Saluki baseball not short on options in 2016

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Saluki baseball not short on options in 2016

By Thomas Donley, @tdonleyDE

While major league pitchers and catchers are just now reporting for spring training this week, college baseball starts playing actual games this weekend.

The SIU baseball team has more experience compared to last season as it attempts to improve on last year’s 12-46 record.

The Salukis faced the challenge of an underclassmen-heavy roster in 2015 — 26 of 33 players were either freshmen or sophomores.

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“All those guys who were freshmen are not the same guys they were a year ago, even though they’re still young,” Coach Ken Henderson said. They’re sophomores, but they played a lot of baseball last year.”

With new weekend starters in transfer junior left-hander Joey Marciano, junior right-hander Chad Whitmer and sophomore righty Michael Baird, and a new closer in sophomore Ryan Netemeyer, the Salukis have fresh faces at the front and back ends of the pitching staff.

“I really like the [closer] role,” said Netemeyer, who earned one save in 2015. “It’s always exciting to close out a game after your teammates work so hard.”

The position players are mostly familiar faces, and they provide Henderson with multiple options everywhere on the diamond, both through depth and versatility.

No lineup had been set as of Wednesday, but Henderson said several players will see significant playing time in the season’s first series at McNeese State from Friday through Sunday. He said lineups may be influenced by the handedness of the opposing pitcher, with right-handed batters seeing more time against left-handed pitchers and vice versa.

Catcher

Henderson said both returning catchers — senior Taylor Martin and sophomore Nick Hutchins — will receive playing time at McNeese State. He added that Martin and Hutchins will be calling pitches themselves instead of relaying signs from pitching coach P.J. Finigan, as they did last season.

“[Martin and Hutchins] are more experienced,” he said. “They were brand new last year. Coach Finigan has spent a lot of time teaching them.”

Hutchins batted .241 with a team-high three home runs in 35 games last season. Martin batted .211 in 32 games. Martin caught 15 of 42 would-be base stealers last season. Hutchins gunned down eight of 24 base burglars.

“I’ve been working on getting more consistent in the box,” Martin said. “And really fine-tuning my defensive game, starting to study our pitchers and work on pitch calling.”

Corner Infield 

Henderson said junior Ryan Sabo would start at third base, but sophomore Greg Lambert would see time there at some point during the weekend. Those two accounted for the bulk of playing time at third base last season.

Sabo and Lambert are the team’s two leading returning hitters. Sabo led the team with a .292 batting average last season, and Lambert was third at .276. 

Lambert showed his versatility last season, starting 36 games at first base. He spent most of his freshman year as SIU’s No. 3 hitter and said his goal is to bat .350 in 2016.

“I’ve been working on hitting the inside pitch,” he said. “That’s been one of my big things at the plate. [Last year] I was opening up my front shoulder instead of just throwing my hands at the pitch, but that’s what I spent all of Christmas break on. Hopefully that will come together for me in the spring.”

Other options for the Salukis at first include sophomore Logan Blackfan, who Henderson said would see time in the middle of the batting order, and transfer sophomore Drew Curtis, who sat out last season after coming over from Saint Louis University.

Blackfan showed some pop last season, tying for second in the Missouri Valley Conference with 19 doubles. He also struck out a team-high 51 times. Blackfan said he has worked on making better contact this offseason.

“This fall and this spring have been big for me,” he said. “I’ve been working on a lot things — staying inside the ball, putting the ball in play more and not striking out as much as I did last year.”

Middle Infield

Junior infielder Will Farmer started every game for SIU last spring, seeing time at both second and third. He enters this season as the Salukis’ starting shortstop, a position at which he was an all-state selection as a senior at Mundelein High School.

Farmer hit .216 in 2015, mostly hitting in the No. 2 spot in the lineup.

“[Farmer has] come on and taken over the shortstop role,” Lambert said. “He’s really been swinging the bat well lately. He’s improved tremendously.”

Redshirt sophomore Connor Kopach will return to second base after missing all but four games last season with a broken wrist. 

Henderson said Kopach and Farmer are interchangeable at second and short.

Outfield 

Henderson said junior Dyllin Mucha, a left-handed hitter, and transfer junior Ryan Smith, a righty, could form a platoon in centerfield based on the opposing pitcher. 

Mucha batted .260 and stole a team-high five bases in 2015. Smith batted .301 with 19 steals at San Joaquin Delta College last year. 

Lambert could see time in left and right field as well as first and third this spring. Henderson said junior outfielder Jake Hand has looked as good this offseason as he has his whole Saluki career. 

Hand batted .231 with 13 runs batted in last season.

Other outfield options include Curtis and juniors Braden Mosley and J.C. DeMuri.

Mosley batted .254 with two homers in 33 games last season. DeMuri hit .220 with one dinger in 20 games before being shut down with an arm injury.

Designated Hitter

Blackfan saw plenty of time at designated hitter last season. Two others in the mix for at-bats there are sophomore first baseman Hunter Anderson, and transfer junior catcher Kenny King.

Anderson batted .206 in 26 games last year, mostly as a pinch hitter before a knee injury ended his season. His signature moment came April 18, when he collected a walk-off RBI single against Illinois State.

King batted .244 with two homers and 12 RBIs in 27 games for John A. Logan College last year.

The Salukis open the 2016 season at 6 p.m. Friday at McNeese State.

Thomas Donley can be reached at [email protected] or at 618-536-3307

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