Great Falls, MT-The Great Falls Voyagers pitching staff is the only Pioneer League outfit of arms that currently sports an ERA under four at 3.39 through the first 31 games of the season. One doesn't have to search too far into the dugout to find a major reason for that success. In fact, the man leading the Voyagers staff in his first year as pitching coach has been here before.
Back in 2004, Matt Zaleski was a bright-eyed 30th round draft pick of the Chicago White Sox who began his professional playing career in Big Sky Country as a member of the then Great Falls White Sox. Zaleski pitched collegiately at Indiana State University after attending Driscoll Catholic High School in Addison, Illinois. He spent parts of six seasons at Triple-A Charlotte in the White Sox farm system before deciding to call it a career following the 2014 campaign. Zaleski says he knew his time for retirement had come. "It was just time to call it quits. The talent of younger players helped me realize my best days in this game were long behind me."
That Zaleski's first professional coaching stint happens to be in a place he remembers fondly is not lost on the right-hander. "Great Falls has gotten quite a bit bigger than I remember with more restaurants and things to do since I was here 12 years ago."
Zaleski was a White Sox fan growing up in the Chicagoland area. He knew one day he'd go into coaching. "I'm very thankful to the Chicago White Sox for giving me this opportunity. I thoroughly enjoy helping develop the pitchers in any way possible."
Like the 2016 squad, the 2004 Great Falls pitching staff led the Pioneer League in earned run average and helped the team finish with a 42-33 overall record for the best mark in the North Division. That team's ERA ended up being 4.24 for the season. Zaleski made 24 appearances out of the bullpen and had three saves with a 1-1 record and a 3.35 ERA of his own. "We had a great coaching staff with John Orton as the manager, Richard Dotson as the pitching coach, and Mark Haley as the hitting coach. Our team learned so much from them. We came out and played hard every single day." In just over 40 innings pitched for Great Falls in 2004, Zaleski struck out 34 and walked only six.
The 11-year minor league veteran made the natural move from on top of the mound to being the first one to make visits to what can often be described as the loneliest place on a baseball diamond. Zaleski says being a pitcher takes extreme focus every time you're out there. He wants his guys to "pitch to their strengths, attack the bottom of the zone with their best stuff, and compete even when things aren't going their way. We have good talent on this pitching staff and their ability to throw quality strikes and to let the defense work behind them has been the biggest part of why we're having so much success this season."
In addition to posting the lowest team ERA this season, the Voyagers pitching staff currently leads the Pioneer League in fewest walks and fewest home runs allowed. Great Falls is also tops in the league in strikeouts and lowest opponent's batting average.
As he makes the transition to coaching, the 34-year-old Zaleski is thankful for all the wonderful moments in his playing career. "My best memory as a player is from 2005 when I was with Kannapolis and we won the South Atlantic League championship. I'm just grateful to have had so many good years in the White Sox organization with great teammates and coaches."
Zaleski says he's very pleased at how his post-playing career has started with the Voyagers on the field. He's also enjoying his time back in Montana off the field, which means an opportunity to work on some fly fishing. "No luck in the fishing yet, and I repeat YET, because I'm not done trying. I've seen a lot of fish and people catch them but they haven't chosen my line yet. It's coming. This part of the country is beautiful. I love the scenery."
This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.