RICHMOND, Ky. - The Eastern Kentucky University baseball team is headed west from the Cumberland Gap to Johnson City, Tenn. this weekend as the Colonels open their 2012 campaign in a three-game series at East Tennessee State. The following is a preview of the of the 2012 season:
The EKU baseball team might have opened the 2011 season on the sunny shores of Malibu, Calif., but that pleasant locale was not indicative of the stormy non-conference schedule that lay ahead. The Colonels took on power conference foes (Kentucky, West Virginia, Penn State), perennial mid-major contenders (Pepperdine, Western Carolina, Western Kentucky, East Tennessee State, Dayton) and one team (Oral Roberts) that was two runs away from playing in a Super Regional en route to 36 losses, the most by an EKU team since 2002. EKU, however, parlayed that brutal non-conference schedule into a semi-successful Ohio Valley Conference season, recording 11 league wins to earn the No. 5 seed in the OVC Tournament. It was the Colonels’ second consecutive trip to the OVC Tournament following a two-year hiatus from postseason play.
EKU has been picked by league head coaches to finish in the middle of the pack in the OVC this season, but with a deep and revitalized pitching staff and all nine position starters returning from last season, this might be the most talented collection of players head coach Jason Stein has been able to compile during his four-year stint at his alma mater, and the Colonels certainly have their sights set on surprising people with a deep postseason run in 2012.
“Baseball begins and ends with pitching,” Stein said. “And, I feel like our pitching staff has been upgraded talent-wise. But, more importantly, I feel like we have experience, and I’ll take experience over talent any day of the week.”
Plagued by graduation in 2009 and injuries in 2010, the Colonel pitching staff emerged as a bright spot last season, lowering its season ERA nearly two points from 7.48 in 2010 to 5.61 in 2011. EKU will have to deal with the graduation of right-hander Stephen Hefler, last year’s ace who led the staff in wins (seven), games started (15) and innings pitched (88.1) on his way to becoming just the second Colonel starting pitcher since 1990 to be named first team All-OVC. Filling that void, however, will be a slew of old and new talent, led by senior right-hander Matt Harris, who moved into the starting rotation at the end of last season and finished the year with a team-best 2.68 ERA. Harris, who Stein said will begin the year in one of the three weekend spots, pitched his best against conference competition last season, recording a 0.59 ERA against OVC teams while stifiling OVC hitters to just a .168 batting average.
It is possible that a pair of newcomers will join the veteran Harris in the starting rotation at the beginning of the season, as Stein noted that junior transfers Chase Greene and Shane Grimm both looked strong in the fall. Greene is a right-hander from the University of Kentucky who “possesses two electric pitches in his fastball and slider,” Stein said. Grimm is a southpaw out of Walters State Community College who went 16-2 during his two seasons as a Senator. Stein said of Grimm: “He is a much-need left-handed starter who comes from a very good junior college and who should have an immediate impact vying for a starting job.”
Also vying for a starting role at the beginning of the season will be senior right-hander Lincoln Wagner, who labored through injuries last season but looked strong in the fall, and junior right-hander Andrew Wilson, a junior college transfer who posted a perfect 9-0 record with a 2.84 ERA last season at Heartland Community College. Senior left-hander Greg Terry, a crafty, consistent southpaw who has shown the ability to start and come out of the bullpen in his career and who Stein said “can be great with lefty matchups,” could also see starts throughout the season.
“I think our biggest question mark in terms of pitching is our closer role,” Stein said. “It might be a committee, or it might be that someone steps up and takes over that role.”
Two guys Stein suspects might battle over ownership of the closer role are Matt Fyffe and Anthony Bazzani, who were teammates with the Alexandria Beetles of the Northwoods League over the summer. Both right-handers “have the potential to get three to six outs and can be very good late-inning power arms out of the bullpen,” Stein said. Fyffe, a fifth-year senior with a Tommy John surgery under his belt, served as a weekend starter for most of last season and led the EKU staff with 62 strikeouts while posting a very-respectable 4.70 ERA. Bazzani, a lanky junior with a live arm, has had an up-and-down career up to this point, but he exploded while playing in the respected Northwoods League this summer, serving as the Beetles’ closer and using his mid-90s fastball to post a 1.45 ERA, 12 saves and a remarkable 70 strikeouts in only 49.2 innings of work. Because of his lights-out work over the summer, Bazzani has been tabbed one of the top 100 professional prospects in the country by Baseball America heading into the 2012 season.
Three other returning right-handers, junior Austin Rexroat and sophomores Blake Bottoms and Brent Cobb, will also compete for innings this season. According to Stein, Rexroat has changed arm slots and “provides a good matchup against righties,” Bottoms is a “quality arm who projects more as middle relief but who could see spot starts” and Cobb “showed significant improvement in the offseason and his role will definitely increase if he pitches like he did in the fall.”
A trio of freshmen right-handers, Cody Creamer, Ben Gullo and Cameron Langfels, will see their roles either expand or contract based on their performances. Stein said of the freshmen: “Some of them may need more time, but their futures all look bright on the mound.”
Another freshman, left-hander Nick Bozman, arrived on campus with a stress fracture in his back and Stein said he has to be totally confident Bozman is healthy before he is used. “We don’t want to push the envelope with Nick,” Stein said.
“All nine of our position starters are returning and are accustomed to the new bats, so we have an experienced offensive team,” Stein said. “More importantly, though, we have a battle-tested senior class. Our seniors should provide leadership, accountability, consistency of performance and all the other intangibles that a senior class provides.”
Stein also noted that the team’s defense looks much-improved heading into opening day. “Defense has been our Achilles’ heel in years past,” Stein said. “But, if we perform like we did in the fall, our pitchers should not have to rely on the strikeout as much this season.”
EKU’s unquestioned leader around the diamond is senior shortstop Richie Rodriguez, a smooth-fielding on-base machine who has started every game at his all-important position since arriving on campus in 2009 and who has led the Colonels in hitting with a .357 batting average each of the last two seasons. A two-time second team All-OVC selection, Stein said Rodriguez “provides great leadership, rarely strikes out and orchestrates our offense by getting on, stealing bases and scoring a lot of runs.”
Senior A.J. Jamison will be the Colonels’ opening day starter at first base and should hit towards the top of EKU’s lineup. The right-handed hitting Jamison appeared in just two games before April 2 last year, but experienced a resurgence when he was inserted into the starting lineup at first base, batting .472 with nine RBI and eight runs scored during his first nine games at the position. Jamison finished the season batting .313 with 19 RBI and 19 runs scored and, despite being a converted catcher, committed just two errors all season. Stein said Jamison is “a very athletic first baseman who can get to a lot of balls, and out infielders will feel comfortable throwing the ball to him this season.” Junior Alex Hughes, who provided some left-handed pop off the bench last season, has made strides defensively and will spell Jamison at first base while also competing for playing time as a designated hitter.
Senior Dustin Dunlop ended 2011 on a tear and he enters the 2012 season as the Colonels’ starting second baseman. The right-handed hitting Dunlop batted .327 with a team-best 11 RBI over the Colonels’ last 14 games in 2011 and Stein said he has the potential to be an offensive-minded second baseman. Juniors Matt Phipps and Justin Trent will spell Dunlop at second base. Phipps is one of the Colonels’ strongest fielding infielders and he provides speed and the ability to score runs, while Trent, a transfer from Roane State Community College, is more of a run-producing infielder. Stein said that Dunlop, Phipps and Trent are all invaluable because “all three of them are athletic enough to play all three spots in the infield if called upon.”
Sophomore Bryan Soloman is EKU’s starting third baseman entering the 2012 season. The right-handed hitting Soloman was one of two Colonels (the other being Rodriguez) who started all 56 games last year and he finished the season with a team-best 17 doubles, nine home runs and 40 RBI on his way to being named the OVC Freshman of the Year and a Louisville Slugger Freshman All-American by Collegiate Baseball. Stein said Soloman “could be a prolific run producer in the middle of our lineup this year.” Dunlop, Phipps and Trent all have the ability to spell Soloman at the hot corner if needed.
EKU is led in the outfield by senior Jacob Daniel, the Colonels’ lone preseason All-OVC selection. The right-handed hitting Daniel is a four-year starter, although he started two of those years at designated hitter. He broke free of his pigeonholed role as a designated hitter last year, starting 56 games in left field, providing the Colonels with middle-of-the-lineup power and run production and, according to Stein, “turning himself into a quality defender in the outfield.” Daniel hit .337 with nine home runs and a team-best 44 RBI on his way to being named first team All-OVC last season, and he will be looked upon to provide similar numbers in the heart of the Colonel lineup this season.
Fellow veterans Michael Garcia and Austin Grisham will man the other two outfield spots to open the 2012 campaign. Garcia, a weathered senior and a high school teammate of Rodriguez, has been a consistent defender and right-handed hitting bat in the Colonel lineup for four years, as he has started 132 games in his career, almost all of them in right field. Garcia labored through the early part of 2011 but changed his batting stance at the midway point and experienced a renaissance, batting .347 with three home runs and 12 RBI over the final 28 games of the season. Stein called Garcia “a quality defender in the outfield who provides consistency and stability in the bottom of our batting order.” Grisham, a junior center fielder who Stein referred to as the Colonels’ best defensive outfielder, is valuable because he provides another left-handed bat in the lineup and he can run. Grisham’s speed was specifically on display this summer when he swiped 19 bags while winning a Valley League Championship with Covington Lumberjacks.
The three remaining outfielders on the roster are junior Shaun Ball, sophomore Alex Arovits and freshman Demetrius Moorer. Stein called Ball, a transfer from Walters State Community College, “an experienced left-handed hitter who had a great career at Walters State.” Ball will split time between the outfield and designated hitter, but Stein noted that he is so valuable because he can play all over the diamond, including the infield. Arovits played mostly in the infield last season, but has been permanently moved to the outfield. Stein said that Arovits has the raw tools – including, perhaps, the best outfield arm of the six – but that he just needs to find consistency at the plate. Stein said that the coaching staff is very excited about Moorer, because he has exceptional speed and, thus, could be a great defender in any of the outfield positions. “Demetrius is still learning some things at the plate,” Stein said. “But, with his speed, he could be an immediate offensive threat on the basepath.”
EKU returns experience behind the plate in the sophomore duo of Sean Hagen and Steve Ferraro. Hagen was the opening day starter as a freshman last season, but he suffered a thumb injury early on and never reached his full potential. Ferraro showed some pop off the bench and proved to be a serviceable back-up to Hagen in 2011, and he will continue to compete with Hagen for a bulk of the workload early in 2012.
Freshman John Wilson, a raw catcher with a powerful arm, wrapped up the fall season showing significant improvement defensively, Stein said. Stein also noted that Wilson has the ability to play all over the field and might be used as a utility man this season. Junior Johnny Pabst, the only switch hitter on the Colonels’ roster, transferred to EKU from Thomas More College and will have to sit out this spring.
*** The Colonels open the season at 1:00 p.m. on Friday at ETSU. Please note that all three games this weekend have been moved up to 1:00 p.m.