The 30 former major-league players with the Kansas Stars may no longer possess big-league ability, but they can summon it in times of need.
And some things never change, like their competitive spirit, the cerebral approach to pitching and Jack Wilson’s defense.
The Stars needed all three in their 3-2 win over the Colorado Cyclones Saturday night in their National Baseball Congress World Series opener at Lawrence-Dumont Stadium. The Stars were shut out for most of the game but scored three runs in the ninth inning to back five pitchers who combined for 16 strikeouts.
The bats weren’t quite up to speed, but their ninth-inning rally was aided by three walks and Brandon Inge’s RBI double.
“That’s the tough thing about coming in here without playing in a year, or some guys multiple years,” said Adam LaRoche, who organized the team last year along with Wichitan and ex-Detroit Tiger Nate Robertson.
“Just the rhythm of it takes some time. Next year we may need to re-think it and have a couple scrimmages or something so we don’t wait until our fourth at-bat to get something going.”
Stars starter Roy Oswalt discovered similar limitations in his second go-around with the Stars. He labored through the first inning, striking out the side while throwing 28 pitches. The 39-year-old Oswalt, who retired in 2013, no longer has the 95-mph fastball he used to win 86 games for the Astros between 2004-08.
But Oswalt throws hard enough to make his other pitches plenty dangerous. He struck out seven in three innings and didn’t allow a hit after the first batter.
“Back when you were throwing 95, 97, you could kind of go back to that always and throw it in a good spot and get outs,” Oswalt said. “Now when your velocity wasn’t what it was before, you’ve really got to set up guys and try to get them back-and-forth, up and down. The more you change their eye level, the more you can get them out.”
The only thing holding back the Cyclones were their nerves, which seemed to evaporate quickly. Starting pitcher Brent Jones matched Oswalt and then some, holding the Stars scoreless for six innings.
“I had more nerves, definitely, for sure, first inning,” Jones said. “But nothing else is different, right, mechanics and everything. But I’m not going to lie, it’s pretty exciting.”
No. 9 hitter Andrew Bladt drove in the Cyclones’ only run with an RBI infield single in the fifth against Jason Marquis. It looked like it would hold up as the Stars entered the ninth inning with three hits and one stretch of 15 batters without one.
“It’s definitely a missed opportunity,” Bladt said. “We had the lead all game and we’d been shutting them down. But it’s also a great experience. I wouldn’t change it. I was feeling very thankful. I was extremely lucky to get an RBI on cheap hit like that, so that was really cool.”
Wilson helped prevent more runs with two impressive plays ranging into the outfield grass from shortstop. It’s a skill that hasn’t left the 39-year-old Wilson, widely considered an elite defensive player during his 12-year career.
The late deficit was a flashback for the Stars, who are no longer the world’s best of the best but who can feel a reminder every now and then.
“It kind of reminds you of the old big-league games,” LaRoche said. “You go into the ninth and you’re down and you’ve got to make something happen. Guys are up in the dugout trying to get guys fired up and making them make it happen. It brings back a lot of memories for the whole team.”