Baseball opens 2017 campaign with West Alabama at Southard

Baseball opens 2017 campaign with West Alabama at Southard

SAINT LEO, Fla. – Sean O'Connor was more than comfortable with how Saint Leo baseball hit the ball in 2016. Defensively, he was pretty pleased too. He's even happy with how his club lines up in those two segments of the game for the 2017 season.

That leaves just one area where the Lions' fifth-year head coach is expecting bigger things out of his team this season.

Pitching.

"I hope that we throw more strikes. That's what we've concentrated on this fall and early this spring – being able to compete, throw it over the plate, and not giving away any free moments," said O'Connor. "That was our big problem last year, and this year I think we're going to be better at not letting that happen."

Saint Leo will return plenty of familiar faces off a staff that finished the 2016 season with 6.34 staff ERA and ranked sixth in the Sunshine State Conference, but allowed 206 walks (second-most in the SSC) with a .304 opponent batting average (second-highest opponent BA in the SSC).

Junior righty Jordan Pendleton (8-4, 6.36 ERA) had the best record off last year's staff, and had a reputation has a solid battler on the mound. Senior Zach Whitaker (6-1, 4.38 ERA) was arguably the Lions' top pitcher a year ago with a workhorse 72.0 innings over 19 appearances, and will be back in the Green and Gold this season. Senior Eoin McAvinchey, who last pitched in 2015, returns to the squad and has looked very strong in preseason according to O'Connor.

Joining them will be a host of newcomers, several of whom will be in the mix for SSC starts.

Junior lefthander Tyler Bauman, a transfer from Division I St. John's University in New York, had some solid short-inning stints for the Red Storm against quality D-I opponents last season, after a brilliant career at Jensen Beach (Fla.) High School. Junior righty Oscar Gordillo, native of Miami, joins the Lions from John Wood Community College in Illinois, where he charted a 5.62 ERA over 52+ innings with a 6-2 record.

That's not to say that the off-season has been problem-free. The Lions have been hit with a couple of injuries that will sideline some arms they were counting on, and redshirt freshman Ryan Nolan is still working his way back from arm surgery last year.

"We've got a lot of new guys, so we'll see how it goes, but I think we're in good shape. We've got a couple pieces of the pitching staff that won't be playing this year due to injuries, but other than that we should be in good shape," said O'Connor.

In the infield, there will be a couple familiar faces in redshirt sophomore Derek Gibree (.281 avg., 50 hits, 7 SBs) at second base, and redshirt junior Chase Turner (.303 avg., 53 hits) at third. Senior Shane Williams (.328 avg., .487 SLG%, 32 RBI) moves into the starting role at first, where he will hope to continue the Lions' legacy of stellar play at the position. He takes over for Troy Sieber, who was drafted at the end of his junior year by the Houston Astros; Sieber, in turn, inherited the job from Fran Whitten, who was taken by the Los Angeles Angels in the 2014 draft.

"Shane had a good year last year," said O'Connor. "That sometimes gets a little overshadowed by all the stuff that Troy did, but Shane had a good year and he'll do well at first. He's not going to hit 15 home runs; that's not his game. But he's going to make hard contact all the time and hit a lot of doubles."

Newcomer Zach Scott, a transfer from Colorado Christian University, will take over at second base. In 2015, Scott paced CCU with a .360 batting average and 64 hits with 17 doubles.

Scott's move to second base frees up returning senior Dylan Harris for a move to the outfield, where he will patrol center field for the Lions.

"Dylan's got very good speed and very good instincts. He will do very well in center field," said O'Connor.

Junior Lane Stancil and sophomore Brett Coffel are projected to platoon in left field, where Stancil started 42 games last season. Senior Alex Mata, a Preseason All-South Region selection by the National Collegiate Baseball Writers Association (NCBWA) and a First Team All-SSC honoree at right field last season, is back to play the Lions' short porch at Southard Stadium. Mata, who belted a .388 average with a .653 slugging percentage last season, enters the 2017 campaign tied for third among Saint Leo career doubles leaders. He's also five hits away from cracking the top six among the program's all-time hits leaders as well.

O'Connor feels that offensively and defensively, his team looks a lot like the 2016 edition – just a year older and, hopefully, a year wiser. But pitching inconsistency dogged the Lions throughout the year, especially late in the campaign when a 6-6 record over their final four SSC series kept Saint Leo from mounting any sort of late drive to a Regional bid or even recording a fourth-straight 30-win season.

O'Connor also feels like they know the solution and are primed to execute this time.

"I don't believe we haven't been as talented as anybody we've played, but I just think we gave away too many freebies – a lot of walks, a lot of getting behind hitters. That's a bad recipe, especially in this conference with a lot of people who can really hit," said O'Connor. "We've got to get ahead in the count. We've got to throw strikes. Do that, and we'll be a much better team. It's really that simple."

O'Connor pauses, smiles, then adds his own postscript.

"Well… simple to say. Not simple to do."