Georgia Southern’s baseball team is coming off a second-straight appearance in the Southern Conference Tournament championship game and its third in the past four years.
The disappointment over the season-ending injury to Victor Roache, the NCAA leader in home runs in 2011 and first-round draft pick, early in the year was balanced by the emergence of freshman All-American Chase Griffin behind the plate and the team’s strong finish in the conference tournament. Head coach Rodney Hennon is hoping to build on the finish to the 2012 season.
“I was really proud of our guys last year and the way they finished. Last year’s team overcame a lot of adversity along the way, and we really played our best baseball the last week of the year in Greenville,” Hennon said. “We were able to see a lot of young players and players that were new to our program develop over the course of the season. Hopefully, that experience and the momentum we had at the end of the season is going to carry over into this year.”
Hennon and his staff have 19 returning letterwinners and nine starters (seven position, two rotation). The Eagles, who open today against Georgia, also add three redshirts and 10 newcomers.
The Eagles’ 2013 schedule is highlighted by 16 games against 2012 NCAA Regional teams: Appalachian State, Clemson, College of Charleston, Florida, Georgia Tech and Samford, as well as home games against Indiana, Elon and Furman.
In the Field
Georgia Southern brings back an experienced core in the field and at the plate, returning seven starters from last season’s squad that hit .348 with 10 extra-base hits and scored 43 runs during their four-game stint at the conference tournament.
Griffin (10 home runs) was the first Eagle freshman to hit double digits in homers since Steve Walson hit 12 in 1996. The Leesburg native capped off his inaugural season behind the plate by hitting .320 with 42 RBIs in 55 games. Griffin grew leaps and bounds from the start of the season to the end of the year and was a SoCon All-Tournament team selection.
“Chase had to learn on the go in a lot of ways last year, but I thought we saw a lot of improvement from him, Hennon said. “He has continued to make progress defensively and with the bat. He gives us some leadership out there. He is a hardnosed player and sets the tone for us in a lot of ways.”
Backing up Griffin will be Michael McClellan, Brent Pugh (.220, 10 RBIs) and Zac Lenns (.208, 3 RBIs).
GSU returns nearly the entire infield from a year ago but will be without the school’s all-time hits leader in Eric Phillips. The Eagles have a core group of experienced infielders in juniors Pugh and Ben Morgan (.243, 12 RBIs), senior T.D. Davis (.308, 34 RBIs) and sophomore Tyler Avera (.283, 27 RBIs). GSU also returns Casey Kicklighter (.235, 12 RBIs) and Garren Palmer (.309, 12 RBIs) and brought in freshman Cole to compete on the left side of the infield.
“One concern is our numbers in the infield. We don’t have as much depth number-wise, but I do feel that we are very athletic. We have a chance to be really good defensively because we have some guys that can cover some ground in the infield,” Hennon said. “Tyler Avera had an outstanding year as a true freshman at second base for us last year. He has learned a lot from that experience. We have on the left side of the infield two experienced guys in Ben Morgan and Brent Pugh. Over at first base, we saw T.D. really gain some confidence as the season went along, and he really became a big part of our middle of the order. Garren Palmer came on strong down the stretch and in the tournament. Those guys can factor in the middle of the order, and we are comfortable with either one of those guys at first base.”
Despite losing Roache, the Eagles are deep in the outfield. Four Eagles saw action a year ago, including senior Scooter Williams (.290, 25 RBIs), who started all 60 games in center field.
“We have more overall depth in the outfield, and I think we are very athletic out there,” Hennon said. “We have some speed and some arm strength as well. We may have the option to match up and load the lineup with right handed hitters because we have the numbers to do it.”
The Eagles also return Stryker Brown (.257, 24 RBIs), Zach Lenns (.208, 3 RBIs) and Hunter Thomas (.221, 14 RBIs) who combined to record 51 starts in right field in place of Roache, whose injury allowed for a number of guys to gain experience. The outfield includes two Eagles who did not see action in 2012.
“Kyle Streicher, who was a redshirt, has shown a lot of improvement from last year to now. He could see a lot of time in center field,” Hennon said. “Arthur Owens is back from injury this year, and he gives us another experienced guy who can handle the bat.”
GSU also will have in the outfield newcomers Johnny Blue Craig, Robbie Dodds and Teft Hill.
Hennon noted that Lenns can play all three outfield spots and catcher, while Pugh can play second and third base along with catcher. Figuring out where best to use these athletes is something Hennon is looking forward to exploring in preseason practice.
“That is something we are going to experiment a little bit with in preseason practice. It is always a luxury to have guys like that,” he said.
On the Mound
Senior starter Justin Hess and senior closer Kyle Rowe return for GSU. The Eagles posted their lowest ERA since 2004 and the lowest since pitching coach B.J. Green joined the staff in 2010. GSU also finished third in the SoCon with 476 strikeouts.
The Eagles return two of the three members of their weekend rotation from a year ago but will be without Will Middour (3-3, 3.60 ERA) for the season due to arm surgery.
Hess is set to take over the Friday night role vacated by second-round draft pick Chris Beck. Hess came on strong to post a 1-0 record with a 1.86 ERA during two appearances in the SoCon Tournament. An All-Tournament selection, Hess finished 2012 with a 5-3 record and 3.76 ERA in 14 starts.
“Justin Hess really stepped up for us last year, and Justin took upon himself a leadership role. For the second half of the season, Justin was probably our most effective pitcher. We really started to solidify our rotation last year once we stayed with him in the rotation,” Hennon said. “He does an outstanding job setting the tone, whether it be on the field or in the weight room.”
Georgia Southern will look at a number of arms to fill their final two weekend rotation spots. Sam Howard (3-1, 5.18 ERA), Evan Challenger, Josh Stevenson (2-2, 6.18 ERA), Matt McCall, Heath Durand (1-1, 4.15 ERA) and Jason Richman will compete during preseason practice for a starting role.
“Sam Howard has really improved a lot from last year to this year. He looked really strong in the fall,” Hennon said. “Sam was thrown to the fire at times last year, but he is a year stronger and more mature. He potentially gives us a left handed arm in the rotation. Another guy that was impressive in the fall and is vying for a spot in the rotation is Evan Challenger. He did a nice job in the fall of changing speeds and locating the baseball.”
Once the weekend rotation is settled, the bullpen will start to take shape. However, one position already is locked down.
Rowe should be the mainstay in the back end of the Eagles’ bullpen. He was second last season with six saves and posted a 6-2 record with a 4.41 ERA in 25 games.
“Rowe and Leverett were the guys we leaned on last year. It is good that Rowe has that experience, and it gives us some leadership down in the bullpen,” Hennon said. “Depending on how some things shake out in preseason practice, we will define some of those roles as we get ready for opening day. Chris Myers has gotten a lot of experience out of the bullpen and is a guy you can depend on to throw strikes. If we are not using Drew Johnson as a starter, he is another guy we will feel comfortable going to out of the bullpen.”
Also returning from last year’s bullpen are seniors Drew Johnson (1-1, 5.23 ERA), Chris Myers (0-1, 6.43 ERA) and redshirt freshman Clint Taylor. The freshman class also added Zach Schlosser and Ryan Daiss to the bullpen.