By the numbers, The Citadel had the best pitching staff in the Southern Conference last season, leading the league in ERA and strikeouts.
Major League Baseball took notice, picking three of the Bulldogs’ draft-eligible juniors — James Reeves, Skylar Hunter and Austin Mason — in the draft. That trio left 14 wins, 13 saves and 201 innings pitched for coach Fred Jordan to replace this season.
“Put those three guys on this club and I’m feeling very, very confident,” said Jordan, who enters his 25th season two victories shy of 800 career wins. “But we’ve got some talented young freshmen who are going to get their feet wet early. That’s the reason they chose The Citadel. We’ll weather the storm, and once they develop a little bit, I think we’ll have a good, solid ball club.”
Even with the SoCon’s No. 1 pitching staff last year, the Bulldogs could manage only a 28-30 record, finishing 10-14 in the league, good for eighth place. Since The Citadel’s regular season and tournament titles in 2010, the Bulldogs have posted just one winning season and finished higher than eighth in the league only once (a fourth-place finish in 2013).
The key to exceeding expectations this season (league coaches picked the Bulldogs to finish tied for seventh), Jordan said, lies in playing solid defense behind a developing pitching staff. Last season, The Citadel was the worst-fielding club in the SoCon with a league-high 103 errors and a .953 fielding percentage. The Bulldogs turned a league-low 29 double plays and allowed a league-high 83 unearned runs.
“Our pitching will have to develop as we go,” Jordan said. “And we have to play good defense. There’s no reason why we should not be in the upper division of our league from a defensive standpoint. That’s something we really attacked in the fall, and something we’ve got to hang our hat on. Some days you will hit, some days you won’t. Same with pitching. But we’ve got to get back to making the routine play on defense, and that’s been our No. 1 emphasis.”
Having senior catcher Stephen Windham back should provide an anchor for the defense, and sophomore shortstop William Kinney could be primed for a breakout year after batting .274 last year while playing mostly at third base.
“Kinney has really developed into an exceptional player at shortstop,” Jordan said.
Senior Bret Hines — “Our best player in the fall and in spring training,” Jordan said — will man third base, and the sophomore Watcher brothers (Philip and Jacob) are back at second base.
Another player looking for a breakout year is 6-4, 225-pound sophomore first baseman Drew Ellis, who hammered 12 home runs and drove in 41 runs last year, but hit for just a .229 average with a team-high 76 strikeouts.
“Drew has done a better job of laying off balls in the dirt and of not chasing with two strikes,” Jordan said. “It’s just a maturity factor for him. He’s obviously an outstanding talent and power bat, and if he can continue to improve, we feel good with him in the middle of our lineup.”
Seniors Steven Hansen and Jason Smith and junior Austin Mapes are back in the outfield; Mapes was picked to the preseason All-SoCon team after batting .308 a year ago. Sophomores Shy Phillips and Clay Martin provide depth and a righty/lefty combo off the bench. Freshman Ben Peden and senior Mike Deese will get at-bats at first base or designated hitter.
As for that starting rotation, sophomore lefty J.P. Sears will likely bump up to the Friday night role; he was 5-5 with a 4.28 ERA last year, and was named to the preseason All-SoCon team this year. Sophomore right-hander Thomas Byelick (3-3, 4.70 ERA) is the likely Saturday starter, with Sunday going to sophomore Phillip Watcher or any of three freshmen right-handers — Dylan Spence, Morgan Foulks or Jordan Merritt.
In Hunter’s closer role, redshirt freshman Kyle Smith and junior Zack Lavery are expected to head a committee.
Jordan’s young pitchers will be tested quickly — 12 of the Bulldogs’ first 18 games are against Virginia Tech, South Carolina, College of Charleston, Elon and Clemson. The Tigers come to Riley Park for two games on March 15-16.
“The schedule is very challenging,” Jordan said. “But we will be better because of it. Our No. 1 goal is a deep run into the SoCon Tournament, and the regular season prepares us for that. We hope to be prepared come May.”
2015 RECORD: 28-30 (10-14 SoCon)
COACH: Fred Jordan, 798-632 in 25 years at The Citadel
TOP PLAYERS: OF Austin Mapes (.308, 7 HR, 28 RBI); C Stephen Windham (.305, 3 HR< 38 RBI); 3B William Kenney (.274, 2 HR, 17 RBI); RHP Zach Lavery (0-3, .265 ERA); LHP J.P Sears (5-5, 4.28 ERA); RHP Thomas Byelick (3-3, 4.70 ERA).
TOP NEWCOMERS: 1B Ben Peden (6-0, 215, Greenville HS); RHP Jordan Merritt (6-0, 165, West Ashley HS); C Cole Buffington (6-1, 185, Kennesaw, Ga.); RHP Dylan Spence (6-1, 180, Belton-Honea Path HS); RHP Morgan Fouks (6-0, 195, Douglasville, Ga.).
OUTLOOK: The Citadel lost three junior pitchers — James Reeves, Skylar Hunter and Austin Mason — to the MLB Draft after last season, leaving huge gaps in the starting rotation and in Hunter’s closer role. Preseason all-SoCon pick J.P. Sears and sophomore Thomas Byelick are expected to lead the rotation, and junior Zack Lavery and redshirt freshman Kyle Smith are candidates to close. The Bulldogs also lost their top hitter in Connor Walsh (.341, 9 HR, 60 RBI), but do return their next six hitters. Young pitchers must develop, and a breakout year for 6-4, 225-pound 1B Drew Ellis (.229, 12 HR, 41 RBI) would certainly help the Bulldogs, who face a tough early schedule that includes 12 games against Virginia Tech, South Carolina, College of Charleston, Elon and Clemson.
19 - Virginia Tech, 5 p.m.; 20 - Virginia Tech, 3:30 p.m.; 21 - Virginia Tech, 1 p.m.; 23 - at Winthrop, 4 p.m.; 26 -- Siena, 5 p.m.; 27 - Siena, 2 p.m.; 28 - Siena, 1 p.m.
1 - South Carolina, 7 p.m.; 4 - College of Charleston, 6 p.m.; 5 - at College of Charleston, 2:30 p.m.; 6 - College of Charleston, 1 p.m.; 8 USC Upstate, 6 p.m.; 9 - Richmond, 6 p.m.; 11 - at Elon, 4 p.m.; 12 - at Elon, 4 p.,m.; 13 - at Elon, 4 p.m.; 15 - Clemson, 7 p.m.; 16 - Clemson, 6 p.m.; 18 -- Presbyterian, 6 p.m.; 19 - Presbyterian, 2 p.m.; 20 - Presbyterian, 1 p.m.; 22 - at USC Upstate, 6 p.m.; 25 - at VMI, 6 p.m.; 26 - at VMI, 4 p.m.; 27 - at VMI, 1 p.m.; 29 - Charleston Southern, 6 p.m.; 30 at Coastal Carolina, 6 p.m.
1 - at Stetson, 6:30 p.,m.; 2 - at Stetson, 2 p.m.; 3 - at Stetson, 1 p.m.; 5 - at Charleston Southern, 6 p.m.; 8 - UNCG, 4 p.m.; 9 - UNCG, 2 p.m.; 10 - UNCG, 1 p.m.; 15 - at Wofford, 6 p.m.; 16 - at Wofford, 3 p.m.; 17 - at Wofford, 1 p.m.; 19 - at Georgia Southern, 6 p.m.; 20 - Georgia Southern, 6 p.m.; 22 - Western Carolina, 4 p.m.; 23 - Western Carolina, 2 p.m.; 24 - Western Carolina, 1 p.m.; 26 - at Charlotte, TBD; 30 -- Furman (DH), 1 p.m.
1 - Furman, 1 p.m.; 5 - at Mercer, 6 p.m.; 6 - at Mercer, 4 p.m.; 8 - at Mercer, 1 p.m.; 11 - Winthrop, 5 p.m.; 13 - Samford, 6 p.m.; 14 - Samford, 2 p.m.; 15 - Samford, 1 p.m.; 17 - at South Carolina, 7 p.m.; 19 - at ETSU, T6 p.m.; 20 - at ETSU, 2 p.m.; 21 - at ETSU, 1 p.m.; 25-29 - SoCon Tournament, Greenville.