The exhibitions are over and the regular season is set to begin, as the Evansville Otters' whirlwind training camp yielded a 24-man roster that maybe one of the most talented in the franchises history.
"It was a little nerve-racking," said Otters catcher Dakota Phillips. "I mean, you had a lot of guys trying to earn spots out here."
"When you see the numbers," said Otters starting pitcher Tyler Vail, "you can just do the math yourself and see that not everybody can make the team."
"It's the worst day a manager can have, that final cut day," said Otters manager Andy McCauley.
From 35 hopefuls, the largest camp in manager Andy McCauley's long tenure as Otter manager, there are now 24 who will carry the Evansville banner into battle. However, the winnowing down process didn't come without pain.
"At the end of the day, you want to take your best 24 into opening day, and I think we're there now," said McCauley. "But there were some tough releases. The second round of cuts is tough. We lost some good people."
"It's tough." said Otters starting pitcher Dalton Stambaugh. "It's never easy getting the phone call saying you're released. But it's part of professional baseball."
And who should know better than Dalton Stambaugh. A 30th round draft pick of the Baltimore Orioles out of Morehead State University in 2019. A short stay at Baltimores Gulf Coast Rookie League team, and he was sent packing. But after a year away, and with a recommendation from former Otter Patrick McGuff, he's earned himself tomorrow night's opening day start against Schaumburg.
"Just a real competitor on the mound, with some really good pitchability and composure," said McCauley. "Worked out some games in Paducah and really threw ball well for us throughout the spring. Throws strikes and keeps hitters off balance."
"It was nice to just be out competing for a spot and playing baseball again," said Stambaugh. "It's been a year off, so I was trying to get back into the groove of things."
On the other side of the spectrum is John Schultz. Considered past his prime and aged out under the old Frontier League rules, the 32 year-old outfielder grinded out a spot after a 3-year hiatus away from the game.
"An overall appreciation that I can still do this," said Schultz. "I've been out of the game for three years. I had a real job, a desk job and it was tough. I really missed being on the field. I really missed the comraderie in the locker room. I really missed the fans."
Veteran, rookie, or somewhere in between, tomorrow night's opener in Schaumburg will be the first real game in a long time for most of these players, and the same old feelings are coming back.
"The butterflies are going to be there regardless," said Phillips. "I mean, it's opening day, plus a lot of guys didn't play last year. I'm still excited and ready to go."
I think that once we get out to the stadium and we stretch for the first time as a team," said Vail. "I think it's going to hit us. Thursday, when we get out there it's going to set in that these games mean something."