BRIDGEWATER – The Bridgewater baseball team is looking forward to making the 2017 season a distant memory.
A year ago, the Eagles finished with a 14-25 overall record, including a 6-14 mark in ODAC play, and missed the conference tournament for the first time in Curt Kendall's 32-year tenure as the team's head coach. In the ODAC preseason poll, the Eagles were picked in a tie for last place along with Eastern Mennonite.
"Where we finished last year and where we were picked in the preseason poll is certainly motivating," Kendall said. "We played a lot of young guys last year and they gained a ton of experience and learned a lot about what it takes to compete and win at this level. They're poised and determined to show we belong among the better teams in the conference."
If the Eagles are going to make a move upward in the standings, it will have to start with the pitching staff, especially the starters. A year ago, the staff posted an ERA north of six runs a game and the starters averaged less than four innings per start.
Six pitchers – three righthanders and three southpaws – are vying for spots in the rotation. The righties include junior Tristan Daywalt, sophomore Jacob Benfield and junior transfer Kyle Hasforth. The lefties are junior Andrew Berry and seniors Chad Lenz and Jordan Showalter.
Kendall noted that the first two weekends of play would help determine who will emerge as the team's four starters. "All of those guys are capable and all have had some success," Kendall said.
"Daywalt had a tough year last year after a solid first year in the program. Benfield benefitted from pitching in the Valley League last summer and Hasforth had some success at the Division II level. The lefties, Lenz was one of top guys before missing last year with arm surgery. Showalter is looking to regain the form he had before having surgery. Andrew Berry, he's worked as hard as anyone and looks like he's ready to take the next step," Kendall added.
"Last year our starters averaged a little over three innings per start and that's not going to get it done," Kendall continued. "We're looking for at least five quality innings out of our starters."
After the four starters have been determined, the other two will become key components in a deep bullpen. They will join seniors Kyle Jones and Josh Lasam, transfer Brandon Floyd and junior lefty Samuel Imeson as top options in the middle innings. Seniors Ian Mayes and Johnny LaVoie, both battling injuries, should also be in the mix.
Kendall expects to have a lefty-righty option available for the back end. Hard-throwing freshman righthander Ryan Skadra and sophomore transfer Tucker Garrison will be available in closer-type situations.
"We want our pitchers to minimize walks, attack hitters, pitch to contact," said Kendall. "If we do those things we can be successful on the mound."
The Eagles' everyday lineup going into the season is loaded with experience as only one freshman is expected to start.
Starting in the outfield will be seniors Austin Batten and Parker Mead along with junior Garrison Wright. Batten makes the move from second base to left field and will bat leadoff while the speedy Mead will hit in the two hole and roam centerfield. Wright get the nod in left to start the season.
Batten has been a fixture in the lineup the past three seasons and is a career .265 hitter. He hit .315 a sophomore before dropping off to .252 a year ago. Wright is also looking to bounce back from a down year as his average dropped to .250 last year after hitting .291 as a freshman.
Transfers Floyd and Brett Lysohir could also impact the lineup in the outfield along with freshman Grabeel.
Senior captain Chris King returns behind the dish and will hit third in the order. King carries a .342 career average into his senior year. King will be a fixture in the lineup and will also play some in the OF as well as serving as the designated hitter at times. Sophomore Phillip Herber will back up King behind the plate and should see an expanded role in his second season. Cameron Stanley, a junior, returns to add experience behind the plate and he could also see time in the DH role. Freshmen Trenton Breeden and Justin Bales provide depth at the position.
Anchoring the infield will be sophomore shortstop Jacob Talley. Talley led the team with a .367 average and was a third-team All-ODAC pick. He carries a 21-game hitting streak into the 2018 season.
Lasam will get the starting nod at third and brings a strong glove to the left side of the infield. He will also play short and second base when needed.
On the right side of the infield, sophomore Luck Paczewski moves across the diamond to play first base. Paczewski had a solid first year in the program as hit for a .330 average. He will also see time at his original position over at third base.
Jake Bailey and Brett Jones will also get plenty of at-bats at the season. Both will see time at first base and as the DH. Jones can also move out to right field. Bailey hit .281 last year while Jones led the team in RBIs with 25.
Sophomore JT Creed returns to the infield mix after hitting .292 as a freshman. Creed could see action at third or second base. First-year player Kevin Navedo will also vie for playing time in the infield.
The lone freshman to break into the starting lineup will be second baseman Michael Morgan. "Morgan runs well and has some gap-to-gap power," said Kendall.
Kendall is excited about the potential of the offense. "We've got a lot of experience and at times will have five seniors in the lineup. We have a lot of flexibility with our roster. We will have the opportunity to adjust the lineup and still have quality hitters in the batting order."
While the Eagles return plenty of experience for the upcoming season, Kendall is excited about the youngsters the team has added to the program.
"We have some talented young kids. Obviously, Morgan has come in and he'll be in the starting lineup. Skadra is going to make an impact on the mound and when he gets totally healthy we think he can be an impact hitter. Grabeel can help us in the outfield and on the mound. Pulliam is another young arm. He locates well and has a good breaking ball. A guy like Kevin Navedo can help us. He swings the bat pretty well."
Kendall is looking forward to the start of the season on Sunday when the Eagles travel to Brevard College for a doubleheader.
"I feel like we have good talent," Kendall said. "We have emphasized learning how to compete on every pitch until the last out of the game. That's what it's going to take to win ballgames."