Baseball Takes to Field for First Practice
STATESBORO, Ga. Georgia Southern Baseball began the 2009 season on Sunday afternoon (Feb. 1), going through the first official practice at J.I. Clements Stadium. The Eagles open the campaign on Friday, February 20th against Presbyterian.
Head coach Rodney Hennon worked all the available pitchers at least one inning during an intersquad scrimmage to close out the first practice of the year.
Three Eagles already earned preseason honors. Senior outfielder Ty Wright, senior catcher Griffin Benedict and junior third baseman A.J. Wirnsberger were all named Third Team Preseason All-America by various media outlets. In all 19 letterwinners return from last year's 33-25 team that finished 16-11 (fourth place) in the SoCon.
2009 Season Outlook
Two All-Americas, a finalist for National Player of the Year’, six All-Southern Conference performers, a NCAA single-game record 14 home runs that made national news, and two players that hit for the cycle both doing so in consecutive innings. So how does head coach Rodney Hennon and his Eagles follow up the most impressive offensive season in program history? Simple, add pitching depth.
The Eagles need to replace four position starters from last year, however, the most anticipated addition to this year’s team are several new arms. Georgia Southern’s goals for 2009 are clear... Southern Conference championships and a return trip to the NCAA Regionals.
“In order to get us back over the hump and give ourselves a better opportunity to win a conference championship and go back to the regionals we have really focused on improving our pitching depth,” said Hennon. “We brought in several junior college transfers along with some freshmen and some guys that have returned. They have matured, gained another year of experience and hopefully improved our pitching staff’s talent level and depth.”
The Eagles put up unprecedented numbers last year: .346 team batting average, 595 runs scored, 751 hits, 154 doubles, 11 triples, 114 home runs, 543 RBI, .437 on-base percentage and .584 slugging percentage. Hennon knows it will be difficult to repeat those incredible numbers in 2009.
“We have some options and I think this team has an opportunity to be very productive offensively. We did a great job with the bunt game in the fall. With our experience we have a lot of guys that understand how to play the game and what their roles are within our team. Combine all that, we have a chance to be productive and score at times in different ways than what we did last year,” said Hennon. “I don’t know that we’re always going to be the team that will sit back and wait on the home run. We still have some guys that are capable of doing those things, but I also feel good about the fact that we have a group of guys that are capable of manufacturing runs if we need.”
One of the biggest holes to fill in the lineup is that of All-America Chris Shehan, who left following his junior year when he was one of three Eagle draft picks. Shehan, the Southern Conference Player of the Year’, was mentioned as a finalist on multiple National Player of the Year’ awards.
Hennon has realistic expectations when trying to fill that spot.
“You don’t just replace a guy like a Chris Shehan overnight and we don’t need anyone on our team to try to be Chris Shehan. We’ve still got some experienced guys. Chris developed into the player he was. I think there are enough good hitters in the lineup where we are still going to have guys that are protected, we can be very productive and still score a lot of runs,” said Hennon. “I think one thing that we had last year that we still have with our position players is competition. There are going to be some guys sitting on that bench capable of coming in and picking a guy up when we need them to. We are going to have to be consistent and get off to a good start early. We are going to have to pitch and play defense; that’s the name of the game. If we can do a good job, be able to pitch consistently throughout the year and play good solid defense behind that pitching staff - all while finding a way to manufacture and score runs - then I think this club can make a serious run at winning a conference championship and going back to a regional.”
Preparation for the 2009 season began last fall, an off-season workout that according to Hennon was one of the best he has experienced.
“We had a very productive fall season. I think one good thing was the fact that we have a lot of veteran players especially with our position players. We did a good job with a lot of the little things from an offensive and defensive standpoint which is encouraging,” admitted Hennon. “Also, the newcomers that we brought into the program - particularly on our pitching staff - gave us an opportunity to evaluate their abilities a little bit further and try to define some roles as we head into the spring. There was a lot of competition on our pitching staff this fall which I think was good for everyone.”
The Eagles return six arms from last year and are joined by seven newcomers and one redshirt. Kyle Kamppi is the only senior on this year’s staff and the right-hander has done it all. During his sophomore year he led the Southern Conference in appearances as a late inning set-up man. Last year he started in the bullpen before earning a weekday start, then the weekend and eventually got the ball in the Eagles’ Southern Conference Tournament opener.
He posted a 5-4 record and 6.18 ERA, striking out 58 in 67 innings pitched.
“Kyle has done any role we have asked him to perform in; he went out, competed and done an outstanding job for us. We feel like he is most suited for the bullpen so we will use him late in ball games. It could be either in a set up type role or he could be our closer,” said Hennon.
Sophomore Andy Moye made a weekend start in all 14 appearances. He finished 3-5 but also suffered from some hard-luck no-decisions. He fanned 54 batters in 64.1 innings and was one of the most consistent pitchers during the final half of the season.
“Andy is our most experienced starter,” said Hennon. “He’s certainly a guy that will have an opportunity to go out and compete as a starter.”
Tony Chisman made an immediate impact his freshman year, leading the team with 28 appearances out of the bullpen. He posted a 1-1 record with a save, striking out 36 in 30.1 innings.
“Tony was thrown into some big situations last year as a true freshman. He went off this past summer and continued to improve as he did throughout the year last year. He has come back with a lot of confidence this year.”
Michael Hester went 1-1 with two starts in 12 appearances his freshman year. Brian Wilkerson is recovering from Tommy John surgery. The junior is looking to regain his form from his freshman year in which he was one of the team leaders in wins, innings and strikeouts. Trent Franzago, another freshman, started once in 13 appearances but could miss additional time this season. Ryan McCafferty redshirted last year while trying to recover from a back injury.
“We are really encouraged where Brian is at with his rehab coming off Tommy John last year. Early on I would suspect he will be utilized in the bullpen. That gives you another experienced guy coming back, but the last thing we are going to do is rush him. He has worked really hard to get back and be healthy and know he’s looking forward to competing,” said Hennon. “Ryan had to redshirt last year. We are still trying to get him back to the point where he’s ready to pitch for us. We feel like he could be a contributor in the bullpen if we could get him back to 100 percent.”
Chris Mederos and Jake Brown are two junior college transfers who made a big impression in the fall and could contend for a weekend starting role. True-freshmen Matt Murray and Colin Snow also caught the eye of the coaches last fall.
“Chris came from Gordon College and Jake is a left handed pitcher out of Pitt Community College. Those guys were impressive during the fall,” said Hennon. “Matt had a very solid fall as well. Colin Snow will have a chance to compete for starting job along with (Michael) Hester who has shown a lot of improvement.”
“Dexter had an impressive fall and gives us a left handed arm down in the pen. He’s got good stuff and is going to give us some added depth down there. Charles is more of a sidearm right-hander. He throws a lot of ground balls so he should be able to give us some help,” said Hennon. “(True-freshman) Mitchell Farmer gives us another arm in the bullpen.
“We feel like we will be improved from a pitching standpoint, the question remains to be seen is how much we improved. One thing we want to do is make that environment more competitive within our pitching staff and we feel like we have been able to do that this fall and as we head into preseason practice,” said Hennon. “The returning guys we are excited about the improvement that they have made, and I think that competition has brought the best out of those players as well.”
Preseason All-America nominee Griffin Benedict returns for his senior year. One of the best all-around catchers in the country, he batted .355 with 60 runs scored and 65 RBI. Of his 77 hits last year, 31 went for extra-bases (17 doubles, two triples and 12 home runs).
Fellow senior Chris Banker saw action in 11 games and batted .625 during his limited at-bats.
“Griffin Benedict is another senior who will give us leadership behind the plate. It’s nice to know going into the year that we have him coming back and we feel like we have some good depth behind him,” said Hennon. “We feel like Chris (Banker) has improved and we also brought in JUCO transfer Randy Williams (high school teammate of Chris Mederos). Those two guys are competing for the job behind Griffin.”
Defense has been a big key to the Eagles’ success in recent years. It begins with the infield. Gone are starters Jeremiah Parker (first base) and 17th-round draft pick Jeremy Beckham (second base) but a solid nucleus returns, including the left side for the second straight year.
Third Team Preseason All-America A.J. Wirnsberger returns at third base. A two-year starter, Wirnsberger (.325, 21 HR, 74 RBI) put up career offensive numbers, including a Southern Conference record three grand slams. He also recorded a .925 fielding percentage while starting all 58 games at third.
Shortstop Brian Pierce carries an impressive streak of 169 consecutive starts into his senior year. He batted .272 with 37 runs scored and again led the team in sacrifice bunts.
“Brian has been steady for three years at shortstop. You know he’s going to make the routine play for you. However, I think he has improved offensively throughout his career and gotten a little better each year. He’ll give us an experienced guy down in the order that can bunt, hit and run, and handle the bat to help the team offensively as well,” admitted Hennon. “A.J. had a big year for us and put up some big numbers. Defensively he has been a very solid player, and he’ll be a guy that will hit in the middle of the line up for us this year. We certainly feel like has an opportunity to drive in a lot of runs for us and be productive.”
Senior Will Southwell turned in an impressive fall season. He batted .286 last year but made several key defensive plays at first base. Junior Kyle Blackburn also earned starts at first base throughout his career and can also serve as designated hitter. The junior provides power from the left side, hitting four home runs in the first month of the 2008 season.
“We’ve got a lot of experience coming back and you have to feel good about that going into the season. We return the left side of our infield with A.J. and Brian,” said Hennon. “Will has played a lot at first base and coming out of fall practice is the leading guy. He is a fifth-year senior who has worked hard and developed into a very good first baseman. He has also improved as a hitter. He knows how to play the game and is very well respected by his peers. Defensively we feel he’s as good as it gets over there around the bag. He can handle the bat and can do a lot of different things to help us offensively as well. This is his year and his opportunity to really step up and play a bigger role for our team. Will gives us leadership in the infield, along with Brian at shortstop and Griffin (Benedict) behind the plate.
“Kevin (Bowles) has been in our program for four years now and is a guy who has paid his dues. He really had an outstanding fall for us and I think we are going to have a very scrappy team. A player like Kevin gives us that kind of attitude,” stated Hennon. “Jake can play both positions in the middle infield. That gives us some depth and quickness in the infield.”
Junior Roman Grimaldi made 10 appearances off the bench at third last year. JUCO transfer Chris Jones could challenge for playing time at second base. True freshman Eric Phillips could fill in at second, short or third if needed.
“We were really encouraged by Eric’s play this fall. The most valuable thing about Eric is that he can play any of the three positions in the infield. We really believe that he is going to turn into an outstanding player at this level and it’s nice to know that he is going to give us some depth at all three spots,” said Hennon.
Georgia Southern must replace two All-SoCon performers. Shehan left after getting drafted following his All-America season in which he shattered numerous offensive records. A finalist for three National Player of the Year’ awards, Shehan batted .438 with 17 doubles, three triples, 22 home runs, 84 RBI and 77 runs scored. David Richardson stepped in following the season-ending injury to Matt Miller and posted a .359 batting average with 11 doubles, 44 runs and 46 RBI. He was one of the two Eagles to hit for the cycle in consecutive innings and also earned All-SoCon honors.
Replacing both is no easy task, but if 2008 is any indication there are players ready to step into those roles.
Ty Wright made an immediate impact after transferring. He took over the leadoff role when Miller went down. The senior not only hit for power (22 doubles, 17 home runs, 52 RBI) but also hit for average as well (.398 batting, 32 walks, 25 strikeouts, .557 on-base percentage). Six of his homers led off a game.
Phillip Porter also turned in a career season. He batted .365 with 13 doubles, 59 runs scored and 45 RBI. Jonathan King battled injuries last year but finished with a .315 batting average. Those four seniors should see significant playing time.
“We probably have as much depth in the outfield as in any position. Ty Wright is another guy that came out of nowhere last year. For most of the season he was our DH putting up some big numbers from the lead off spot. Again all that happened after the injury to Matt Miller, but Ty really energized our team. He got some opportunities to play in the outfield later in the season and showed that he could get the job done out there as well,” said Hennon. “He worked most of the fall out in left field but we’ve also thrown him over at first base some as well. We’re excited about him and our plans are probably to leave him in that lead off spot as we head into the season.
“Phillip has been in our program for five years and I think last year it really all clicked for him. He really did a great job for us in the two hole and I have been really proud of Phillip in how he has developed as a player and matured. That should pay off more for him and it’s nice to know that you have a guy like that coming back,” said Hennon. “Matt has been a very productive player for us throughout his career and was having an outstanding season before he fractured his leg. He’s back and a hundred percent. It’s good to have him back in centerfield.
“I really think there were times last year where we missed his defense and that’s an area that we’ve tried to improve upon as well. Our outfield defense was a little bit of an Achilles at times last year and this group has worked hard to get better in that area. Certainly Matt returning will help there as well. Matt has led off for us in the past, but we put him in the five and six hole at times this fall and was very productive there. I think there’s a good chance that you might see him somewhere in the middle this spring,” said Hennon. “I’m really excited about Jonathan as he heads into his senior year. When he came back this fall you could tell that he worked extremely hard and he did a lot of good things for our club this fall. We are going to have to find ways to get him some at-bats. You could see him in the DH slot and possibly push for a lot of time in one of the outfield positions.”
Last year was a rare time that the Southern Conference did not receive multiple bids to the NCAA Regionals despite a couple of teams deserving of an at-large berth. That has certainly been the case in recent years.
“The league every year gets more and more competitive, and I think when you look around the league there are several clubs that are similar to us from the standpoint in that they return some experienced guys so I think because of that you will see a very competitive race for the title,” stated Hennon. “I don’t think there’s any question year in and year out this is a league deserving of two bids. You can make the case a lot of years for three teams. Up until last year we had two teams in. All you can do is focus on the things you can control: going out and playing hard every day, try to put yourself in the position to where you’re in control of your destiny by winning the conference tournament, and certainly you want to go into that tournament with the best possible seed that you can. If you can find a way to win the regular season that never hurts.
“When you look at this team as a whole, I really like our leadership, I like the character, and I like the way they work. I think this is a blue collar team that’s going to go out and scrap and compete day in and day out and if we can continue to do those things I really like what this team is capable of accomplishing,” said Hennon.
The Eagles should benefit from playing 12 of their first 13 games at J.I. Clements, a place they have recorded a near .700 winning percentage over the past four years.
“No question we have a pretty good track record at J.I. Clements. It’s nice to be able to start out with that kind of home stand to get the season underway. Hopefully we can get ourselves off to a good start, get some confidence and get some momentum early in the season before we head into conference play,” said Hennon. “We’ve got a great facility to play in and great support from our fan base. I think that any time you can play at home there’s a comfort level for any team.”
- Category: Baseball
- Published on Sunday, 01 February 2009 00:21