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A whirlwind trip north

Copyright © 2018 Albuquerque Journal

There were quite a few new faces when the Santa Fe Fuego of the Pecos Baseball League returned home Thursday to face Alpine.

And it started at the top with manager T.J. Zarewicz taking a short leave to guide the Salina Stockade in a whirlwind, nine-game shift through the Can-Am (Canadian-American) League.

And five of his star players went with him: shortstop Aaron Stubblefield, third baseman Chris Kwitzer, second baseman Robert Garza, outfielder A.J. Flores and pitcher Dillon Sunnafrank.

It’s a blow to the Fuego, but a great opportunity for the players, as well as himself, Zarewicz said.

“Less than two weeks into the season, they have the opportunity to play at the next level,” he said. “We’re happy for those guys. They’re going to be given the chance to prove themselves against a lot better talent.”

Players in the independent Cam-Am league have had experience at affiliated AA ball and higher, with even some former Major Leaguers sprinkled among the rosters.

Stubblefield was one of the top players in the Pecos League, clubbing it at a .525 clip with 11 home runs and 30 RBI. Kwitzer, a rookie pro, was hitting .380 and Flores 389. Sunnafrank was the Fuego’s closer.

The Can-Am League has six teams, but then reaches out for squads to fill the June schedule to give the league teams a break from playing each other so frequently.

In past years, squads such as the national teams from the Dominican Republic, Cuba and China have filled that role.

This year, the league reached out to the Pecos League seeking a team of some of its top players. Once they are done playing, the Can-Am League will hold a dispersal draft of the invitees to encourage some to remain.

Zarewicz, who coached and managed in the American Association of Independent Professional Baseball last season once the Pecos season ended, was invited to manage the team for the first half of its stint.

Until he returns to the Fuego fold, assistant coach Daniel Aldridge will be the interim manager.

“It was kind of a shock to everyone,” Zarewicz said. “No one knew the working of this until very recently. It’s kind of goofy thing, in the middle of the Pecos League season. But it’s a great opportunity for myself and my players. I’m looking to further my career as a coach so it’s something I couldn’t pass up.”

To replace the departed players, the Fuego have brought in recent Metro State grads Trent Maloney, a pitcher, and infielder Donny Ortiz Jr., as well as Jeremy Wagner, a third baseman out of the American Association and second baseman Marcos Corrales from Chihuahua, Mexico.

The Fuego “are kind of in a little transition period,” Zarewicz said. “There’s a little bit of confusion but that’s baseball. Guys get promoted, guys move on, new players come in. It’s a little bit more like affiliated baseball. It’s like guys getting called up and new guys moving in.”

It all puts Zarewicz it a rather odd position.

“I’m pulling double duty,” he said. “I talk with the interim manager every day so, realistically, I’m still in charge of Santa Fe and I have the responsibility of running two professional teams at the same time from two different countries. … I know for fact there’s no one in the world doing that. It’s a tough balancing act. It’s something very unique that doesn’t ever happen in professional baseball.”