It snowed 21.5 inches on Monday in Orono, Maine. You think the University of Maine baseball team is excited to play Winthrop in Rock Hill this weekend?
Yes is the answer to that question. Yes is also the answer to whether the Eagles themselves are pumped up to launch the 2017 season. Tom Riginos’ team lost three of its top four batters and two starting pitchers to graduation but have plenty of talent on this spring’s roster, some of it in the form of returning veterans and some in a talented freshman class.
“Lot of intra-squad competition,” Riginos said in early February. “I already told the guys I’m having a lot of sleepless nights. But that’s a good thing for a coach.”
Preseason reviews of Riginos’ seventh Winthrop team are positive. Baseball America called the Eagles the team to beat in the Big South, while the Big South Conference preseason poll picked them fourth. D1baseball.com predicted Winthrop would finish second behind Campbell.
Those prognostications all have Winthrop in at least the top-four. It’s more clear that with defending national champions Coastal Carolina gone - the Chanticleers moved all of their sports teams to the Sun Belt Conference - the Big South is wide open. Liberty, Campbell and High Point appear to be other contenders.
“I think every guy on this team right now, in our mind, we’re taking the conference, and I think that’s the way we should go into it,” said senior pitcher Reece Green.
Vaunted freshman class
Three Winthrop freshmen are raking in positive press before they’ve even played an inning of college baseball. Perfect Game USA picked 6-foot-3 pitcher Zach Peek as its Big South Freshman of the Year, while D1Baseball.com picked outfielder Tyler Musselwhite for the same award, with Peek second in their voting. Baseball America picked a third Winthrop rookie, pitcher Colton Rendon, as its pick for Big South Freshman of the Year.
Collegiate Baseball ranked Winthrop’s recruiting class 58th best in the country.
“This is definitely the best recruiting class since (Clint) Chrysler and T.R. got here, from my knowledge at least, and we’ve got guys that are gonna be competing in the weekend and spots in the lineup,” said Green. “So that’s a pretty big deal. They’re really gonna help us a lot.”
Two-best non-conference series
The Eagles are going to Omaha one way or another this season. They face Creighton in a three-game series March 31 to April 2 at TD Ameritrade Park, the home of the College World Series.
An earlier series against Kennesaw State next weekend may be the best test of where Winthrop stands. The Owls were 29-27 last season and were picked third in the Atlantic Sun preseason poll, and resemble Winthrop’s program in a number of ways.
The Eagles also face Clemson, South Carolina, North Carolina, Coastal Carolina and Charlotte in mid-week games.
Babe Thomas switches position, again
Senior Babe Thomas will start this weekend at catcher, his fourth different position in four years with the Winthrop program. Thomas replaces Roger Gonzalez, who graduated, and will look to augment the Eagles’ offensive efforts along with redshirt senior Anthony Paulsen and junior shortstop Mitch Spires.
Thomas began his Winthrop career at right field, moved to left as a sophomore then played center last season. But he’s played some defensive innings behind the plate each of the last three years and the move back to his high school position should be easy.
“It’s just natural to me, I guess. You could put me at any position on the field and I’d play there,” Thomas said.
Weekend starters on the mound
Winthrop redshirt junior pitcher Matt Crohan, one of the top pro prospects in the Big South, won’t be back in action until mid-season, at least, as he continues to return from surgery on his labrum (shoulder) that ruled him out most of last season. Starters Sam Kmiec and Zach Sightler graduated, which leaves Riginos with Green, Thad Harris and Rendon as the likely three starters against Maine. Riginos said earlier this month that Winthrop has more pitching depth this season than any of his other six teams.
Green, who lives with Thomas, will get the ball first in Friday’s opener.
“I feel like I just go right after people, I don’t care who I’m facing,” said Green. “I used to really get in my head about it and it didn’t work out too well. It’s a game so I just try to go out there and be loose and relaxed and go out there and have a good time.”
Watch Winthrop baseball
Season tickets for Winthrop’s 24-home baseball schedule can be purchased for $70. To buy tickets, contact the Winthrop ticket office (803-323-2345), located on the lower level of the Winthrop Coliseum.
Winthrop will also sell a mini package for the first time that includes a ticket for every Saturday game this season for $25. Individual game tickets, priced at $5 for adults and $3 for children and seniors, are sold on game day at the Winthrop Ballpark ticket window beginning one hour before game time.
For the latest information on Winthrop Baseball team, follow @WinthropBasebal on Twitter or go to www.winthropeagles.com.