RICHMOND, Ky. – As the Colonels marched to their league-leading 16th Ohio Valley Conference regular season championship and a 31-win campaign in 2012, EKU led the nation in home runs per game, was second in total home runs, fourth in slugging and sixth in doubles.
Eastern went 31-23 overall in 2012 and tied Austin Peay for first place with a 19-7 OVC mark. The 2013 season begins on Friday with a three-game series at Charleston Southern.
The 2013 squad likely won’t display that kind of power. Fifth-year head coach, and Eastern Kentucky alumnus, Jason Stein predicts this year’s team may hit half as many homers as last season’s total of 66. That is due in large part to the loss of five senior starters from the 2012 championship team.
“Offensively this is going to be a different team than last year,” Stein said. “We’re going to have to manufacture more runs. Overall we have more team speed. We’ll need to be balanced throughout our line-up. We need to be tough outs one through nine.”
Numerically, the loss of 12 letter winners, both at the plate and on the mound, adds up to 59 percent of the runs scored, 57 percent of the runs driven in, 58 percent of the home runs hit, 52 percent of the wins and 48 percent of the strikeouts from the 2012 team.
Among the players lost to graduation was shortstop Richie Rodriguez. The Miami, Fla., native put together one of the best seasons in program history. Rodriguez earned All-America honors from Collegiate Baseball, the National Collegiate Baseball Writers Association (NCBWA), the American Baseball Coaches Association (ABCA) and CollegeBaseballInsider.com after batting .377 with 14 home runs, 18 doubles, 46 RBIs and 59 runs scored. He was also named one of three finalists from across the nation for the Brooks Wallace Shortstop of the Year Award. In July, Rodriguez was drafted in the ninth round by the New York Mets.
“You can’t replace a Richie Rodriguez, I don’t care how you slice it you can’t do it,” said Stein. “You can’t replace an All-American with the snap of your fingers. That’s why we have to have balance, one through nine, in the line-up.”
Other losses include first baseman A.J. Jamison (.302, 7 HR, 39 RBIs, 41 R), second team All-OVC second baseman Dustin Dunlop (.316, 3 HR, 21 RBIs, 36 R), first team All-OVC left fielder Jacob Daniel (.311, 6 HR, 48 RBIs, 42 R) and right fielder Michael Garcia (.270, 7 HR, 26 RBIs, 24 R).
Pitching losses include first team All-OVC Matt Fyffe (9-1, 2.54 ERA) and Matt Harris (5-5, 5.65 ERA).
The cupboard is far from empty. Returning starters include catcher Sean Hagen (.252, 1 HR, 19 RBIs, 25 R), third baseman Bryan Soloman (.266, 14 HR, 46 RBI, 30 R), center fielder Austin Grisham (.320, 3 HR, 31 RBIs, 38 R) and designated hitter Alex Hughes (.270, 4 HRs, 17 RBIs, 13 R).
On the mound, second team All-OVC pick right-hander Shane Grimm (6-4, 3.14 ERA) is back. Anthony Bazzani (1-1, 3.40 ERA, 8 SV), who was drafted in the 31st round by Baltimore, is also back. Bazzani will move to a starting role in 2013.
The following is a position-by-position breakdown of the 2013 Colonels.
Despite losing two weekend starters, Stein believes this year’s staff still carries a lot of experience. Bazzani is penciled in as the Friday starter. Grimm will get the ball on Saturdays. Junior right-hander Brent Cobb will start on Sundays. Cobb had a 4-1 record and a 4.50 ERA working out of the bullpen a year ago.
“We’ve got two seniors and a junior in our weekend rotation,” Stein said. “That’s why I feel comfortable with our level of experience returning. Bazzani has the stuff to be a Friday night guy, he just needs to go out and do it. Being an all-conference pitcher, Grimm is already proven. Cobb is a strike thrower and knows how to pitch.”
Potential mid-week starters include Chris Cervantes, Ben Gullo and Cameron Langfels. Cervantes, a freshman right-hander, had a great fall and preseason. Gullo, a right-handed sophomore, excelled last summer in the Midwest Collegiate League where he was picked to start the all-star game. Langfels, also a right-handed sophomore, has pitched well in the fall and preseason as well.
Three others could see action out of the bullpen or as mid-week starters. They include right-handers Cody Creamer, Eric Nerl and Trey Salisbury. Creamer is a sophomore with 14 appearances under his belt. Nerl and Salisbury are freshmen.
Stein will look to right-handers Austin Rexroat and Blake Bottoms, along with lefties Nick Bozman, Jake Hall and Adam Neidlinger as match-up specialist out of the bullpen.
No clear closer has emerged, but the eighth and ninth inning options include junior college transfers Matt Lynch and Myles Scott, and senior Chase Greene.
“This is the best group of catchers I’ve coached,” Stein said. “We literally could start any of the three guys, that’s not usually the case.”
Those three are Hagen, Steve Ferraro and John Wilson. Hagen has had the bulk of the work. He handles the staff very well. Ferraro, a junior, had a great fall but is recovering from a late-fall injury. Wilson, a sophomore, is athletic and may have the best arm on the team.
Hughes will move from the designated hitter role to the starter at first base. The senior has power and experience. Soloman will anchor the left side of the infield at third base. He’s a middle of the order hitter and a solid defender. Matt Phipps is set to start at shortstop. The senior had a great fall, committing only one error.
There’s a battle brewing at second base between a pair of freshmen. Doug Teagarden, a two-time all-state selection, hits from the left side. Kenny Hostrander, a right-hander, is also a two-time all-state honoree.
“Doug had a great fall, but Kenny has had a great preseason,” said Stein. “We’re going to let them continue to battle it out even after the season starts”
Freshman Luke Wurzelbacher can play throughout the infield and will see time as a defensive replacement late in games.
“This is the best outfield, defensively, that I’ve coached during my time at Eastern,” Stein said. “It’s anchored by senior center fielder Austin Grisham, probably the best center fielder in our conference.”
Grisham led the squad last season with 16 stolen bases. He was second with a .320 average and 23 multi-hit games.
Freshman Kyle Nowlin will start in right field. He can run, hit for power and is a great defender. Demetrius Moorer will start in left field. The sophomore can hit at the top of the order. He can create with his speed both offensively and defensively.
Senior Shaun Ball hits from the left side and can play all three outfield spots. Freshman TJ Alas had a great preseason and has put pressure on the corner outfielders because of what he can do at the plate.
“We could be a better defensive team than last year,” said Stein. “We had a good fall defensively. The freshmen who will play are absolutely not defensive liabilities. We’re really strong up the middle with three solid catchers, Phipps at short and Grisham the best center fielder in the league. It might be the best we’ve had in my time at EKU.”