In their fifth year of PacWest play, the men’s baseball team will be looking to top arguably one of their best regular seasons in school history since joining the conference. Despite not clinching a playoff berth, the Sea Lions managed a 32-16 overall record while going 21-13 within the PacWest. According to head coach Joe Schaefer, the 2017 roster is primarily in its prime and more than capable of producing another successful season.
“This team is older, we have a lot of returning, experienced guys,” said Schaefer. “A lot of the senior guys have been playing since their freshman year. I would say the expectations are pretty high; we’re pretty optimistic. We play a very tough schedule this year, so we’re not going to put any kind of goal in terms of numbers or wins, but this team is battle-tested and they know how to compete.”
Not only does a solid portion of the roster appear to be in its prime (eleven out of 32 players are currently seniors), but there were also some key acquisitions before this season that could potential be difference makers.
“We have freshman Micah Pries. He’s young and there’s going to be a learning curve there, but his tools are exciting,” said Schaefer. “Tyler Flores is a strong left-handed hitter… Adam Rios in the infield is also a solid defender… and on the mound we brought in Stephen Young, a transfer left-handed pitcher who should jump in and potentially take one of the four starting spots.”
Senior left-handed pitcher, Eric Pierce, agreed that the left-handed Stephen Young had significant potential. “Young’s done a good job and it’s looking like he might be a starter at this point.” Young earning a spot in the four-man starting rotation may prevent Pierce from earning a spot as a starter himself, but Pierce clearly didn’t mind. “I love the relieving role, and the starting role. I love it all.”
Emphasis was also placed on team chemistry and how that had a positive impact on the entire pitching staff as a whole. “The pitching staff pretty much spends all practice together. There’s a lot of chemistry in the pitching staff, and there’s a lot of confidence,” said Pierce. “If one guy is unable to get the job done, he’s going to hand the ball off to the next guy with confidence. You spend all fall working out, running, throwing balls in the bullpen next to each other, and that leads to that confidence in each other.”
A new season, of course, isn’t without its changes. Along with the acquisitions, there were also a handful of 2016 graduates that Schaefer felt would be missed. “You lose guys every year; it’s a part of college baseball,” said Schaefer. “We lost Nathan Bennett, a key guy in the bullpen, and fielders like Devin Carter, AJ Derr, Joseph Keller, and Tanner Handa. Their leadership will be missed. But we’re a senior-heavy team, so we shouldn’t be short on leadership. Even though you lose some key members, we returned a lot and filled some pretty key spots.”
One notable asset of last season’s success was how dominant the team played at home. With a 22-5 record, the Sea Lions won more than 81% of their games in Carroll B. Land Stadium. On the road, however, they went 10-11, winning less than 48% of their games outside of their own yard.
“There’s a big difference between playing at home versus on the road,” said Pierce. “Part of the reason I wanted to come play baseball here is because we have an advantage with this wind. A lot of balls that would normally go out of the yard are just normal, routine fly balls here. As a pitcher here, you focus on pitching for contact and letting guys get themselves out.”
Coach Schaefer felt that the key to playing better on the road was to play more consistently overall. “Our emphasis is to just do our best on any given day, regardless of where you play or who you’re playing. For us, it’s all about how we execute our game plan, and if we can do that consistently, then we should perform very well on the road just as we do at home.”
Senior starting shortstop Matt Jervis made it clear that the overall expectations were relatively high. “I think we all have pretty big expectations this year. We’re senior-heavy this year, and have all our starting pitching back. I feel we’re a lot deeper throughout each position, and I we’re really looking forward to it. It’s a tough schedule, but I don’t think we should be overmatched.”
It certainly sounds like this roster is currently build to “win now,” and the expectations are fitting as a result.
“I’m very optimistic, I love their character and their makeup,” said Schaefer. “Even though we play probably the toughest non-conference schedule we’ve played since I’ve been there, I’m excited to see these guys come out into the yard and compete.”
The 2017 men’s baseball season begins Thursday, February 2 at home, with the opener of a four-game series against Chico State.