Explorers baseball practice

Nate Samson throws to first during the Sioux City Explorers first baseball practice of the season at Lewis and Clark Park.

Jim Lee, Sioux City Journal

SIOUX CITY -- It would be a vast understatement to say Steve Montgomery doesn’t like to lose.

Heading into his fourth year as the Sioux City Explorers’ field manager, that’s become more and more obvious with the first back-to-back playoff appearances for a franchise that launches its 25th season Thursday night at Lewis and Clark Park.

It won’t be quite the same as the inaugural home opener June 22, 1993, back when the old Northern League was revived with a 72-game schedule, all of which has morphed into the American Association and what will be the circuit’s seventh 100-game slate.

Like always, the team’s pre-season camp has been a whirlwind lasting less than two full weeks. Like always, there have been some tough decisions, sorting out the personnel that will be most competitive in what is probably independent professional baseball’s strongest league.

And, like always, there have been a limited number of preseason games to help Montgomery and his coaches (Bobby Post and Matt Passerelle) evaluate the league-maximum 28 candidates allowed in camp.

The X’s have traveled to Seward, Neb., along with Kingsley and three South Dakota venues (Yankton, Huron, Vermillion) to play three games with the Lincoln Saltdogs and two with the Sioux Falls Canaries.

Four of those five contests turned out to be one-run decisions and Montgomery didn’t enjoy dropping three of them. That made it a 1-4 preseason showing, which the skipper wasn’t ready to accept, little as it mattered.

Two games essentially hinged on fair/foul calls the Explorers weren’t buying. One was a Lincoln “triple’’ in Yankton that may have been foul or even “way foul.” The other was a “foul’’ fly in Huron by X’s catcher Tyler Ogle that Montgomery believed to be a home run.

Then, there was the exhibition finale Sunday afternoon in Vermillion, where Sioux City entered the top of the ninth inning with a one-run lead. Sending out a lefthander to face a Lincoln lineup with eight right-handed bats, a three-run rally that eventually gave the Saltdogs a 5-4 win wasn’t surprising.

“It’s not a spot for that kid (the lefthander), but he needed to get innings and we needed to see him,’’ said Montgomery.

With a lineup that seems destined to lead the league in stolen bases for a third year in a row, the Explorers did very little running or bunting in the preseason.

“I wanted everybody getting swings in,’’ said the manager.

Like the last two years, this seems to be a team that will hit and score lots of runs. Meanwhile, like the league-record 75-25 club of two seasons ago -- and not so much like last year’s ever-changing mound corps -- this seems to be a team with solid pitching.

Of course, only time will tell about any of it. And, it was obvious last year, “time” isn’t necessarily measured by what happens in the first few weeks. After all, last year’s Explorers got off to a worst-ever 0-6 start and still repeated as Central Division champs.

That brought to mind one of the many priceless one-liners from Ed Nottle, the pilot for the team’s first eight seasons (1993-2000) and 10 of the first 15 (also 2006-07). To paraphrase in a family newspaper, Ed would often implore, “Don’t give up the ship until your (rump) hits the water!”

Arch-rival Sioux Falls is the opening foe for the sixth year in a row and it’s the 12th time the Explorers have kicked things off at Lewis and Clark Park. They had won five consecutive season openers played in their home park (and eight of their previous 10) before a 3-0 setback started last year’s frustrating launch.

Speaking of launches, I’m reminded that Buzz Aldrin, the second earthling to walk on the moon, was there for the gala premiere in ‘93. Happy to say Apollo 11’s lunar module pilot is still with us, looking somewhat youthful at age 87 the last I saw. He just won’t be there Thursday.

That doesn’t mean Shane Tritz, the Explorers’ longtime general manager, doesn’t have a special agenda planned to kick off Season 25.

In a ballpark that has received some impressive and much-needed renovations over the last 18 months, these improvements along with the success orchestrated by Montgomery and many others has been a treat to witness.

All of the above has restored a sense of pride that probably hasn’t existed since the club’s early years. And, it’s all the more special considering Sioux City is typically the smallest market in a formidable 12-team league.

After playing all of their exhibition games against their two nearest league rivals geographically, the Explorers will face those same two teams for all of their first 10 games, eight of them at home.

Sioux Falls will be here Thursday and Friday, then the Canaries will host the final two games of a four-game series Saturday and Sunday. A six-game homestand follows with three against Lincoln starting Monday and then a day off before Sioux Falls starts another series here a week from Friday.

After four games May 29 through June 1 in Fargo, another six home games with Gary and Winnipeg will make it 14 out of the first 20 at Lewis and Clark. This isn’t a schedule conducive to a slow start.

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