs and 27 RBIs for the Bees last season.

Charlie Terrill (McHenry County CC) — Hit .214 with 1 home run and 7 RBIs.

OUTFIELDERS

Brandon Bickford (Mount Mercy) — Hit .233 with 1 home run and 8 RBIs.

A.J. Henkle (Illinois-Chicago) — Has played in one game this season. Hit .233 with 1 home run and 7 RBIs last season for the Bees.

Sam Monroe (Southeastern CC) — Hit .283 for the Blackhawks with 4 home runs and 32 RBIs. Hit .267 for the Bees last season.

Spencer Nivens (Missouri State) — Hitting .352 with 9 home runs and 48 RBIs in 57 games. Has a .972 OPS. Will join the team after playing in the NCAA tournament with the Bears.

Lincoln Riley (Eastern Illinois) — Hit .283 with 2 home runs and 21 RBIs. Hit .237 with 3 home runs and 26 RBIs for the Bees last season.

Photo: Burlington Bees outfielder Sam Monroe makes a catch in a game last season. Monroe is one of eight players returning from last season’s team. (Steve Cirinna/Burlington Bees)

THE MONDAY HIVE: Fulk Ready To Show What He’s Learned

By John Bohnenkamp

It didn’t take long for Weston Fulk to impress his summer manager.

Fulk, a freshman from Iowa, showed up for his first batting practice with the Burlington Bees on Saturday and well…

“Oh, man,” Bees manager Owen Oreskovich said. “He came fresh out of the locker room with a bat, didn’t swing once. Got in the (batting) cage, and the first ball he hit one-hopped the 375 sign in left-center. It was a missile. Had to be a hundred (miles per hour) off the bat. I was like, ‘Oh, man.’ I think he hit three home runs after that in his first round.”

Fulk’s first game with the Bees in the Prospect League will be his first competition of 2022. He took a redshirt season with the Hawkeyes this year — Fulk can either pitch or play first base, and the Iowa depth chart was crowded at those spots.

“I kind of had some elbow pain in the winter, so I think that was the best plan for me,” Fulk said.

So, he spent home games at the end of Iowa’s dugout, watching head coach Rick Heller and his staff work. Fulk could always be seen taking baseballs out to the plate umpire, anything to keep busy.

“It always kept me locked in,” Fulk said. “It really helped me, kind of kept me in the game. I got to see what a college game looks like. And it really helped me out. I think what I learned this year will carry over with me this summer.”

Fulk came to Iowa after a successful career at Ankeny High School. He hit .485 with 12 home runs last season, and as a pitcher had a 6-3 record with a 2.42 earned run average, striking out 79 in 43 ⅓ innings.

Playing for the Bees in the college summer league was a decision Fulk knew he had to make. He’ll mostly play at first base, while also getting some work as a reliever as he builds arm strength. The chance to be a two-way player was a lure to coming to Burlington.

“Just to get more exposure. Get more at bats, get more innings,” Fulk said of why he wanted to play this summer. “Take the teaching I got at Iowa, and carry it over to here.”

“He’s a lot bigger than I thought he was,” Oreskovich said of Fulk, who is 6-foot-4 and weighs 220 pounds. “He’s a great kid, very respectful. He’s going to be a great kid to work with.”

Fulk was familiar with the Bees — his grandparents live in nearby New London, and Fulk watched games at Community Field when the Bees were in the Class A Midwest League.

Walking into a clubhouse that once housed a minor-league team was, “super cool,” Fulk said.

“I kind of have a little background here,” Fulk said. “I’m excited to play here.”

Fulk said it was difficult not being with the Hawkeyes in Omaha for the Big Ten tournament.

“But I’ve been watching them,” he said. “It was definitely tough sitting out this year. But I know we’ve got a pretty good team.”

Fulk is looking forward to using a wood bat this summer.

“Just swinging today, it doesn’t feel different,” Fulk said. “I think squaring a ball up with a wood bat, there’s nothing else like that.”

Oreskovich has already seen that.

“He’s impressive to watch,” Oreskovich said.

Photo: Weston Fulk (left) greets Iowa teammate Keaton Anthony before a game this season. Fulk will be playing this summer for the Burlington Bees in the Prospect League. (Brian Ray/hawkeyesports.com)