America’s pastime is nearly upon us.
Justin Guidry is one of two returning starters on MT’s squad this year. He was voted First Team All-Sun Belt as a sophomore. MT Athletics
On Monday, Feb. 14, while many are celebrating Valentine’s Day, others will be celebrating the arrival of pitchers and catchers to voluntary training camp.
Of course, the professional baseball season won’t start until March 31. However, for Middle Tennessee the season will begin Friday, Feb. 18, as the Raiders welcome Portland to Reese Smith Jr. Field.
“The expectations kind of go along with the history of the program, and that’s to compete for championships,” MT baseball coach Steve Peterson said. “That’s what we expect to happen year in and year out, nothing less is acceptable.”
This season will present a challenge to Middle, as they return only two starters from the last season’s team, junior Justin Guidry and senior Will Skinner.
Guidry was voted First Team All-Sun Belt as a sophomore, batting .389 with 52 RBIs and 48 runs scored. Skinner was voted to the Sun Belt All-Tournament team and batted .307 with 16 home runs in the regular season.
“Right now what I’m seeing is that defensively we’ll be a pretty good ball club,” Peterson said. “I think our strength will be defensively, especially in our infield.”
Peterson believes senior catcher Tyler Acker will be important to the team this season on the defensive end. Acker may also supply production on the offensive side of things. He batted .364 with 13 RBIs in 26 games in 2010.
“I don’t think we’re going to swing the bat with the power that our fans have seen the last three years,” Peterson said. “But I think we can swing for a decent average, put ball in play, move runners, things like that.”
The question for Middle Tennessee will be pitching.
“I wish my answer was that pitching was our biggest strength, but pitching is our biggest unknown.”
Eric Gilley is the team’s only returning pitcher with a proven record. Gilley, a senior, was 6-2 with a 4.32 ERA in 13 starts one year ago.
Freshman Hank LaRue has impressed coaches early on. LaRue, a switch-hitting infielder, will have a good chance of starting the season at third base.
“Ryan Stevens, another freshman from Riverdale High School right here in Murfreesboro, has probably shown us that, defensively, he’s the best centerfielder,” Peterson said. “Again, we’ve got to see how he can handle Division 1 pitching.”
Transfers will look to play a big role for the Raiders this season as well.
Johnny Thomas, a transfer from New Orleans University, will start the season at second base. Thomas hit .269 as a freshman at New Orleans.
Jay Morris, a power-hitting lefthander who is also from New Orleans can play first base and in the outfield. Morris will likely be plugged into the lineup as long as he is hitting the ball well.
Finally, Matthew Drake, a junior-college transfer from Wallace-Hanceville, is a switch-hitting outfielder who can pitch as well. Drake batted .383 at Wallace-Hanceville last season.
“I feel good about new players we brought in and the lineup we put together,” Peterson said. “Just a lot of questions on our pitching staff.”
The three starting pitchers Peterson is sure about are Gilley, Hunter Adkins, who appeared in 38 innings with 32 strike outs last season, and Daniel Palo, who struck out 26 in just more than 39 innings a year ago.
Middle’s fourth and fifth starters will be decided from a committee of players.
Peterson expects Florida International, last season’s Sun Belt Tournament Champion, and Florida Atlantic, the Sun Belt Regular Season Champion from 2010, to be favored in conference preseason polls.
“I always tell my ball club if you can some way have a chance to win the championship, that’s what you’re shooting for,” Peterson said. “Obviously MTSU knows what it takes to win the championship in the Sun Belt.” MP