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2008 UMBC Baseball Outlook
The 2008 Retriever baseball squad has had a number of injuries to overcome and a substantial amount of rehabilitation to endure since the 2007 season. With a slew of 10 talented newcomers to supplement the 20 returning letterwinners and a good fall training season behind them, however, head coach John Jancuska is hopeful that this could be the year that UMBC makes its mark in the America East Conference.
The Retrievers have been dealt the losses of a four-year starter in Mike Scheffel, two outstanding two-year transfer players in Steve Bowen and Steve Gale, and strong relief from Matt Buchholz, to name a few. In addition, the Retriever pitching staff is collectively coming off a multitude of injuries and rehab, but has shown promise and even thrown a few gems while operating at less than full strength in the past few seasons.
Put all the Retriever starters, relievers, and closers together when they are all at 100 percent and Jancuska sees a different outcome from his squad’s seventh-place conference finish in 2007. Once again, Jancuska said, “It is absolutely a big key to stay healthy on the mound. After that, nothing ever changes in baseball. The winning formula is [to have] three walks and hit by pitch per nine, make the routine play, and hit through the lineup. If we do all that, we can be in every game and have a chance to compete for a conference championship.”
With a 2007 NJCAA Division II Rawlings Gold Glove award-winner ready to fill UMBC’s void at first base and an incoming class, which is full of hitting strength, Jancuska forecasts a strong season for the Retrievers.
“We think, based on our fall, the kids we have returning and recruits that we got, that we’ll hit and with power through the lineup,” Jancuska said. “Defensively we should be ok,” he said. “We’ll have some new people at some new positions, but we should be okay.”
The Retrievers return six of their nine starting lineup players and four of their six starting pitchers from last season and will see an immediate impact from the incoming class in all aspects of the game.
The Retriever pitching staff fought off injuries for most of the season last year and looks to return stronger than ever in 2008.
At the forefront of the Retriever starters is sophomore left-hander Ed Bach, who was limited to just three appearances last year before sustaining a season-ending injury. Bach has had close to a full year to recover from his injury and will likely return to previous form as in his debut season with the Retrievers when he was named to the conference All-Rookie team and ranked in the top 10 in most categories.
[Ed Bach] is a known quantity in the league,” Jancuska said. “If he has command, which he usually does, then he’s hard to hit. He’s capable of winning every time he goes out.”
Though he made just three starts in 2007, Bach held a 2.65 ERA through those three games, including pitching eight scoreless innings in a win over Wagner and earning America East Pitcher of the Week honors for his performance. Bach also held his opponents to a .242 and averaged 10.59 strikeouts per nine innings pitched during the three-game span.
The Retrievers also return junior Dan Blewett, who made six appearances, starting five of them, in 2007 before sustaining a season-ending injury and redshirting for the year. Despite his shortened season, Blewett ranked third among pitchers with 30 or more innings pitched with a 5.81 ERA while tallying 29 strikeouts in 31.0 innings of work. He currently ranks second on the Retrievers’ all-time list as he is averaging 8.87 strikeouts per nine for his career.
A staple of the 2007 Retriever squad as a co-captain and the leading starting pitcher, senior Steve Evans will once again serve as captain for the Retriever squad, but will have some work to do before he’s ready for the season. Evans underwent shoulder surgery for a torn labrum after the 2007 season and may be out of the rotation for the early part of the Retrievers’ season. The right-hander led all Retrievers with 75.1 innings pitched, ranking fifth in the America East, and 12 starts while recording 43 strikeouts and generating a 4.66 ERA. “We are optimistic that [Evans] will be back to full strength in April in time for the conference season,” Jancuska said.
In addition, senior left-hander Mike Fitzpatrick, who has battled various injuries since his freshman season in 2004, is expected to see some playing time in the spring, helping to offset the loss of sophomore pitcher Marty Zawacki, who will be out for the season after undergoing Tommy John surgery.
Though he assumed a role as a starter in 2007, Jancuska expects senior Will Delawter to be used in more of a closer’s role. Delawter made 12 appearances last season, 11 of them starts and tallied 58.0 innings, while holding a 6.67 ERA.
“On the mound, we found out [Will’s] strengths and weaknesses last year,” the coach said. “He would start and would pace himself, then get fired up and start to shut people down. He needs to go out there and be very aggressive [from the start] and we’ll hopefully see more of that in a closer’s role.”
Jancuska will also count on freshman redshirt David Divita to make a big impact on the mound and expects freshman redshirt Austin Drewyer to see a lot of innings during the conference weekends in addition to the third-year relief of junior Sean Rae and contributions from freshman redshirt Charlie Ellinger, juniors Brian Duffy and Ryan Morse, and freshmen Sterling Sams and Travis Pearson.
Jancuska returns the majority of his defensive lineup, but will also have to fill some holes after the losses of Scheffel, Gale, and Bowen, all solid performers and foundations to last year’s lineup.
At the center of this year’s defense will be two-time All-Conference selection senior Joe Fowler. Fowler began the 2007 season in an infield role, but moved to the outfield during the conference season and will remain a force there in 2008, while senior co-captain Mark Lemon, a three-year starter, will be the leader in the infield, seeing time between third base and shortstop.
“[A player’s impact] is not always in the stats,” Jancuska said. “When [Mark] is in the game, we’re better. We’re a better baseball team. He’s a pretty good baseball player and he’s got good instincts. Mark comes to play everyday with a good attitude. He’s a great competitor.”
Senior Steve Russo will also give Lemon some help at third as well as see some time at second base and shortstop, while senior Anthony Socarras could also make an impact at short and second, freshman Rich Conlon will help fill the third base and shortstop roles, and freshman Brad Brainer will see time at second.
“Steve Russo is a very valuable part of what we’re doing,” Jancuska said. “He has great versatility and has the ability to play second, third, or short on any given day.”
That only leaves first base left unattended in the infield, where Jancuska expects junior transfer Shawn Retz to make his mark. A 2007 NJCAA Division II Rawlings Gold Glove award-winner for CCBC-Catonsville and Third Team All-America selection, Retz posted a .966 fielding percentage last year, committing just two errors in 378 chances.
“Shawn Retz represents a quality glove and power at his position,” Jancuska said. “The stats speak for themselves, and he gets the job done.”
Junior transfer Wink Nolan will join Fowler in the outfield after serving as a starting centerfielder for the Maryland Terrapins, while junior Scott Peddicord, freshmen Casey Medairy, Bryan Russo, Sam Bender, Sams and Delawter will also compete for time at the final outfield position.
“Peddicord came in as a good right fielder from a tracking and catching standpoint last year,” Jancuska said. “He’s definitely in the mix for playing time in right field.”
Behind the plate, Jancuska returns a two-year starter in junior Tom Meaney who finished the 2007 season fourth on the team with a .979 fielding percentage after starting 37 games, while senior Jon Hart, sophomores Rick Phillips and Dave Warrenfeltz, and freshman Jim Harris will provide depth with the mask.
Though Jancuska will return only one of two players who batted over .300 in Delawter (.365), he is confident that his team will see a big boost in hitting production, both from veteran players and newcomers.
With Delawter, the team leader in batting average (.365), hits (62), RBI (38), slugging percentage (.553) and on-base percentage (.418) and an America East All-Conference First-Team selection at the forefront, the Retrievers will look to improve on their .264 team batting average, the lowest since 2004 when they posted a mark of .261.
“Will Delawter is a competitor,” Jancuska said. “He’s talented, he’s strong, he competes and he’s very good at the plate. He’s very focused and frankly we’re surprised when he doesn’t hit the ball hard; that’s his presence at the plate.”
Delawter will not be the only one that Jancuska looks to in order to bolster his offense, however. He also expects Lemon and Fowler to really step up this year.
“Joe Fowler is coming off an outstanding summer season [where he was named the MVP of the Cal Ripken, Sr. Baseball League All-Star Game] and will return to an All-Conference caliber player,” the skipper said. “Mark Lemon has gotten better offensively every year for the past three years and I think this will be a big year for him. I do expect Fowler and Lemon to be better than they were last year.”
Fowler, a .296 career hitter, saw a drop in his efficiency in 2007, posting a mark of .271, a far cry from his outstanding average of .345 in 2006, but held a .317 average over the summer, earning Cal Ripken Sr. Collegiate Baseball All-League honors, while Lemon posted his highest career average last year with a .281.
Jancuska also expects to see big contributions from newcomers Nolan, Brainer, Retz, and Sams. Nolan hit .254 in two years at Maryland in and in ACC competition an Jancuska sees him getting even better in 2008, while Retz led CCBC-Catonsville with 50 RBI, six home runs, and was second with a .398 average in 2007. Retz also ranked 12th and 15th in RBI and home runs, respectively in the NJCAA. Brainer, another transfer from an NJCAA school led the MDJUCO with 38 stolen bases on 40 attempts and was second on Chesapeake’s team with a .354 average.
“Brad Brainer represents a lead-off capability that we have not enjoyed for some time,” Jancuska said. “He has the ability of stealing 20-30 bases this season.”
Sams, the 2006 Mid-Atlantic High School Baseball Classic skills winner for power and contact hitting and the top prospect in camp was part of a nationally-recognized James Madison Warhawks baseball team and will certainly make an impact on the Retrievers’ offense.
“Sterling Sams is a hitter,” the coach said. “He represents a power hitter and when’s he’s not pitching we’ll be sure to keep his bat in the lineup with him playing some designated hitter, outfield, and first base.”
With a strong group of power hitters joining the Retrievers in 2008 and the recovery of a few injured members of the pitching staff, UMBC could be on its way to making a run at the America East Conference Tournament and championship title.
That way will be paved by the senior leaders of the team, who have enjoyed a large amount of time on the field, in the batter’s box, and on the mound with many enjoying roles as starters for the past three years, but the underclassmen will also be a big deciding factor.
“At our level of baseball it goes in cycles a little bit,” Jancuska said. “If you put a couple of classes together and they stay healthy and get a little better at the same time and your incoming class progresses throughout the season, then you can have a really special team with a chance to compete for a championship.”
As is the case for any coach, the overall health of the team is a major factor in the team’s continued success and the Retrievers definitely have some work to do in the rehab and recovery categories.
“If I knew that we were going to have no pitching injuries and those coming off were going to get back to 100%, then I’d be very, very excited about our chances of competing for a top four spot,” the coach said. “We’re counting on a lot of full recoveries, but I think that we’re a better team overall. I think we have a chance to score a few more runs to take some pressure off the pitching. We’re just working hard to have a core of healthy productive pitchers and players.”
The Retrievers kick-off the 2008 season as they host Army for a three-game series from Friday, Feb. 29-Sunday, April 2 at the Baseball Factory Field at UMBC beginning with Friday’s game at 3:00 p.m.