Peoria Building Team Chemistry

At the beginning of the baseball season, Peoria manager Casey Kopitzke watched as his new team came together for the first time. For any team, there are challenges in building chemistry from day one. The Chiefs clicked as a team from the start.

A Minor League baseball player can never get too comfortable. That's a lesson every ballplayer has learned.

Paul Hoilman made himself at home in Boise's Memorial Stadium, crushing a record 17 home runs for the Cubs' short-season affiliate. The slugger earned his shot to join the Peoria Chiefs, beginning another new transition, starting over in a new place.

Hoilman finds himself in a new home, building bonds with new teammates, while adjusting to the changes on the fly.

"You're in a whole new part of the country -- northwest to the midwest," said Hoilman. "The weather is different, time of year is different (compared to playing in short-season Boise) and the coaching staff is different. There are a lot of similarities and differences at the same time."

The world of minor-league baseball can often be unpredictable, especially for players. Change is a constant, and everyone must conform.

"A lot of it is just getting to know each other and how we play the game on the field, then, of course, you have personalities to get to know off the field," Hoilman said. "It's a whole process of getting to know each other and growing as a team."

The Peoria Chiefs came together with a few familiar faces. However, 23 players joined the Cubs' Low-A affiliate for the first time. Peoria's third-year manager, Casey Koptizke, sees numerous positives from this year's Chiefs squad.

During preseason drills, Kopitzke's Chief players were divided into small groups. He noticed quick chemistry between the players in one group, and again for the next group. The team unity was forming naturally, and early.

"Everybody on the club, this is your family," Kopitzke said. "You spend more time together as a team than you do with your family. We focus a lot on pulling for each other, creating that bond, because it's a natural bond. You're all pulling in the same direction."

The Chiefs' chemistry is evident with each pitch of the game. The players stand at the dugout's top step, watching each moment anxiously, cheering on their teammates. It's natural to support a friend, but also indicates a team possesses the will to win.

"How a team stays in the game will almost always reflect how well that team can win ballgames, because you create an atmosphere of expecting to win or an atmosphere of expecting to lose," said Chiefs reliever Jeff Lorick. "If everybody is sitting on the bench with their heads down, dragging their feet, you can tell they expect to lose. The other team can sense it, and it's sharks in the water."

Lorick, a 24-year-old right-handed pitcher, was dealt to Chicago in a trade sending Derrek Lee to Atlanta in August of 2010. He joined Peoria late in their season, then helped the High-A Daytona Cubs win the Florida State League championship in 2011.

Lorick believes that on-field chemistry and off-the-field chemistry coincide, creating a winning team.

"If everyone has confidence that those things you're expected to do get done," said Lorick. "All of a sudden, it becomes contagious, that everybody does well and everybody wins."

Peoria's record stands at 10-16, entering Thursday's contest with Kane County, though its record is not a fair indication of the team's play thus far.

"It's so close, it has only been a few pitches and a few innings," Lorick said. "We have all the pieces, we have all the pitching, we have great hitters. When we've made mistakes, we have compounded those mistake and it has turned into losses. If we eliminate those, we can get on a streak."

A key moment for the Chiefs' season came on Tuesday, April 24th, a getaway day matinee game with Lansing. As the team prepared for a lengthy nine-hour bus ride, Peoria's 2-0 ninth-inning lead disappeared, and the game appeared bound for extra innings. The bus was waiting outside O'Brien Field.

In the bottom of the ninth inning, Paul Hoilman stepped up to the plate with the bases loaded and uncorked a walk-off grand slam, handing Peoria a key win, while saving it from an even later night on the road.

"A walk-off grand slam and much-needed win for our team in Peoria, that was special," said Hoilman.

After celebrating as a team on the field, the Chiefs packed into the bus and traveled to Midland, MI. for their long road trip.

"They get to know each other, get familiar with each other, and if they don't, it's a quick learning process," Kopitzke said of the team's travels. "I think road trips are great for the on-the-field and off-the-field aspect because you get together so much; you're on the bus, in the hotel, eating together, and then you're at the ballpark together. Road trips early in the year, I think, are crucial for developing that chemistry and makeup."

Peoria's sluggish start can be attributed to inconsistent play, though a positive has emerged as a result. When 20-year-old Cuban phenom Gerardo Concepcion was roughed up in his second start, unable to escape the first inning, the Chiefs' bullpen stepped in.

Willengton Cruz, Bryce Shafer, Luis Liria and Jeffery Lorick combined for 7.1 of relief pitching, backing their starter after a rough outing.

"It goes back to the makeup of the guys, they're all looking to pick each other up," Kopitzke said. "If somebody struggles, you've got somebody else that's going to pick them up. The next guy up is going to pick them up. Whatever the starter does, it doesn't matter, if they leave runners on base, (the bullpen is) going to finish the inning for them and keep us in the game."

Prior to the season, the Chiefs' manager delivered a simple, clear message to his team.

"I just asked them to play hard, play the game the right way and give me everything they've got," said Kopitzke. "I've seen that so far. They've definitely gone out and played hard, played the game the right way.We're learning. We're a month in, and got a long way to go, but I like what I've seen.

As the Chiefs continues to build chemistry, they hopes to improve their record. Hoilman, who has hits in his last 15 games, is optimistic the team will continue to grow, just as the Boise Hawks did last season. Hoilman has high hopes for 2012.

"I think we've got a championship-caliber team," he said. "It's a very similar team to what we had in Boise. In Boise, we were able to make the playoffs. We didn't win it last year, but we were there, we were at the dance, and I think it's something this team can easily do this year."

Chris Emma has covered college athletics and professional baseball for FOX Sports since 2009. He covered the Nebraska Cornhuskers for Big Red Report, and currently covers the Northwestern Wildcats and Chicago Cubs.
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