Winthrop baseball needs to make offensive leap

bmccormick@heraldonline.comFebruary 13, 2014 

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    Breakout player: Junior outfielder and backup catcher John Menken should contribute immediately after transferring from Illinois’ Elgin Community College. Menken batted .400 last year with seven home runs and 50 RBI.

    Newcomer to watch: Freshman outfielder/catcher Babe Thomas, a 6-foot, 195-pounder from Mt. Pleasant, S.C.’s Wando High School.

    Pitcher to watch: Junior Josh Strong had a 1.86 earned run average last year in 29 innings of work for the Eagles. Expect Strong’s inning tally to jump this spring.

    Best pro prospect: Catcher Zac Goodno, a junior transfer from Indian River State College in Florida, has received a lot of interest from pro scouts according to Tom Riginos.

Tom Riginos’ first big decision of the 2014 college baseball season was to leave Winthrop’s $5,000 tarp off the field ahead of this week’s heavy snowfall.

That meant 7 to 8 inches of snow piled on the playing surface at the Winthrop Ballpark, which has put the Eagles’ season-opening series with Akron this weekend in flux.

“If you put the tarp on the field, now you’ve got seven inches of snow, and then you have ice, and when you’re getting ice off the tarp, now you ruin your tarp,” said Riginos. “That’s what we did last year, that Sunday for a tournament, and it was an absolute monster. I wasn’t gonna make that mistake again, so we just left it off.”

Riginos is banking on the experience of his previous three seasons as Winthrop’s head coach to pay off this season, whether it’s making decisions on tarps, or his program, which is 65-98 since 2011.

“I think we need to take another jump. Have I thought the process is a little slower than anticipated? Yeah I thought last year was going to be a bigger jump,” he said. “The defensive numbers, the pitching numbers have gone up. Last year we did a really good job in midweek games where previous years we had a really tough time competing in the midweek, and so now I just think we’ve got to do a better job in conference and on the weekends.

“But I think, I know I believe, it’s going in the right direction.”

The Eagles finished 21-33 last spring, 8-15 in the Big South. In the fourth year of Riginos’ run at the helm, the Eagles need to improve dramatically in one critical area: offensive production. Winthrop averaged 3.6 runs per game last season, last in the Big South by a healthy margin. In 18 games the Eagles scored two runs or less; they were 2-16 in those games, and were also 6-26 when outhit by the opponent.

Pitching and defense kept the Eagles afloat, if barely. Winthrop had 17 one-run games last season, and went 9-8 in those contests, suggesting to Riginos an internal fortitude that overcame the offensive struggles at times.

“Our pitching/defense kept us in it last year and we just couldn’t score enough runs,” he said. “Our defensive numbers and our pitching numbers were overall very respectable. That’s where we’ve made an emphasis this year, that we’ve just got to get better from the offensive side. I think if we improve offensively, we have a chance to have a really good year.”

Guts can’t be relied on in every game. Riginos signed three junior college players with the goal of improving his team’s offensive firepower immediately. Outfielder/catcher John Menken (Elgin Community College, Ill.), utility player Brad Kaczka (Monroe Community College, N.Y.) and catcher Zac Goodno (Indian River State College, Fla.) will be counted on early for run production.

“If we started Friday, all three would be in the lineup,” Riginos said.

Only two Eagles hit .300 or better last season, senior Cody Dolan and redshirt junior T.J. Olesczuk. The latter has returned from an injury that limited his participation last season to 12 games and forced him to redshirt 2013. But Dolan has been lost for the year after surgery on his bicep and labrum, and will redshirt.

That puts more pressure on the continued development of sophomores Michael Patrick, Stephen Wallace and Kyle Edwards, newcomers that were forced into the starting lineup last year by injuries and necessity. None of those three hit over .200 last season, but they did see a lot of at-bats.

“I think that’s the benefit of playing those guys early,” said Riginos. “They may take their lumps their freshman years, but by the time they’re sophomores, juniors, the progression and development is gonna help us out in the long run. Hopefully, you’re gonna see that this year.”

Winthrop graduated a pair of stud arms in No. 1 starter Matt Pierpont, who led the team in innings pitched (90) and wins (four), and closer Eric Ruth, who saved 10 games. Sophomores Sam Kmiec and Joey Strain will be tasked with replacing Pierpont at the front end of the rotation, but identifying a closer will take a bit longer.

“It really takes us 20 games to find out the roles,’ said Riginos. “Eric Ruth did a great job for us last year and he’s really hard to replace, so we’ve got some guys that we’re looking at.”

Clemson transfer Brock Goodling and sidearm-throwing junior college transfer Travis Shelley will get shots at grabbing the closing role. Redshirt senior Jason Driver, the Eagles’ starting shortstop in 2012, and junior Josh Strong will also be factors in the pitching rotation with chances to be the No. 3 starter.

“We’ve got some guys but we’ve got to put them in those situations and see how they perform,” said Riginos.

Eager to get the season underway, the Eagles may have to wait just a little longer. Winthrop had already moved its Friday game to a Saturday doubleheader, but Riginos said in his gut, “Saturday is doubtful.” At least they saved the tarp.

Bret McCormick •  803-329-4032; Twitter: @BretJust1T

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