Winthrop baseball coach Joe Hudak knows his team will hit the ball this year and has plenty of stats to back that up.
He has a young, inexperienced -- and untested -- pitching staff he believes in, one he says is very talented. For the most part he, along with assistant coaches Mike McGuire, Kyle DiEduardo and Jason Murray, only have Fall Ball stats to go by.
"I am very optimistic. I can't remember a time I've been so excited about the start of a season," Hudak said.
The Eagles open the season Friday afternoon at 4 p.m. at The Winthrop Ballpark. The opening weekend features two games each against Eastern Michigan and George Washington. They host North Carolina A&T Feb. 25 followed by another four-game weekend series with two-game sets versus Wagner and Kent State.
Sophomore Matteo D'Angelo will be the opening day starter. He worked 23 games out of the bullpen as a freshman last season. He was 0-2 with a 5.54 ERA in 37.1 innings.
He has been a starter -- and a good one -- back in Italy. He represented his country in the 2007 Olympic Games qualifying section in Barcelona and played with the Italian Senior National Team in the World Championship in 2007 in Taipei, Taiwan.
"I always liked starting. Right now I am getting used to being a starter again," D'Angelo said.
Hudak sees D'Angelo as a weekend starter because he throws strikes and doesn't beat himself.
"Matteo is a kid that doesn't throw overly hard. He is going to throw 84-86 (mph), he'll touch 87 now and again," Hudak said.
"He had a very, very good first half of the year, had a little tendinitis in his arm and did not throw as well in the second half."
Sophomores Dom Patterozzi (junior college transfer) and Robert Lake along with redshirt-sophomore Wade Newman are also in the rotation. Junior Tyler McBride is the No. 3 starter and also will play the outfield.
"We have to give the guys who are consistent the starts. These guys will take the ball and give us a chance to win every time out. They've all earned it," DiEduardo, the pitching coach said.
Combined, the five starters were 4-5 with a 5.32 ERA in 11 starts and 113 1-3 innings last season, when the Eagles finished 26-34 with a team ERA of 5.31.
For the second consecutive year, Hudak doesn't have the clear ace on this staff. Last year's most dependable starters, Ryan Schwartz (6-7, 4.85 ERA), Ryan Mullins (7-2, 3.56) and Hamilton Bennett (1-9, 5.79) are gone. Schwartz and Mullins were seniors. Bennett is academically ineligible.
Former aces include Alex Wilson who transferred out after the 2007 season and will pitch for top-ranked Texas A&M this year. Jason Franzblau left the same season. The Eagles may face him when they travel to Arizona State on May 8-10.
Winthrop has produced right-handed control pitchers Kevin Slowey and Heath Rollins in recent years. Slowey won 12 games for the Minnesota Twins last year. Rollins will likely begin the 2009 season with the Tampa Bay Rays Double A affiliate the Montgomery Biscuits.
Patterozzi throws a bit harder than D'Angelo. Hudak says he is an upper 80s guy.
"Dom has a decent slider that we have been working on since the end of the fall and it has become better. He's got a good curveball and a good feel for a changeup. He doesn't walk anybody and never beats himself," Hudak said.
The closer's role goes to freshman Tyler Mizenko. The 6-0 right-hander out of Wallingford, Conn. put together an impressive fall numbers-wise but that wasn't all that sold Hudak on him.
"He has a good mental approach to closing and certainly has the stuff to be a good closer," Hudak said.
Winthrop was chosen third in the Big South Conference's preseason poll. Baseball America has them finishing second. Both polls have Coastal Carolina as the team to beat.
"Historically it has been Coastal and Winthrop. Now, Liberty, VMI, High Point and Radford have an increased commitment to baseball and Gardner-Webb has always been a scrappy club," Hudak said. "I'd be disappointed if we didn't compete for a championship. Last year we were fourth. That's a very disappointing year for us and will never be acceptable."
The strength of the team is unquestionably the offense. The infield is the core of the team, with first baseman Eddie Tisdale (.340, 5 HR, 29 RBI in '08), second baseman Bryn Henderson (.288, 7, 43), freshman third baseman Chas Crane and shortstop Kevin Nolan (.319, 2, 37). The catcher is John Murrian (.301, 7, 27). Eddie Rohan (.287, 13, 39) led the team in home runs last year. He will play somewhere or be the designated hitter.
Two highlights to the schedule are a four-game series at Southern California, March 13-16 and the Arizona State trip. Winthrop opens Big South action at High Point on March 6. The first conference series at home is March 20-22 against Coastal.