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Morning Sun
  • Plenty of changes for Pittsburg State baseball

  • Featuring a new head coach and returning 11 players with starting experience, the Pittsburg State baseball team was picked ninth in the MIAA preseason poll released on Wednesday.

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  • Featuring a new head coach and returning 11 players with starting experience, the Pittsburg State baseball team was picked ninth in the MIAA preseason poll released on Wednesday.
    “Each season brings upon truly a new season,” Pitt State head coach Matt Murray said on Thursday. “It’s a new team. We’ve been able to provide competition at every position. Whether you’re returning or whether you’re incoming, I don’t know if that really matters, at least to our staff. It will take some time to figure out our lineup but there’s certainly enough there to make things happen.”
    When he became only the third coach in the history of the Pitt State baseball program, following Al Ortolani and Steve Bever, Murray said that he would jump right into his position.
    “I felt like we had a productive fall,” Murray said. “It was a period, as you know being new and our entire staff being new, for us to get acquainted with our players and for them to get acquainted with us. It was a period for us to implement our system from an offensive standpoint and a defensive standpoint. We’re certainly not where we need to be yet but that’s OK. That’s why we’re doing this.
    “Once our players returned from Christmas, there was a level of excitement I could sense with them and our coaching staff. It’s great to have them back in class, of course, and getting back into what we’re doing now, which is a lot of small group work. We’ll have our first scrimmage against one another Feb. 2 and we’ll plan to use that as a dress rehearsal for our opener on the 16th.”
    Conference expansion affects every sport differently and in baseball, it just takes looking at a 2012 schedule and then a 2013 schedule to see how 15 MIAA teams play everything out rather than 11.
    “For baseball, at least this year, it affected our schedule tremendously,” Murray said. “We have 46 conference games, which provides a lot of opportunity to really be competitive at the top of our conference and that’s what we want to do. It provides a five-game per week conference schedule. We’re playing three conference games on the weekend and two midweek.”
    Pitt State plays only four nonconference games this season, two-game sets with Maryville (home) and Missouri-St. Louis (road). Plus, there’s no games against NAIA opponents during a 50-game regular season slate.
    In baseball, the arms race always plays a central role and the MIAA this season will be determined more than ever by pitching.
    “Pitching is the No. 1 priority for us and our program,” Murray said. “We’ll have to have five starters this year and typically, 8-10 total that can really get out there and compete for you on the mound. We’ll want to use the first part of our schedule to identify that, to put pitchers in different situations and different roles. No. 1, for their arm care. Guys will be on a pitch count or an inning count. No. 2, for our coaches to get a better feel to how they want to compete when we strike it up live.”
    Page 2 of 3 - During recent seasons, Pitt State grappled with difficulties on the mound.
    For example, last season, the Gorillas finished with a team ERA of 7.64 and only two pitchers finished below 5.00 ERA — reliever Cody Wren (4.38) and staff ace Matt Stalcup (3.74). Stalcup and Wren both return for their senior years and both pitchers attended Allen County Community College before stopping in Pittsburg to finish their collegiate experience.
    Stalcup led Pitt State with a 7-6 record, 77.0 innings pitched, 12 starts, six complete games, 38 bases-on-balls, 92 strikeouts and opponents hit .236 against Stalcup compared to .341 for the entire pitching staff.
    “Matt’s healthy,” Murray said. “Matt had a solid fall for us understanding what we’re trying to do as a system here and he’s still developing command of his fastball. His breaking pitch has been a solid pitch for him, so he’s still developing his changeup. He wants to get better with his fastball command and with his changeup. Matt’s a player that really works. It’s always nice to have quote-unquote one of your most talented players also be one of your hardest workers. He fits that bill.”
    Brett Cares, Buster Reddick, Jake Moore, Gonzolo Gonzalez, Eric Hansen, George Brandecker, Matt Reilly, Dustin Ulrich and Jake Stevenson all return with pitching experience from last season.
    Pitt State adds redshirt freshman Ryan McKay, junior college transfer Cameron Fisher, sophomore Joe Saia (Colgan graduate), freshman Nick Brandecker, freshman Grant Davis, junior Aaron Snow (Colgan graduate) and junior college transfer James Fitzgearlds to the pitching mix.
    The Gorillas will have to make a great leap forward in pitching to return to the postseason for the first time since 2004. Pitt State last enjoyed a winning season in 2006.
    Out in the field, Pitt State returns senior center fielder Ryan Ventura, junior catcher Jacoby Martin, junior shortstop Evan Thomas, sophomore right fielder Luke Bordewick, senior second baseman Austin Lastimado, junior third baseman Brad Foss and senior first baseman Ryan Bilovesky.
    Every player in this group, except for Martin, started at least 20 games for the Gorillas last season and Martin started 19. Ventura and Thomas were two of three players who played in and started all 48 games for Pitt State.
    Thomas led Pitt State with 51 hits and 32 RBI, plus he tied with the graduated Chase Barnes for the team lead in home runs with six. Ventura scored 30 runs and drove in 25.
    Bordewick hit a team-high .342 and only five Gorillas batted above .300 last season. In fact, opponents batted 49 points higher, slugged 150 points higher and reached base 57 points higher than Pitt State in 73 more at-bats. Bottom line: Opponents outscored Pitt State 363-247.
    Pitt State opens its season Feb. 16-17 at home against Maryville, a single game Saturday and a single game Sunday. The Gorillas play six of their first nine games at home, opening with four straight before a three-game road stretch against Central Missouri.
    Page 3 of 3 - “It’s nice to have early games at home, yes,” Murray said. “I like having games late at home. The weather’s getting a little bit better at that time and we’ll be right there in that hunt for postseason play. If you follow our club, we’ll be a completely different team from the beginning to the end. I believe that. Our thought is to be playing our best baseball toward the end of the year.”
    Pitt State closes out the regular season with seven of its last 10 games at home, including their last five against Missouri Southern and Northwest Missouri. The Gorillas play a midweek doubleheader at JayCee Ballpark, home park of Pittsburg and Colgan high school baseball, against Missouri Southern.
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