HUNTINGTON — Perhaps Jeff Waggoner should have gotten a degree in meteorology.
Maybe it would help him maximize the precious few hours his Marshall baseball team is able to get outside to prepare for the season.
“We’ve been on the football field, taking ground balls, doing as much as we can, but there’s something about actually playing scrimmage games before you get out there for real that can’t be replicated,” the Thundering Herd’s seventh-year head coach said.
“That’s a big part of why we’ve traditionally gotten off to slow starts, and it’s why we’re scheduling to get in as many games as possible before Conference USA play starts so we can get all that stuff worked out.”
Toward that end, the Herd has foregone trying to fit in midweek games in this region for the first part of the season, concentrating instead on some four-game weekends in the pre-Conference USA portion of the schedule. Waggoner hopes to get in more innings this way.
A 2013 season preview:
As much a known as anything for this year’s Herd is that junior right-hander Aaron Blair is ready to anchor the staff. Blair’s 2-8 record last season didn’t match up with his 3.98 ERA and 82 strikeouts in 83.2 innings of work.
His summer dominance in the wooden-bat Cape Cod League (8-0, 1.05, 60 Ks in 51.1 IP) simply solidified what Blair’s coach already knew.
“Aaron is ready to take on the role of leading our staff,” Waggoner said. “His summer in the Cape really helped him blossom as a pitcher.
“It’s not that he didn’t have the ability and didn’t have confidence before that, but the way he went out and got the job done against that high level of competition just set in his mind that he can be successful against the very best hitters.”
It’s a good thing that Blair is ready to anchor the weekend rotation, because offseason elbow surgery for sophomore Lance Elder means the other two C-USA weekend starts could be filled by freshmen.
“Chase Boster is a guy we’re already looking at to be a weekend starter as a freshman,” Waggoner said. “He’s come in with talent and worked hard and done what we expected him to do so far, but he still has to go out there and show us it’s all real when the season starts.
“Michael Taylor has also had a good fall and is in the same boat. As talented as those guys are, they’re still freshmen and still have a lot to learn and a lot to prove. Along with Blair, two of those guys, or one of them and (senior) Wayland Moore, will probably be the weekend starters. That leaves one more really good arm to use as a midweek starter and have in the bullpen on weekends.”
Whereas many teams start their ace on Friday nights in Conference USA play, Waggoner plans to use Blair on Saturdays.
“We’ll do that instead of having him pitch on Friday night because of our bullpen,” he said. “Especially if we are pitching freshmen on Friday and/or Sunday, we might need to get more out of the pen in those games.
“So if we can plan on more innings out of Blair on Saturday, it means we could potentially have guys come out of the pen for a short outing on Friday and then do it again on Sunday.”
Waggoner’s reasoning comes in large part because of the faith he has in this year’s bullpen.
Juniors Josh King (2-5, 2.30) and Ryan Hopkins (1-3, 4.93) and sophomore Matt Margaritonda (1-1, 4.18) are right-handers who combined for 64 appearances last season, while freshmen left-handers Alex Thackston and Micah Dunn and righty Brandyn Sittinger give the coach confidence that the pieces are in place to have more options than in previous seasons.
“The freshmen will all make immediate impacts,” Waggoner said. “Add them those guys who already have all that experience and hopefully we’ll always have enough arms fresh to do what we need.”
Waggoner and pitching coach Joe Renner also think there are enough capable arms that they’re going to experiment with a “closer by committee” approach.
“It could change, but as of right now I don’t think we’re going to have a designated ‘closer,’” Waggoner said. “The reason is that, when you have one, you feel obligated to use him in the ninth inning.
“If I have, say, Margaritonda pitch a great eighth inning and he’s looking strong, why not let him go out again in the ninth instead of take him out just because somebody else has the title?”
Waggoner also believes that many games are potentially won or lost in the sixth or seventh innings, and he will not hesitate to go with the hottest hand (or arm) at that juncture.
“Sometimes the crucial situation comes with two on and one out in the seventh inning with the No. 3 hitter coming up,” he said. “Why would I not bring in my best guy right there rather than save him to pitch against maybe the 7-8-9 hitters in the ninth? When maybe the game won’t even be on the line?
“Yes, there can be an advantage to one guy being accustomed to getting those final outs and maybe we’ll end up doing that if it happens that the guys seem to naturally slot themselves in different roles, but right now I think we have three or four guys who have the ability to do that.
“My thought is that if somebody has the hot hand, I’m going with him that day.”
When Cleveland State dropped baseball after the 2011 season, Matt Kirkwood transferred to Marshall with one year of eligibility remaining. An arm injury sidelined him last season, but he’s primed to finally give the Herd a solid offense/defense combo behind the plate.
“This fall Matt was a great surprise,” Waggoner said. “Not only did he gain everybody’s respect with how hard he works, but he’s been so good as a player both offensively and defensively.
“He’s in charge back there, he’s the quarterback. He’s athletic, he hits well and he even runs the bases well. Probably right now we’re even looking at him as our cleanup hitter.”
Junior college transfer Johnathan Beary and freshman David Diaz-Fernandez are ready to spell Kirkwood behind the plate.
Three-fourths of last season’s infield returns.
Nathan Gomez is back for his senior season at first base, coming off a year in which he led Marshall in hitting and runs batted in (.316, 3 HR, 39 RBI). As freshmen, shortstop Sergio Leon (.302, 1, 20) and second baseman Andrew Dundon (.264, 0, 18) were thrown to the wolves early and showed by the end of the 2012 season that they are ready to man the keystone for years to come.
The Herd was able to move Gray Stafford from third base to the outfield thanks to the fall emergence of freshman third baseman Aaron Bossi.
“For the most part, that infield got set in a hurry,” Waggoner said. “Nate Gomez has continued to work hard and improve like he’s done every year. Dundon and Leon, by the end of last season, showed they belong and we don’t have to worry about the middle infield.
“The final part was third base. Aaron Bossi is a kid who we didn’t get until late summer, kind of a last minute thing through one of our contacts, who came in and established himself quickly as the third baseman.
“People will love to watch him play because he’s one of those high energy, work hard, grind it out guys. He led us in the fall with a .380 batting average. He’s the kind of guy other teams hate because he’s always doing something to hurt you.”
A starter since his freshman year, Isaac Ballou has been penciled in as the leadoff hitter and center fielder almost automatically for three years.
Already Marshall’s career leader with 17 triples and having stolen 51 bases in 66 tries, Ballou (.308, 2, 24) should be written into that same slot one more season. Adam Yeager’s career stolen base record (73) certainly isn’t out of the realm of possibility for Ballou.
After two seasons mostly at third base, Stafford (.252, 5, 24, 9-12 SB) moves to right field for his senior season. Freshman Chase Vogelbach and sophomore Eric Escobedo (.261, 0, 17) are battling in left field.
“Isaac has made himself into enough of a hitter that we could bat him third and it wouldn’t bother me,” Waggoner said. “But he’s also a .400 on base percentage guy and it’s just too valuable to have that speed at the top of the order.
“Moving Gray to right field will really let his athleticism show. He has a plus-plus arm; it would be hard for you to find a better outfield arm anywhere in college baseball.
“He’s also so fast that if he’d get on base consistently, he could steal 30 or more bags. His problem has been plate discipline, though. If he shortens his swing and uses the whole field he could hit .320 or .330 and be one of our biggest weapons.”
In left field, Vogelbach’s bat will give him his chances.
“We’re working hard to get Chase’s outfield play up where it needs to be, “ Waggoner said. “We want his bat in the lineup. That’s one kid who loves to hit. All day long, if he’s not doing something else, Chase is working in the batting cage.
“I think so much of him as a hitter that I wouldn’t be surprised to see him in the middle of the lineup before the year ends.”
Senior Alfredo Brito (.260, 4, 32) was second on the team in home runs and runs batted in last season and will usually fill the DH spot, especially against right-handed pitching. Escobedo hits lefties well enough that he could spend time there, too, in at least a partial platoon situation.
Freshman Travis Myers’ bat will get him on the field even as he searches for a position defensively. Sophomore outfielder Mardu Smith has speed and a lefty bat that will give him opportunities, too.
“We have a lot of guys who are battling to give themselves playing time,” Waggoner said. “And we’ll see where it goes. You always have that guy who, through the season, makes plays and gets hits and makes himself so valuable that you need to get him in the lineup more than you initially realized.
After opening with three games in Norfolk, Va., against Old Dominion, the Herd will try to get in four games in each of the next three weekends – two of them in the Carolinas and then, hopeful that the weather will be improving in our region by then, at Northern Kentucky the second week of March.
After hosting Central Michigan in a three-game series at a site to be determined, Marshall will then play the first of three games against West Virginia University — March 19 in Charleston, April 2 in Morgantown and May 14 in Beckley.
“For seven years I’ve been trying to get West Virginia University to play,” Waggoner said. “I’m glad now that Coach (Randy) Mazey is there and understands the benefit in our schools playing one another.
“This is good for baseball in the state and gives good exposure to both programs and should be a great atmosphere for the players. Both schools will be playing in good baseball atmospheres in front of a lot of fans in our leagues, and this will give us games with good crowds and some electricity in the air before we see that in league play.”
Marshall opens the Conference USA season by hosting UAB at Appalachian Power Park from March 29-31. This year’s C-USA Tournament will be played at Rice’s Reckling Park from May 22-26.
Veteran play-by-play broadcaster Steve Cotton – a nine-time West Virginia Broadcaster of the Year — is in his 20th season on the Thundering Herd/IMG Sports Network.