Several preseason publications and web sites have saddled Winthrop baseball with the label of preseason favorite in the Big South Conference.
The Eagles will find out quickly if they’re as good as some think they are. Tom Riginos’ crew opens the season this weekend at No. 9 Ole Miss, and also faces South Carolina and Clemson in its first nine games.
“You’re gonna probably play in front of 8 to 10,000 this weekend. It’s a top-10 team, so it’s gonna be a good challenge for us,” said Riginos. “We’re excited about that.”
Winthrop’s pitching staff is loaded and while the Eagles lost their top hitter -- Anthony Paulsen -- to graduation, they return Mitch Spires, whose .342 batting average was fourth-best in the league last year. Spires has been around Rock Hill a long time and knew just the right thing to say when asked what he thought about opening the season at a vaunted SEC opponent.
“We’re just really worried about us and getting the wheels turning,” he said.
Younger and less schooled in the ways of evasive question answering, sophomore pitcher Zach Peek was more emotive.
“It’s gonna be awesome, I’m super excited,” he said earlier this week. “It’s a once in a lifetime opportunity. I think it’s awesome we have the opportunity to catch them early, maybe catch some W’s. I think it’s gonna be a good couple ball games.”
Perfect Game picked Peek as the Big South’s preseason pitcher of the year. The 6-foot-3, 200-pound right-hander, described by Perfect Game as a “frontline arm,” teams with Colten Rendon and Nate Pawelczyk, both All-Conference candidates in their own right, to give the Eagles arguably the most imposing starting three in the league. Riginos said Peek’s physical and technical development has “jumped, all the way around” this season.
The Eagles also return redshirt junior Dalton Whitaker, who led the league with nine saves last season, as well as a tool shed full of pitchers with unique capabilities for any number of special situations. Riginos hasn’t named a starter for Friday’s opener, but he’s blessed for choice.
“We’ve got freshmen that have got good arms, we’ve got experience in the bullpen, we’ve got experience with Nate and Chief (Rendon) both starting last year,” said Peek. “I think our pitching staff is gonna be one of our main tools this year.”
The hope is this year’s team will be able to support its pitching staff with even more offensive backing. Small ball has been the offensive modus operandi for Winthrop the last few years. The Eagles led the league in batting average last year, but Riginos hopes 2018’s team won’t need three consecutive singles to score as often as it has the past four, five years.
“Everybody’s a year older. We’ve got a lot of guys with a lot of at-bats in their belt, so that’s gonna help,” Riginos said. “We’ve seen it just in our intersquad. Our power numbers early on are a lot more than they were last year.”
Six-foot-3, 220-pound redshirt infielder Tyler Halstead, junior outfield Hunter Lipscomb and junior college transfer Cale Gibson should help put a few more balls out of the park, while Spires looks to continue his excellent junior campaign into his final season. Spires hit at least .270 in both of his first two seasons at Winthrop. Two clear reasons explained his production jump last spring.
“Partially the work I put in in the offseason and partially I’ve kind of gotten more mature at the plate, as far as approach,” he said. “I was a really free swinger my first two years here. I would swing at some pitches I should not chase and I think that’s what I’ve gotten a lot better at.”
Spires’ maturity isn’t uncommon in the Winthrop program. The Eagles only have five seniors on the roster, but a horde of juniors.
“We’re older for sure,” Spires said. “We’re a loose team. We’re relaxed, we like to have fun, we’re not gonna get too caught up in any moment.”
It seems like the Eagles perfect team to challenge with three SEC/ACC schools in the first nine games, right? Well, scheduling doesn’t work that way. The Ole Miss series was scheduled three years ago, when Riginos only had an inkling that his 2018 team might be talented. Next year, the Eagles will play at Florida, a series scheduled a few years ago, too.
Still, it’s a major set of early tests for Winthrop. Riginos said he wants to see how his players react to the challenge, whether they’re preseason award favorites or battling for playing time further down the depth chart.
After strong regular seasons, the Eagles have fallen short in the Big South tournament each of the past few years and some Power-5 non-conference wins would certainly help the program’s RPI rating in case it’s needed to bolster an at-large NCAA Regional resume in May/June.
“They’re really good teams and they’re gonna be teams that are talked about all year long,” said Spires. “Obviously, getting some W’s playing them would really help our RPI, help us get in the tournament. We want a high-enough RPI that we don’t have to worry about the Big South tournament. We don’t want everything weighing on those four games.”