TRAVERSE CITY — There will be a lot of firsts for the Traverse City Pit Spitters in their inaugural season, with each feat having a new name attached to it.
The first game, first pitch and first win in franchise history went to Santa Clarita, California native Chase Wheatcroft, and it was all by design.
“It was an honor to be the first day starter,” Wheatcroft said. “It is awesome being on a brand new team and going in blind. It’s great being the first. You can only get better from here.”
Wheatcroft just finished his college baseball career at California State University-Stanislaus and pitched in the Northwoods League last year with the Battle Creek Bombers under new TC head coach Josh Rebandt.
Rebandt gave Wheatcroft the opening day nod because he knew exactly what to expect out of his former player and Northwoods League veteran.
“Giving the ball to Chase on opening day was because there is comfortability there,” the first-year head coach said. “I have seen him have to pitch out of some really big situations. He has experienced some big games over four years of college baseball where he’s really had to dig deep. In knowing that, Chase is a guy that I respect a lot — just in terms of the way he competes on the mound — he really wants to win and Traverse City wants to win too. I thought it was a good match on opening night.”
Wheatcroft gave up one run in five innings of work in the first game of the season, but that is just the beginning according to Rebandt.
Wheatcroft spent his first two years of college eligibility at The College of the Canyons in his hometown before transferring to CSU-Stanislaus. Wheatcroft still has two semesters of school left to obtain his criminal justice degree and plans to become a first responder.
He is one of three pitchers on the Pit Spitters to use up all college eligibility — joined by college teammate Kevin Hahn and Toccoa Falls graduate Austin Shea.
Teams in the Northwoods League are allowed to carry four graduated senior pitchers on their roster and Rebandt brought these three pitchers on for good reason.
“Having three veteran pitchers — guys who have spent four years in college baseball — is really big,” Rebandt said of the trio. “If they are coming to play here after their senior season is completed you know that they really want to keep playing. It’s not about bypassing a summer.
“Those guys at the top really want to be here and it shows veteran leadership that trickles down to the younger guys who are having their first experience in collegiate summer baseball.”
Wheatcroft is a career starting pitcher with limited appearances coming in relief. This spring he pitched 75 innings for CSU-Stanislaus and totaled 250.1 innings in his college career with a career earned run average of 3.36.
His experience both in college and in the Northwoods League will be an integral part of leading a 15-man pitching staff from the top of the rotation.
Rebandt looks to lean on Wheatcroft and the other veteran pitchers to help ease the transition for younger guys into the 76-day grind during which the Pit Spitters play 72 games.
“The veteran leadership in the clubhouse always comes from someone who is a bit older and a bit more mature,” Rebandt said. “He is a bit older and more mature. He also has a really good idea of how I run things and can even help be a player-coach in some ways.
“Nothing is new to him and I think that is going to be beneficial because he might be able to give the other pitchers some pointers.”
While nothing in the Northwoods League may feel new to Wheatcroft, moving to Traverse City for the summer from California is a whole new feel.
The change from a concrete jungle to the beautiful scenery in northern Michigan has been the biggest transition for the pitcher.
He says the baseball culture is much of the same, but he smirked as he said “It is way greener out here, there is grass and trees.”
He said once baseball is over for him, he wants to be a deputy with the Los Angeles Sheriff Department.
The Pit Spitters are hoping he can help lock up many more records and firsts for the budding franchise, but that remains to be seen — Wheatcroft was drafted in the 37th round of Tuesday’s baseball draft by the Oakland A’s.