Delaware State, Army and Eastern Kentucky might not set the pulses racing, but Winthrop hosts those three schools this weekend in the 10th annual Coca-Cola Classic baseball tournament at Winthrop Ballpark.
“It may not be the big-name schools that we’ve had in the past here but they’ll be three quality programs,” said third-year Eagles coach Tom Riginos.
The trio of visitors combined to win 113 games last year, three regular season conference titles, and Army played in an NCAA regional. They may not have the name recognition of a Georgia Tech, Notre Dame or North Carolina, all past participants in the tournament, but Riginos knows his team will face a tough challenge, just what they need early in the season.
“We need to play,” he said Thursday morning. “Get out there and get a lot of these young guys, these new guys, experience, get the returners back out there getting in a groove. Especially from a hitting standpoint, when you play three, four, five games in a row it has an opportunity to get your team in a rhythm.”
Coming off a 17-35 season, Winthrop’s fourth losing campaign in the past five, offense will be the cornerstone of any Eagles’ winning 2013 season. The Eagles were last in the Big South Conference in 2012 with a .231 team batting average, 24 points lower than the second worst squad. That inability to generate offense has carried over so far into the first three games of this season.
Riginos cited his team’s inability thus far to get timely hits, namely with runners in scoring positions. The Eagles are 6 for 36 (.167) with runners in scoring position, a struggle that carried over from last season. In a loss Wednesday night against The Citadel, Winthrop twice stranded runners with the bases loaded; the Eagles have left 36 runners on base through the first three games and are 0 for 9 with the bags full.
“Bases loaded, we have not done a very good job of getting the guys in,” Riginos said, “or extending the innings with multiple runs. And also the ‘big hit.’ We haven’t gotten the ‘big hit,’ and that’s what happened Sunday. Maryland-Eastern Shore got a couple of big hits in key situations, and we did not. That will come.”
Winthrop had four players batting over .300 headed into Thursday night’s 3-2 win against Delaware State, led by sophomore Clay Altman who was 5-for-10 in the first three. Riginos thinks his team, especially the younger players need to “relax a little more and just worry about a quality at-bat instead of trying to do too much.”
Last season Winthrop ranked 250th or lower in 14 offensive categories in 2012, including dead last in the NCAA in on-base percentage. In vivid contrast, three teams come to Rock Hill this weekend that have very little trouble creating offense. Delaware State was second among NCAA Division I’s 291 teams last year in scoring at over eight runs per game and on-base percentage (0.423); Eastern Kentucky was 23rd in scoring, tops in the country in home runs per game (1.22), and second in total homers (66). And though Army lacked the sparkly offensive production, the Black Knights were top-20 in stolen bases, hit-by-pitch and sacrifice bunts.
The common theme was that all three teams could create offense. Undoubtedly their rosters have changed this season, but it will still be a challenging weekend for the Winthrop pitching staff.
“The key is you have to command the zone, first-pitch strikes,” said Riginos. “You gotta’ keep them off the bases and you do that, you’re gonna give yourself a chance to win.”
That bodes well for a Winthrop pitching group that’s struck out 32 and only walked five thus far. Pitching should be a point of strength for the Eagles, who return all three weekend starters from last year. One of those, Eric Ruth, was shifted to the bullpen this season. Riginos envisioned Ruth as the team’s closer, but the Eagles haven’t been able to reach him yet. He’s only thrown 2/3 innings this season, and the Winthrop coaching staff is mulling whether to shift him into a middle or extended relief role so they can better utilize one of their best arms.
Coca-Cola Classic field
The Eagles appear to have already improved on their putrid 2012 batting average, but still haven’t been able to produce hits with runners in scoring position. Of the nine Winthrop outfield players that have started more than two games, only two are seniors – Jason Driver and Matt Lobacz – so there is some inexperience in Riginos’ team. He said it usually takes around 20 games to nail down a consistent lineup and this weekend’s tournament should certainly help to achieve that end.
Player to Watch: Sophomore designated hitter Clay Altman is off to a great start this season at the plate. He’s batting 5 for 10 through the first three games, and in eight opportunities to advance runners, he’s done so six times. Altman is also hitting 2 for 4 with two outs, an area of crucial for Winthrop. The sophomore from Conway, S.C. came off the bench to knock in the winning run in the season opener against Maryland-Eastern Shore.
On the back of a 40-win season, the Hornets were picked to repeat as the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference’s North Division champions. DSU went 22-2 last year in the MEAC’s North Division but missed out on an NCAA berth to Bethune-Cookman.
Player to Watch: Delaware State returns MEAC Preseason Player of the Year Ryan Haas, an infielder and part-time pitcher who hit .362 last year and was in the top-5 in the conference in five batting categories.
The Black Knights also topped the 40-win plateau last year, going 41-15 to win the Patriot League and qualify for the Charlottesville, Va. NCAA Regional. Army lost to the hosts, Virginia and Oklahoma, but returns enough talent to be the preseason favorite in the conference again.
Player to Watch: Right-handed pitcher Chris Rowley is back on the hill for Army after earning Patriot League Pitcher of the Year honors last season. Rowley, a second team All-American last season according to two publications, went 11-1 on the mound with a 2.40 ERA. He struck out 80 batters, walked just 22 and opponents only hit .190 against him.
The Colonels won 31 games en route to their 16th Ohio Valley Conference baseball title last year, but fell short in the conference tournament in an upset loss to Jacksonville State, missing out on the NCAA Tournament in the process. EKU led the nation in home runs per game, and was second in total dingers, but graduated five senior starters and over 50 percent of the team’s 2012 home runs, RBIs, and runs scored.
Player to Watch: Third baseman Josh Soloman hit 14 dingers last year, batted .271 and earned a spot on the Ohio Valley preseason all-conference team a couple of weeks ago.
Bret McCormick • 329-4032. Twitter: @BretJust1T