Fall Focus: Frisco College Classic SnapshotFall Report
The Frisco College Baseball Classic will bring together four of the top programs in the country in March. To get you ready for the season, we’re giving you a sneak peek at our fall reports for the teams that will be playing in Frisco. Tickets for the Frisco Classic are available now, and we’ll have a more in-depth look at the field in February.
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There’s a new sheriff in town as Mississippi State concludes fall workouts. He’s Chris Lemonis.
It’s been an interesting past year for the Bulldogs program, and that’s putting it mildly. First, there was the removal of Andy Cannizaro as head coach, the transfer of Gary Henderson from pitching coach to head coach, and the Cardiac Dogs blew everyone’s mind with the way they finished last season.
Mississippi State looked like a team destined not to make the postseason entering the final weekend of the regular season against Florida. However, State swept the heavily-favored Gators, played well at the SEC tournament and reached the NCAA tournament. Once there, MSU unseated Oklahoma at the Tallahassee Regional with some usual heroics, while also knocking out Vanderbilt in the Nashville Super Regional.
The unthinkable had occurred. MSU, once a team left for dead, reached the College World Series.
Though some MSU fans felt Henderson should’ve been hired as the full-time head coach, it also makes plenty of sense as to why that wasn’t the case.
Once athletic director John Cohen made it clear Henderson wasn’t going to be named the full-time skipper, the search was on and Cohen became enamored with an energetic Lemonis.
Now, the former Indiana head coach has a tough job ahead. Getting to Omaha isn’t simply a great season to MSU fans. It’s the expectation.
So, what’s in store for 2019?
“I think we’ve got a pretty good team,” Lemonis said. “I think the hard part right now is that this was a bad team until the end of last season, so I think people naturally think we’re returning a top four type of team — where we finished the year ranked.
“The biggest piece to take care of, for me, is the middle infield,” he said. “I like our pitching, and I like our pitching depth. I feel like this team has more quality pitching depth than maybe it had the past couple of seasons. Then, a big key is making sure some of these hitters who were freshmen last season continue to take steps forward.”
From a pitching standpoint, lefthander Ethan Small had a strong fall after finishing last season on a tear, while prized freshman righthander JT Ginn was as advertised and looks to be on track for one of those weekend starting jobs. There’s also Keegan James, who had a terrific fall with improved stuff and velocity.
Offensively, the Bulldogs received an early Christmas present when Jake Mangum decided to return for another season, while Elijah MacNamee looked as confident as ever during the fall.
After making three regionals in four years from 2014-17, Nebraska crashed to 24-28 overall and 8-14 in the Big Ten last spring, as injuries piled up and the Huskers simply were not able to overcome their attrition. Most notably, key pitchers Chad Luensmann, Robbie Palkert, Reece Eddins and Connor Curry all missed virtually the entire season, three of them with Tommy John surgery.
“We couldn’t stop the bleeding,” Nebraska coach Darin Erstad said. “The boys kept fighting, kept competing, it just wasn’t in the cards. It just happens, and you move on, and here we go … I’m excited about getting those guys healthy and back up to speed — those four guys are all experienced guys on the mound.”
Luensmann is a proven star in the bullpen, with 55 career relief appearances, 21 saves and a 2.55 ERA. Palkert has 42 career relief appearances and a 2.54 ERA, while Eddins has 46 appearances and a 3.89 ERA. All of them could see their roles change in 2019, as Erstad anticipates Luensmann, Palkert and Curry could be limited to one outing per week at the start of the year, which could make them all better suited for starting jobs. Eddins, a strike-thrower with good angle on his fastball and a good breaking ball at times, was back in action this fall and threw well. He’s a fifth-year senior who would like an opportunity to start, though he also could be an excellent fit toward the back of the pen.
The Cornhuskers have some other experienced pitchers returning, and the nation’s No. 16 recruiting class this fall provided further reinforcements, making this staff dramatically deeper than it was in 2019. Steady senior righthander Matt Waldron, a premier strike-thrower with 29 career starts over his first three seasons, is back to help anchor the weekend rotation. Erstad said Waldron is still working to boost his velocity or find “something with a little more edge to finish people off against those upper-echelon teams,” but at least the Huskers can count on him to rack up innings and get his share of outs. His brother Mike Waldron, a former two-way player, is focusing exclusively on pitching now and should be one of the bullpen linch pins after throwing 44.1 innings over 21 appearances last year.
Sam Houston State
Sam Houston State doesn’t want last season to happen again.
The Bearkats passed the eyeball test and could’ve made some serious noise in the postseason. However, despite having an impressive Southland Conference record and a high-quality 39-20 overall mark, the Bearkats didn’t have their name called on Selection Monday. In essence, they didn’t do enough to impress the committee with their schedule — good record or not. So, head coach Matt Deggs is looking forward to making amends with an even more challenging schedule with series against Connecticut, Louisiana and others, while also battling name brands Mississippi State, Texas Tech and Nebraska at the Frisco College Classic the third week of the season.
SHSU finished last season with an RPI of 56 and missed the postseason. Take care of business with the schedule that lies ahead in 2019 and the RPI will take care of itself.
But enough about the computers and missing the postseason last year.
The Bearkats have the pieces to put together yet another impressive campaign.
“I don’t plan on sitting at home again in 2019 — so, you’re going to see us play a very good schedule,” Sam Houston State coach Matt Deggs said. “We have some youth offensively, and we’re going to have a schedule that will make or break you, but I really, really like this group. They work hard, and they understand what’s needed to win at a high level. We’re going to pitch and defend it, and that’s a good place to start.”
From an offensive standpoint, the Bearkats will be young in some particular areas. However, they also welcome back several seniors, and we all know how important seniors can be when it comes to establishing consistency and reaching the postseason.
Where this Bearkats team is going to make their money is on the mound. They welcome back several mainstays in the rotation, and many of those guys and others are stepping up this fall. Hayden Wesneski is a veteran who’s throwing with more velocity and authority this fall, Landon Ausley is a rising sophomore righthander who thoroughly intrigued me at a recent scrimmage. He’s another big velocity guy with a promising secondary offering, and SHSU has one of the better back-end relievers in the country in righthander Nick Mikolajchak, who also has a chance to be in the weekend rotation. Mikolajchak had already established himself as a dominant force on the mound, but he’s now added another secondary offering that could prove to be deadly to opposing hitters. There’s also a true wild card in lefthander Kyle Backhus, who has struggled over the past year or so, but who has a promising arm if he can establish better command moving forward.
“We return almost all of our key arms, and to a man, I feel like Coach Siranni and the pitchers have done a great job. They’ve taken that next step,” Deggs said. “I feel like we have the best stuff we’ve had from a staff standpoint since I’ve been here. I think we can go out there and matchup with teams from a stuff standpoint, and that hasn’t been the case at times.”
Nothing is set in stone for any program this time of year, but the prognosis for the Bearkats is good based on history and a quick eyeball test.
Tim Tadlock is good with hunches.
As fall workouts finished up last year, I spoke with Tadlock about his 2018 Texas Tech team. Tadlock typically downplays his teams. After all, he doesn’t want his team to get a false sense of who they are based solely on what happens in the fall.
But he couldn’t contain his excitement. He was giddy about the team he had and thought the Red Raiders were destined for greatness unless injuries or other setbacks got in the way.
A few months later, Tech had that one setback they didn’t want — All-American lefthander Steven Gingery went down with a season-ending injury. But that didn’t deter them from their goal. The Red Raiders put together a strong spring, won the Lubbock Regional and knocked off Duke in the super regional round to make the third College World Series appearance in the Tadlock era.
His hunch proved right yet again. Last year’s Red Raiders club was destined to do something special.
So, what’s his feeling on the 2019 club as fall workouts conclude?
“I think the pieces are there for us to be a special club again, but it’s really about learning and seeing when and where that learning process shows up,” he said. “We just need to go in and get our work in each day and just make our guys understand they’re not going to be where they want to be at the end of the season on the first day of the season. We just need to put the work in.
“For the most part this fall, I thought we had a pretty good intent in practice,” he continued. “We definitely had some moments that included some lulls, and not exactly the intent you want to see. But for the most part, it was good. We’ve got some really good arms and we’ve got some impressive athleticism from an offensive standpoint. We have a chance to be very explosive offensively.”
The Red Raiders are setup well from an offensive standpoint. Third baseman Josh Jung is one of the nation’s premier players and prospects, and is back in the mix. Meanwhile, Brian Klein provides stability up the middle and Gabe Holt is an electric hitter who was a terror for opposing pitchers last season. Tech also has gotten significant contributions from Cody Masters this fall.
On the mound, Caleb Kilian and John McMillon continue to look like sure-fire starters in the weekend rotation, while Jake McDonald and others are making a push to join the duo.
“We really want to have four starters that go out there and are ready to hand the ball off after six innings. That’s the goal,” he said. “We’ve got a lot of power arms, that’s for sure. We have a lot of guys who throw hard, but there are some pitchability guys in there, too. They’ve all enjoyed turning off the radar gun this fall and making it about executing pitches.”