College of Charleston baseball coach Monte Lee stood in the dugout along the third base line during practice last week and watched the Cougars take some routine fielding practice.
2014 CofC Baseball
CofC By the Numbers
3.12 - Last year's ERA of top returning starting pitcher Nathan Helvey
8 - Number of starting position players returning
72 - Percent of innings lost from last year's pitching corps
19 - Consecutive games played in Charleston county in Feb/March
2014 College of Charleston Baseball
2013 Record 31-26, 18-11 (Second in SoCon)
Coach: Monte Lee, 6th season, 187-111
SS Gunnar Heidt (.349, 4 HR, 54 RBI); 1B/3B Carl Wise (.321, 10 HR, 30 RBI); 2B Blake Butler (.321, 1 HR, 21 RBI); OF Brandon Murray (.306, 9 HR, 54 RBI); RHP Nathan Helvey (5-3, 3.12 ERA, 30 K); RHP Derrick Smith (1-0, 2.70 ERA, 7 K).
LHP Eric Bauer (Central Florida); RHP Taylor Clarke (Towson); RHPBailey Ober (Huntersville, N.C.); IF Nick Pappas (Dutch Fork HS); IF Champ Rowland (Spartanburg Methodist JC); RHP Tyler Thornton (Wade Hampton).
College of Charleston will asking a lot from an unproven group of young pitchers, especially opening the season at No. 12 North Carolina. CofC lost over 70 percent of its innings from a season ago and will look to a talented incoming class of transfers and true freshman to throw strikes on the mound. However, College of Charleston's offense is nearly fully intact with eight of nine position starters returning from 2013. The Cougars were picked second in the CAA Preseason Poll and will look to challenge UNCW and William & Mary in a conference that sent three teams to the NCAA Regionals in 2013.
2014 CofC Baseball Schedule
14 -- at North Carolina; 15 -- at North Carolina; 16 -- at North Carolina; 18 -- Charleston Southern; 21 -- Rhode Island; 22 -- Rhode Island; 23 -- Rhode Island; 25 -- Charlotte; 28 -- Marist.
1--Marist; 2 -- Marist; 4 -- Toledo; 5 -- Georgia Southern; 7 -- at The Citadel; 8 -- The Citadel; 9 -- at The Citadel, 11 -- Jacksonville; 14 -- Kent State; 15 -- Michigan; 16 -- Appalachian State; 18 -- at Charleston Southern; 21 -- at Houston; 22 -- at Houston; 23 -- at Houston; 25 -- at South Carolina; 28 -- Northeastern; 29 -- Northeastern; 30 -- Northeastern.
2 -- at Jacksonville; 4 -- at Towson; 5 -- at Towson; 6 -- at Towson; 9 -- at USC Upstate; 11 -- Delaware; 12 -- Delaware; 13 -- Delaware; 16 -- at Georgia Southern; 18 -- James Madison; 19 -- James Madison; 20 -- James Madison; 22 -- at Coastal Carolina; 25 -- Bethune-Cookman; 26 -- Bethune-Cookman; 27 -- Bethune-Cookman.
2 -- at UNC Wilmington; 3 -- at UNC Wilmington; 4 -- UNC Wilmington; 7 -- USC Upstate; 9 -- at Hofstra; 10 -- at Hofstra; 11 -- at Hofstra; 13 -- Coastal Carolina; 15 -- William & Mary; 16 -- William & Mary; 17 -- William & Mary. 21-24 -- CAA Tournament in Wilmington, N.C.
Lee watched as shortstop Gunnar Heidt charged the ball, scooped it up in his glove, and then in one easy motion threw it to first base.
Lee nodded his head in satisfaction.
Those kinds of defensive plays, those routine plays, could be the difference between winning in the Colonial Athletic Association and losing this season for the Cougars.
With eight of nine position players returning from a 2013 squad that went 31-26 overall and 18-11 in the Southern Conference, Lee is comfortable with what he'll have at the plate and in the field.
It's on the mound where Lee is most concerned.
With 72 percent of the innings lost from the 2013 Cougar pitching staff, Lee understands how important the routine defensive plays will be this season.
Lee wants to limit the number of free passes the opposition gets. That's walks, hit by pitch, and, yes, errors. Lee wants the opposition to have to work to get on base.
"I feel like the pitching talent is there for us to be successful," Lee said. "The problem is that most of our pitchers have never been tested in a game and you never know how they'll react until they get into that situation. I think the only you prepare for playing baseball is by playing baseball."
Sophomore pitcher Nathan Helvey, who made 10 starts a season ago, has the most experience on the Cougars staff. Helvey was 5-3 with a 3.12 earned run average in 52 innings pitched. He is expected to be the Cougars' top starter in 2014.
"He's been there, so I know what to expect from Nathan," Lee said. "His role will be a little different, but he's used to being a weekend starter."
The rest of the Cougars staff has little or no experience. It will be a combination of freshmen, transfers and untested pitchers from last year making up the core of the rotation and bullpen.
"The one thing about the first six guys that will throw for us is that they're all strike throwers," Lee said. "I'm very confident we'll throw strikes. If we don't, I'll be surprised. That's why it's so important for us to make the routine defensive plays behind them.
"Nothing can hurt a young pitcher's confidence more than when he makes the right pitch, he gets a ground ball or a fly ball and we don't make the play behind him. We've got to minimize our mistakes."
Taylor Clarke, a sophomore transfer from Towson, is expected to be the Cougars' No. 2 starter. In 2012, Clarke had eight starts with the Tigers, compiling a 1-4 record with a 3.88 ERA. Eric Bauer, a sophomore from the College of Central Florida, is penciled as the Cougars' Sunday starter.
"Taylor had Tommy John surgery at the end of his freshman year and redshirted last year," Lee said. "Eric is junior college transfer and he throws strikes. They are both pitch to contact throwers, so there will be a lot of balls that'll be put into play."
The Cougars will have plenty of experience returning in the field. Eight of the nine position starters return, including preseason All-CAA candidates Brandon Murray (outfield) and Heidt.
Murray, a senior from Nassau, Bahamas, was an All-SoCon second-team pick in each of the last two seasons. Last season, he hit .306 with nine home runs and 54 RBIs.
Heidt led the Cougars with a .349 batting average last season, and also had 54 RBIs. He recorded a team-high 17 doubles and a SoCon-best seven triples for a slugging percentage of .534.
"You got a lot of guys who have played a lot of baseball and have a lot of at bats," Lee said. "I know what to expect from those guys. They've been there and done that, so I'm pretty comfortable because they're all ready to go."
One of few newcomers that Lee expects to play on a regular basis is first baseman Nick Pappas, a freshman from Dutch Fork High School.
"Nick has been very impressive," Lee said. "He's done about as well as any freshman we've had here. We'll see if that translates to live games."
The SoCon has been one of the top mid-major baseball leagues in the country. As Lee is discovering, the CAA is no slouch either as the league produced three NCAA tournament teams a year ago in UNC Wilmington, William & Mary and Towson. The league ranked ninth in overall RPI.
"There's not a lot that separates the top and bottom teams in the CAA," said Lee.
The Cougars open the regular season this weekend against North Carolina, which advanced to the College World Series in 2013.
"It should be a great atmosphere," Lee said. "I know we're looking forward to the challenge."