Salukis ahead of pace as season begins

By Gus Bode

The SIU baseball team slogged one-by-one into the Abe Martin Field clubhouse Tuesday evening looking like it had been playing mud volleyball rather than baseball.

Everyone’s cleats were caked in mud, some with thick stains reaching up to their calves.

Even head coach Dan Callahan looked down at his muddy feet and said, “Would you look at these shoes?”

Advertisement

Before hitting the showers, some washed off their cleats over a sink with an extended rubber hose, an area that looks like it was made for that very purpose.

While the sport of baseball is made much easier with sunshine and summer as opposed to mud and 40-degree weather, the Salukis loved every second of it.

“Last year our first day outside was when we got to Florida,” said junior infielder Nathan Emrick.

A year ago SIU entered the season with a veteran team and high expectations, but the start of the season reflected their preseason practice limitations. Wintry weather confined all of SIU’s preseason practices to the Sportsblast, a facility that offers an alternative to the outdoors but isn’t ideal for regular season preparation.

Too many indoor practices led too many early losses, with the Salukis starting 0-12 against the toughest non-conference schedule in the Missouri Valley Conference.

“The first two weekends we played Florida Atlantic, who was ranked, and Vanderbilt, who was ranked,” Callahan said. “In retrospect, we might not have beaten those teams. But the fact that we hadn’t been on our field, it just didn’t seem like we were prepared to play.”

The Salukis start the 2005 season in Florida once again, this time with a three-game series against Stetson beginning today at 6 p.m. With 10 inter-squad scrimmages at Abe Martin already under their belts, the Salukis feel much better about where they are at this point compared to last season.

Advertisement

“You can see the steps we’ve made already since the spring,” said senior shortstop/pitcher P.J. Finigan. “I think we’re playing our best ball right now going into [the season].”

With the Salukis’ ace, Eric Haberer, gone to the St. Louis Cardinals, and three longtime starters gone to graduation, the Salukis were projected to finish fifth in the MVC preseason coaches’ poll.

With 15 newcomers, including 11 freshmen, that sounds like a reasonable number even though the Salukis return five starters from last year’s team that was projected to finish second. Despite the 0-12 start and a fourth-place regular season finish in the Valley, the Salukis came within one game of the NCAA tournament after finishing second in the MVC tournament.

Emrick, who said he really likes this team, said he believes they have the talent to surprise a lot of people this season. Finigan, echoing Emrick’s sentiments, said the freshmen are a big reason for the excitement.

“These new guys that we’ve brought in are hard workers. I can’t say enough about that,” Finigan said. “It has really pushed the older guys to keep working hard because these guys are right behind us.”

Finigan will make his debut in the Salukis’ pitching rotation this season, getting Saturday’s start after ace Jason Chavez throws the first pitch of the season Friday. In past seasons Finigan has been used out of the bullpen, although he has made two starts.

Starting behind the plate will be Hunter Harrigan, a junior transfer from Cowley County Community College. Harrigan was drafted by the Texas Rangers after his freshman season at Cowley and turned down offers from Missouri, Auburn and Northern Colorado to be the everyday catcher for the Salukis.

Harrigan’s presence means that Emrick will move to his natural position of middle infielder. Emrick, who caught most of last season and has started at seven positions in his career, will be Finigan’s new double play partner at second base.

“It’s going to be nice to know that just about every day I’m going to go the ballpark and not have the $30,000 question of where I’m going to be playing,” Emrick said.

Harrigan is not the only newcomer expected to contribute right away.

Junior college transfer Chris McCulloch will start at third base, replacing the graduated Nathan Boldt. Freshman Dean Cademartori from Norridge will start in left field, and freshman Ryan Enata from Bloomington has proven he’s good enough defensively to see some time along with junior Erik Alvarez at first base.

Rounding out the weekend’s lineup will be sophomore Kevin Koski in center field, junior Grant Gerrard in right field and junior power hitter Matt Brewer as the designated hitter.

“I think I like our team; we’re young and we’re old,” Callahan said. “I think it’s a good mix. If we play like we’ve played in the fall and in the preseason, and work like we have during the off-season, then I think it’s a team that our coaching staff will get along with well.

“I can’t predict results. I like the way we respect the game and it makes our jobs a little bit more enjoyable.”

Reporter Adam Soebbing can be reached at [email protected]

Advertisement