CALL it an omen or, more accurately just a coincidence of wild weather, but the Winnipeg Goldeyes will open their season near the heart of a storm.
En route to Grand Prairie, Texas, where they will open their American Association season tonight, the travelling Goldeyes passed close to the tornado system that ripped a swath across the northern part of the state. Ten twisters buffeted the area with up to 320-kilometre-an-hour winds on Wednesday night, leaving at least six dead and flattening parts of rural Granbury, which is about 95 km southwest of the Dallas suburb where the Goldeyes are staying.
The Fish are all quite fine, but they were greeted by the sound of tornado sirens blaring. "We stepped off the bus and boom, we're right in the middle of tornado alley," said Goldeyes pitcher Matt Rusch, who figures to start against the Grand Prairie AirHogs. "I've never seen a phenomenon like that up close. It was a little scary to go through that."
If the twisters triggered any nerves, the Fish got a chance to shake them off Thursday, with only a leisurely visit to the field on what was largely a rare off-day. Manager Rick Forney called it to get his troops rested and prepped to play a game that matters. He thought the team looked a tired in Wednesday morning's pre-season loss to the Wichita Wingnuts after an evening game the night before. "I'm ready," Forney said from the road. "It's time to sink our teeth into something real."
For the Fish's first "real" outing, thres's a pitching rematch to get the blood going. Rusch will take the hill against Grand Prairie's Derek Blacksher. The last time the two squared off was in Game 3 of the American Association championship last year, and Rusch and the Fish took that one to clinch the title.
"Not saying I take anybody lightly, but when you look across and see someone like Blacksher, you know the first one to blink is the one that loses," Rusch said. "It adds fuel to the fire. Sometimes we have to change how we pitch, because we know the other side is going to go out and throw strikes and go through our order as well."
On the plus side, the pitcher -- who lives in Winnipeg -- said his arm is ready to roll. It got a little tight over the Prairie winter and started the pre-season a little sore. Not anymore. "Every day out I feel like I have more zip on the ball and more feel on my breaking pitches," Rusch said.
"We're all just itching to get out there and get off to a hot start. The mood is good, the bullpen looks good, everyone's arm is rested."
Good thing, because for some of them, the first few games of the season will be the last chance to impress. There are still a couple decisions Forney will need to make to wrangle the roster down to 22 for the bulk of the season. The Goldeyes' active roster holds 22 right now, but pitchers Peter Gehle and Justin Garcia are on the inactive roster until they get the starting call over the next week.
Soon, two guys will have to go. "Some pitchers here seem to be scuffling along, so we're trying to give them a few more days," Forney said. "I already know it's time (to make the final cuts) and I have a pretty good idea of who that will be, but we're just trying to give somebody the benefit of the doubt."