On Tuesday in Pittsburgh, the Major League Baseball playoffs got underway and on Tuesday in DeLand the Stetson baseball team got underway with its fall practice. The Hatters hope the experiences gained by a plethora of freshmen playing in 2013 will pay dividends and lead the 2014 team back to the collegiate version of MLB’s postseason.
Highlights of the fall practice include a contest this Sunday night at 6:30 p.m. at Melching Field against the Canadian Junior National Team and the annual Hatter Series. That intrasquad event will run from Nov. 5-7 if it is a best-of-three format and Nov. 1, Nov. 3 and Nov. 5-7 if it becomes a five-game series. The annual alumni game is set for Nov. 8. The team will hold a series of scrimmages as well, scheduled for Oct. 4, Oct. 9, Oct. 18, Oct. 20, Oct. 25 and Oct. 27.
“We’ve had some good pre-team practice days with individual workouts and conditioning,” head coach Pete Dunn said of the squad he’ll take into his milestone 35th season at the helm of the Hatters. “The kids have been working extremely hard in the weight room and I think that’s going to pay big dividends in the spring. This is what we’ve been waiting for as a team, to be able to come out and do things in game-like conditions.”
Always green is a literal sense, a year ago, the Hatters were green in a figurative sense as well, starting freshmen all over the field. Kevin Fagan and Patrick Mazeika earned Freshman All-America honors and were joined on the A-Sun All-Freshman team by right-handed reliever Tyler Warmoth. However, it doesn’t mean the season was without growing pains. The youth impacted how Dunn did everything, down to setting up drills for so many new faces. This fall, Dunn has noticed already that things are a bit more back to normal.
“We have a number of new kids, but the majority have at least one year under their belt,” he said. “You hope the guys who have gone through last year and previous years can show that leadership to the new guys. More people know what we’re doing and every drill we go through.
“Every bunt defense or first-and-third defense, we don’t have to teach it from the first day on. You’ve got guys out there who can help the young guys understand and show them how it’s done. Last year it was difficult because we had so many freshmen out there that were learning every day.”
One more player the Hatters are thrilled to welcome back is fifth-year pitcher Kurt Schluter. An All-American in 2012, the 2011 Atlantic Sun Pitcher of the Year and a 2012 Boston Red Sox draft pick, Schluter missed almost all of the 2013 campaign due to injury but was able to earn a medical redshirt and return to the team.
In addition to a sterling career on the mound, highlighted by an 8-0 record and 1.40 ERA in 2011, Schluter has shown his versatility by playing first base and posting a .295 career batting average at Stetson. One of the biggest question marks Dunn will have to work through this fall is just how best to deploy this multi-faceted weapon, which was sorely missed from his arsenal in 2013.
“We’re happy to have Schluter back,” Dunn said. “Having him back out there is a huge benefit. We’re looking to get performances out of him, on the mound, with the bat and at first base. We’re going to use him more than just on the mound this year. He’s 100-percent healthy now and that’s going to really help us. I know he’s happy to be back out there and contributing.
“The biggest question mark in his case is do we start him like we have in the past or do we put him on the backside of the game and use him as a closer? We know he’s done well as a starter before but he may be just as effective or maybe more effective as a closer. We’re going to use him with those roles this fall. If we play him as we think we’re going to, both with his bat at the plate and use him some at first base, then closer might be the more logical way to go.”
While Stetson wrapped up its 2013 campaign at a disappointing 26-31, sliver linings abounded and history is now on Stetson’s side too. The last time that the Hatters suffered a losing season, going an eerily similar 27-31 in 2010, the team rebounded in 2011 to go 43-20, capture the A-Sun championship and advance to the NCAA tournament.
It is time to turn the corner, and Dunn’s many years of experience, leading the Hatters to 16 NCAA tournaments and 29 winning seasons, will prove invaluable. Much of that comes with physical maturity, experience and improved technique. A lot of it can be a matter of the right mentality too.
“Obviously we were a very young team last year, and it showed, but we can’t use that excuse anymore,” Dunn said. “We’ve got some new guys that came in, but all those freshmen we had last year are now sophomores and a year older. We can’t point to that and say ‘mistakes of youth’.
“They’ve got a year under their belt and you can’t point at them. Even though they’re only sophomores, you can’t say they’re really young because they had baptism by fire last year when a lot of the freshmen had extensive playing time. They need to come back as seasoned veterans now. You can’t look at it any other way.”
Thankfully, Dunn will have very few holes to fill in his 2013 lineup. Only two seniors, outfielders Mitchel Brennan and James Rasmussen, are gone from the regular positional starters in 2013. The starting rotation returns intact, and even augmented with the return of Schluter. The bullpen is also in solid shape, losing just Joe Dye and Chad Rood.
Some new faces will have to be sprinkled into the mix. A very talented 10-man signing class has come into the fold, eager to prove themselves and fight for roles on the field. The competition will only make Stetson a better baseball team and lead to a more interesting fall for the ball club.
“At the end of the fall, as coaches, we want to have a pretty good grasp of what our starting lineup could be,” Dun said. “You’re not going to have it nailed down, but we hope we know a lot more about our team. We’ve got some guys who were injured, who spent all summer rehabbing, and we need to see that they’re 100-percent and ready to go again.”
But, overall, Dunn remains optimistic for the 2014 Hatters.
“I think we have a chance to be a pretty good club,” he said of the big picture.