07/12/2023 10:19 AM
Highland, IN- The Northern League announced the 2023 All-Star rosters and six Indiana Panthers will participate in the yearly tradition. The game will take place on Tuesday, July 18 at 7:10 p.m. CT at Oil City Stadium.
The five Panthers selected to showcase their skills are Josh Lamb (C) , Jason Ballard (OF), Kevin Bushnell (1B/DH), Hunter Niksch (RHP), Adan Vega (LHP), and George Bilecki (OF).
When you look at the spans the Panthers have played their best baseball, all of these guys have been contributing. Panthers’ coach Deandre Gilmore recognizes their high-grade skill, but also points out how loyal and passionate they are for the team.
“They have been tremendous for the team. All of them are putting up good numbers, but what is more important is how team oriented they are.”
Josh Lamb (Marian University) started the season slow, but has hit the ball better than anyone on the team in the last handful of games. In Lamb’s last 22 at-bats, he is hitting .409 with four RBI’s. Deandre Gilmore has noticed Lamb’s progress for significantly longer than that.
“He [Lamb] has been hitting the ball consistently for the past 3 weeks. He deserves the all-star nod.”
Jason Ballard (South Suburban) has not even played at the collegiate level yet. Right after concluding his senior year at Homewood-Flossmoor High School, Ballard has suited up in a Panthers uniform and has impressed. Ballard is slashing .341/.380/.477 in the 12 games he has played. Ballard leads the team with seven stolen bases and tied for second with three doubles. Ballard also has a homer and six RBIs. Gilmore is impressed by the impact the youngster has made as well as his progression through the year.
“Ballard is the youngest out of all the all-star selections. He is poised and getting better game by game.”
Ballard is taking in the moment and feeling rewarded and confident after having a strong start to the season against older and experienced players.
“I feel great and excited to participate in the game. It adds more significance knowing the competition in the league and being able to perform the way I did in a league full of older guys.”
Kevin Bushnell (Benedictine) has been the best offensive player on the team as well as one of the best in the whole Northern League. After winning a Player of the Week Award, to no one’s surprise, Bushnell was named an all-star. In 18 games, Bushnell slashed an unbelievable team-leading .391/.447/.656. Bushnell also has three home runs, 16 RBIs, and seven extra base hits. Bushnell emphasized how much this means for him. However, as he often does, Bushnell continues to hold himself to a high standard.
“I expect myself to be playing at the level that I am playing at. It is rewarding knowing that I am playing at a high level. There are parts of my game that I still need to clean up.”
This would be hard to beat, but Bushnell agreed that this is one of the better starts to a season he has had at any level of baseball in his whole life. What really separated this season for Bushnell was the joy he has had with the Panthers’ coaches and players.
“It has been fun to put up solid numbers in the Northern League and especially has been fun doing it with the Panthers as I enjoy being around my coaches and teammates every game.”
Hunter Niksch (Trine) is one of the two Panther pitchers on the all-star roster. Niksch has been getting better and better throughout the season and has continued to solidify his case as the Panthers’ ace.
“Making the all-star team proves that I have had a great season and I am living up to my expectations I put on myself. I feel great going into the rest of my starts knowing I can hang with the best of the best.”
Niksch has a 3.21 ERA in three starts. In those three starts, Niksch has generated 14 innings pitched where he has only allowed five earned runs while striking out 15. Gilmore praised Niksch’s toughness and said how huge he has been for the team.
“Hunter has been consistent with fighting through rough innings and limiting the opponent to minimum damage and giving our team a chance to win.”
Adan Vega (Joliet Junior College) has been very reliable out of the bullpen and has even started a couple games. Vega has several saves on the year and has come through even when taking the ninth in back-to-back games in some cases. In 19 innings, Vega has an impressive 3.32 ERA.Vega has 15 strikeouts in his eight games pitched (2 games started). Vega’s been a do-it-all pitcher for the Panthers this season and has made Deandre Gilmore’s job much easier. As he has done all season, Gilmore continued to praise Vega and share his appreciation for the pitcher.
“He [Vega] has been a guy we can count on to either close out games or start them this year for us.”
Vega even accomplished a challenge that he gave himself at the beginning of the year by making the all-star roster.
“I've had my eyes on it since the beginning of the summer so it means a lot. I feel mostly honored because it's a reflection of my performance on the field and it feels good to get recognition for the work I put in to get where I'm at.”
George Bilecki (Lewis) joined the Panthers after beginning with the Oilmen and has done nothing but impress since. In 54 at-bats, Bilecki is hitting an impressive .315 complemented with a .373 OBP. Bilecki is second on the team with 17 hits including a home run and six RBIs. Gilmore has often called Bilecki one of the better all-around players on the team as he has played terrific defense at all three spots in the outfield for the entirety of his time with the Panthers. Bilecki said the transition to teams could not have been more smooth, as he credited his teammates and the coaching staff for helping him showcase his potential. He also shared some familiarity he had with Panthers’ assistant coach Scott Nowakoswi.
“Having Coach Scott as a coach and in the dugout again definitely made the transition smoother. Coach Dre [Gilmore] and Scott have been awesome all summer as well as every other dude on the team. The guys are great, and things are going good right now. The fellas and I can’t wait to get back to work in the second half of the season and push for a spot in the playoffs.”
Bilecki also shared a story about how badly he wanted to get the nod in the all-star game due to his two college friends jokingly poking fun at him for not making it last year with the Southland Vikings. Bilecki did not forget that and made sure to alert them once he found out he was nominated, as the inside joke helped him find even more motivation to enhance his game to the highest level.
“Both let me hear it and gave me a hard time all throughout the year and still do to this day. After hearing I made it this year, my former teammates were the first two people I told.”