The SIU baseball team hasn’t made it to the NCAA regional tournament since 1990, before several players on the team were even born. But coach Ken Henderson says he’s prepared his team to change that.
“I told our kids there’s no reason that this can’t be the team. It’s been 22 years; it’s going to happen at some point,” Henderson said. “Are we good enough? We’ll wait and see. I don’t know … but it certainly won’t be because of our lack of effort.”
Saluki baseball kicks off their 2012 campaign Friday when they begin a three-game series against North Florida in Jacksonville, Fla. The Missouri Valley Conference preseason poll predicts the Salukis will finish in sixth place, but junior outfielder Nick Johnson said he doesn’t agree.
“We always seem to be picked low, and I don’t know why that is,” Johnson said. “This year especially, I think that we have a chance to win the MVC. If we don’t, I feel like that’s a failure to us.”
Henderson said Missouri State, which finished first in the MVC preseason poll, is the clear favorite to win the conference. But he also said there’s a lot of parity in the MVC, which means that poll doesn’t mean much.
“Two through six (in the MVC poll) could be in any order, with the number of quality people that all these programs have,” Henderson said. “It was a close vote, and it’s not a big deal. If it helps motivate our kids, then that’s tremendous … but it really doesn’t matter.”
The Saluki offense will get their biggest bat back in junior first baseman Chris Serritella, who sat out all of the 2011 season with a wrist injury. Even though he didn’t play during the spring, he was drafted in the 31st round of the 2011 MLB Draft in June by the Kansas City Royals.
“If he’s healthy last year, he’s not here right now, he’s playing professionally,” Henderson said. “I think he’s a better hitter than he was two years ago.”
Serritella said he wasn’t that tempted to sign because he wanted to end his Saluki career on a positive note. But if he is drafted again this year, he said he will most likely turn pro.
Henderson said Serritella will bat third for the team, and behind him in the four hole will be junior outfielder Jordan Sivertsen. Serritella and Sivertsen, who hit .297 with 48 runs batted in and nine home runs in 2011, were the only Salukis named to the All-MVC preseason team.
“To me, (Sivertsen) might be the key to our season, if he can have a good year like he did last year,” Henderson said. “You can’t pitch around (Serritella) if (Sivertsen) is having a great year, because he has some power potential too.”
With Serritella back, Henderson said it allows him to move sophomore infielder Austin Montgomery and junior infielder Brock Harding down in the lineup after those two hit in the three and four spots last season.
“Those guys had to hit in spots in the lineup that they weren’t exactly suited for last year, so we’ve got guys in a place where they fit in better,” Henderson said. “Those four guys (Serritella, Sivertsen, Montgomery and Harding) will form the nucleus of the lineup in the middle.”
Henderson said junior infielder Wes Neece will bat around the front of the lineup, most likely in the leadoff spot, but he hasn’t set the lineup in stone. He said Sivertsen, Johnson and junior Rennie Troggio will likely man the outfield for the first series while Serritella, Harding, Neece and sophomore Donny Duschinsky will play the infield.
Henderson said senior Brian Bajer will get the call at catcher with senior Dustin Huff who will also see playing time behind the plate.
With the pitching staff, the weekend rotation will consist of juniors Cody Forsythe and Nathan Dorris and senior Cameron Maldonado.
Forsythe was 8-5 with a 2.35 earned run average with 69 strikeouts to 11 walks in 2011, while Maldonado was 5-7 with a 6.19 ERA in his first year as a Saluki.
“Last year, we kind of were just throwing guys into the fire without any experience, and I think that’s why we struggled early on,” pitching coach P.J. Finigan said. “This year, those guys look good now and I think we’ll hit the ground running with them because they do have experience.”
Dorris, of Marion, played with Vanderbilt as a freshman before transferring to Rend Lake Community College for the 2011 season. Finigan said the movement of Dorris’ pitches could be the best on the team.
“If he can go out there and consistently throw strikes, he’s going to have a great year,” Finigan said. “He’s a guy that will be playing pro-ball someday.”
While Finigan said they have high expectations for their starters, the bullpen could be a bright spot for the team, even though injuries wore them down last year.
“There were times (last season) where we looked down at the bullpen, we had six freshmen … and that was it,” Henderson said. “That was nerve-racking last year, but it’s a blessing now as you look back on it, because all of those guys got opportunities that they normally wouldn’t have.”
Even though sophomore left-handed pitcher Tyler Dray led the Salukis with eight saves last year, Henderson said sophomore right-handed pitcher Todd Eaton will get the call to close out games in the ninth.
Finigan said Eaton worked on developing a slider to complement his fastball and change-up because he could barely throw his curveball effectively last season. Finigan said it wasn’t an easy pitch for Eaton to pick up at first.
“After a while it was just like banging your head against a brick wall,” Finigan said. “He’s a hard worker, and once he started throwing it, he got a good feel for it and he’s really taken off from there.”
Finigan and hitting coach Ryan Strain are in their second season, along with Henderson. Henderson, who had an interim title last season, said he feels a lot more comfortable now that his coaching staff has more experience.
First pitch against North Florida will be 5 p.m. Friday.