Following NCAA regional appearance, Mercer brings full arsenal to new baseball season
With almost a dozen pitchers capable of throwing on the weekend, the return of a sparkplug atop a lineup that features more than one All-American, as well as the reigning conference player of the year, finding a weakness on the 2014 Mercer baseball teams is a hefty task.
Theres not much teaching necessary for a team that will start seniors at two infield positions, two outfield positions and catcher, as well as the Friday night pitcher.
Its maybe one of the oldest teams in the country, Mercer head coach Craig Gibson said. Theyve gone through it and been here and been in it, so they know what were doing. The learning curve is very short with these guys.
This years senior class has a chance to do some serious damage to the record books, and, barring a barrage of injuries or issues, will pass last years senior class as the most successful in program history.
The season opener was scheduled for Friday at home against High Point. Weather conditions, however, forced a postponement. They will now start with a 1 p.m. doubleheader Saturday at Claude Smith Field.
Mercer is 158-83 the past four seasons, with the first 40-win season in team history coming in 2013. This senior class will have Mercers first at-large bid to the NCAA tournament on the resume, as well as possibly its third tournament berth.
Its led by fifth-year senior Austin Barrett and fourth-year seniors Brandon Barker and Derrick Workman, along with third-year senior Nick Backlund and second-year seniors Sasha LaGarde and Michael Massi.
Its like I told the parents (recently), its pretty good to have Nick Backlund here, Gibson said. That may be one of the best guys in the country. He aint coming out a lot. Hes going to sit in the middle of that order for 56 games.
Barretts been here for five years, and Workmans a three-time all-conference guy. Weve just got some depth right now.
And the Bears got deeper with the return of left fielder and leadoff man Nate Moorhouse. The junior from Wilcox County suffered a knee injury early last season.
I didnt think hed be ready, to be honest, Gibson said. After the fall, I just didnt, he wasnt close.
Then came spring.
Hes a 100 percent now, hes full go, Gibson said of the speedster who made a quality transition from infield to outfield two years ago. Hes good, man. That makeup is different. Hes just a tough kid. When hes good, he brings that toughness to our team, which is a big thing.
Moorhouse was concerned about his progress until the post-fall break.
It was a week back at school, I started running sprints, started cutting, Moorhouse said. I finally came to grips that its not going anywhere. It feels good, it feels normal.
Gibson thinks Moorhouse might have been worth three or four wins last year because of his ability to get on and his speed, as well as allowing a more fluid lineup card to be filled out.
Still, the Bears return two players who started every game (Backlund and junior third baseman Chesny Young) and four more who started at least 55 of the Bears 61 games.
Young had a breakout season and was last years A-Sun player of the year, which he was named again in the preseason. Backlund has earned some sort of national honor every season since he transferred, and that pair is joined by Barrett and LaGarde as returnees who batted .300 or better.
Massi will move to shortstop to replace Evan Boyd, and junior college transfer Devin Bonin takes over at second. Backlund will play first instead of just DH, and Barrett is the starting catcher after also playing first and DHing.
Redshirt freshman Howard Joe had a big fall and spring to take over at designated hitter.
Hes just ready to play, Gibson said. Hes just a big physical, right-hander. Hes going to hit near the bottom of the order. But his second year, hes a guy thats going to hit in the middle of the order.
Matt Meeder and Danny Edgeworth will help with infield depth, as will Charlie Madden at catcher, and outfielder Kyle Lewis is a player to watch as the season progresses.
The pitching staff is again loaded, although theres one major change for this season.
DJ Johnson will redshirt, so the Bears will go with Barker, lefty Grant Papelian and Eric Nyquist as the weekend conference rotation. Dimitri Kourtis is back as one of the nations top relievers.
Gibson has seen progress from returnees Mitchell Wade and Stephen Glaze, whose innings will increase. Ben Lumsden and Morgan Pittman were key pitchers last season and return in those roles, at a minimum.
Freshmen Austin Lord, Bryce Conley and Ryan Askew will be expected to contribute quality innings. Lord is a lefty who has been converted to sidearm by pitching coach Brent Shade.
Theyre constantly cutting down walks, doing a better job holding runners, fielding (the) position, Gibson said of the pitchers. Its more than just strikeouts and walks. Brents made a focus of that with the guys. Ive seen it this fall, this spring.
Mercer, a consensus top-40 RPI team last year, has added speed to the proficient pitching, defense and offense. Moorhouse predicts at least 100 steals for the Bears, and Gibson doesnt argue.
I think this teams going to defend, it looks like we can defend again, Gibson said. (Were) going to throw strikes.
I think were going to run better. Its a little more dynamic. We can do some things.