Opening statement... This is always a great time for everyone who is involved in college baseball, players, coaches, trainers, sports information directors and baseball fans. A few years ago they set a national starting date and everybody starts on the same day. When you look around the country, basically 300 Division I teams start baseball this Friday. It's a great time.
As I've gone around the last few months and tried to talk about the team, I've struggled at times to figure out what words to explain this team and describe this team. Usually at this point, you're talking about preseason All-Americans. We've had our share. Guys like Bobby Wahl, Drew Pomeranz and others. This team doesn't have that. This team has some other things that we'll talk about.
One of the things that this team has is a lot of depth. One of the things that tends to happen through recruiting baseball, sometimes it's hard to calculate your roster from year to year. Last year, I remember taking infield-outfield at times where we were just one deep all the way around the infield, either because of injuries or just because that's where we were at that particular time with that position. That's certainly one of the things that we wanted to sure up during recruiting and add depth. This team certainly has that.
With depth, a few things happen. Certainly from that football standpoint, if somebody goes down there's somebody behind them to step in their place. The other thing that happens with depth, it brings a competitiveness to the team for each position. When there's a guy next to you, you tend to push and work harder. You come to practice everyday knowing there's somebody standing next to you that is good enough to take your position. That's a good thing. It works in another way. The other way, that's a positive for us, there are other options. It kind of takes some of the pressure off some of the guys, to where if you don't have that depth, and a kid's not having the year that he wants or the week that he wants, there's a lot of options out there. We've seen that with this team.
Certainly, we have a lot of talented kids on the field out of that recruiting class that was ranked eighth nationally. As we enter the first weekend, we'll see several of those young guys take the field for us, some of them in starting roles. Position player wise, there's a chance two or three or four freshmen starting in the starting lineup over the first weekend. It's also a great mix.
One of the things we talk about is the recruits because it's new. We look around at the veterans that are back. Guys like Chris Ellis, Aaron Greenwood and Sam Smith, have pinched in the Southeastern Conference and have had a lot of success. You look around the position players, Austin Anderson, Preston Overbey, Sikes Orvis, Will Allen, Austin Bousfield, Will Jamison, a lot of position players who have had a lot of success, as well. Really, when I look at it, it's as good of a mix of newcomers and veteran guys than we've had in a long time.
We're coming off a great fall and early spring. Practices and intrasquad games have been very competitive. I mentioned about the depth. One of the things we talked about this last summer and going into the fall - it's kind of a mantra or catch word - is toughness. We've been so close to being a great team the last couple of years. Because of a pitch here or a play there, literally coming down to a game here or there. It hasn't happened to us for one reason or another. The difference from the great teams is they make that one play. They make that pitch. They win that game that matters that puts you hosting a regional rather than playing on the road. That puts you in the upper echelon of your conference, of the Southeastern Conference where it's so competitive. One game out of thirty means a lot. It means a big deal from where you are in the standing or where you are as far as RPI and whatnot. How do we win that game? How do we make sure we're on the right side of the scoreboard? One of the things we talk about a lot is being tougher, being mentally tougher and being able to handle adversity.
Last year's team got off to an unbelievable start at 21-3. Then some things didn't go our way. We lost a couple of close series. Next thing you know, it was hard for us to get back on track again. We had some good games. It was hard for us to gain that confidence back and be the team that we once were. We talked a lot about that as a staff. How do we get that toughness? How are we able to handle the adversity that's given to you everyday? Everybody gets it in the game of baseball. How are you able to handle it? One of the things we talked about is just being physically tough. If you're more physically tough, then mentally you're going to be able to handle some more things. We kind of went back to old school, to some of the things we did 13 years ago when I got here. Just to push and challenge the kids. The competition at each position and the depth helped a lot with that. A new strength coach in Ben Fleming pushed them harder than they've ever been pushed in the weight room and conditioning. Just little competitions throughout practice and after weights, the message was sent very early on that we want tough minded kids. We want kids who are able to handle the adversity. I'm very proud of what the kids went through this fall. We see it everyday on the field with their energy and the way they handle bad things in the intrasquad games. It was a good thing. Mission accomplished.
I look back at the last three weeks in January. The fall sometimes can be misleading, with guys having good falls or bad falls. As you get closer, certainly, you look at the last three weeks. I can't remember three weeks where it's been as competitive. It's hard to judge who won the intrasquad game, the pitchers or the hitters. As a coach, just like in any sport, the better you do in one area, you're happy with that area, but does that mean the other area's not as good? There are some weaknesses there. Really every weekend I've left the field feeling really good about the team with how we've pitched, how we've played defense and how we hit. We've talked about the depth, and even as much this morning as I sat with the coaches, we talked about traveling. One of the negatives to traveling the first weekend is having to make a list. Not only do you have to get to 35, but you have to knock that down even further because you can't travel all 35 to DeLand (Florida). I've never had as much difficulty narrowing a list to 29 guys who will travel with us.
As we start, let's talk about the players. You always start on the mound. I always believe pitching is the most important aspect to winning a game. Although this staff doesn't return any preseason All-Americans, it does return some talent and guys that are highly thought of in the major league draft and some veteran guys and some new guys. We'll start off on Friday night with Chris Ellis. Christian Trent, a junior college transfer from Delgado Community College, will start on Saturday. On Sunday, Sam Smith will start for us. Sam's kind of locked down that No. 3 role for us, basically for the last two years.
Look for Aaron Greenwood, a guy that's pitched a ton of innings. At times, he can be our best guy. We like him in the bullpen to start off with. We'll use him a little differently than we've used him in the past. He used to be one of those first in when we tried bridge the gap to get to the closer. We're hoping to use him a little bit later in the game and finish the game. He's got some length to him and can pitch more than an inning or so, a little different than Brett Huber.
Who's the closer? We don't have that particular guy this year, at least not right now. We're going to go with Aaron Greenwood, kind of the Jake Morgan or Bittle, the guy when you need something to happen and you need to win the game now, can come in at any point in the game and finish for us. Along with true freshman Cheyne Bickel, Jacob Waguespack is another veteran that's back. Some veterans have pitched and had success: (Josh) Laxer, (Hawtin) Buchanan, (Jeremy) Massie, (Matt) Denny, (Scott) Weathersby. All of those guys pitched for us last year. There are also some new guys that you'll see out of the bullpen, one junior college guy and one freshman.
Position player wise, I mentioned some names, but if we go around the infield, Austin Anderson moves from short to third. Austin has taken ground balls at short. We know after starting basically three years at short stop he can handle that position. We're going to go with Errol Robinson, a true freshman who will start at short stop. Second base one of those question marks still at this time. Preston Overbey has played terrific. Missed the fall because of a bad back, but has played terrific since coming back. At first base, Sikes Orvis. Will Allen behind the plate.
The outfield, Braxton Lee, Auston Bousfield, Will Jamison, also another true freshman that will get a start and is an outstanding player is J.B. Woodman. Another freshman that certainly will play this weekend and has played great the last three weeks is Colby Bortles. He can play third, first or be the designated hitter. One of the biggest challenges for myself and the staff is over the first four weeks is because of the depth, work as many guys and get as much substantial playing time for as many guys as we can. As many innings on the mound, not only for the starters, but the bullpen guys, and try to define some roles, even more so. So when we open up at South Carolina on March 14, we have best nine out there and the best three on the mound Friday, Saturday and Sunday. Of course the right guys coming in when need be.
On the role of closer... We don't really have a closer because we don't have that one inning guy that's going to warm up every single game to come in the game in the ninth inning. Certainly, that's an important part. You have to have somebody at the end of the game that you trust and believe in that can finish the game. At the beginning, we're going to go with Aaron first - kind of how we used (R.J.) Hively a couple of years ago. That guy will get saves. Aaron will be the first to come in that latter part of the game when you need to win the game and have a lead. We'll use him in that role. If somebody, as time goes on, proves that he can be the guy to warm up in the ninth inning. The truth is, we've had some great closers like Stephen (Head) and Jake Morgan. They've been more the role of Aaron in a sense that they've been more than a one inning guy. Huber's was the first guy I ever had that was basically an inning guy, maybe an inning and a third. When I look back at all of the guys who have closed games, those guys sometimes came in the seventh inning on Friday night to win the game.
On Chris Ellis and Christian Trent... Chris is the most talented guy we have. He had a really good freshman year. Last year at this time, we were talking about him being the Sunday starter. He actually started on opening weekend against TCU. But last year, he injured an abdominal muscle after that start for about six or seven weeks. It was hard for me to find him a role last year. Way into the season, we tried to rush him back. We tried him in some relief appearances. We just really never got him back on track. He had a terrific summer this summer in the Cape. It's a guy that's projected to be a first rounder in the draft this coming June. Trent is a little different. He comes to us as a recruit. He was recruited to be a weekend guy. We give out an award in the fall for the best pitcher. It's the guy that gives up the least amount of runs, not just earned, but total runs. One of the things we've talked about, along with that toughness, we don't want you to give up any runs. We want you to be the guy that puts up zeros on the board. He pitched the best of anybody this fall. He gives us a little different look. He's a left-hander. He can throw the ball in the upper 80s to low 90s. He picked up a really good slider and change up. He's had a lot of success for us.
On if this team plays differently than past years with power arms and big innings... I think pitching-wise Chris Ellis has that big arm and that big fastball, like you've seen with Lance Lynn and Drew Pomeranz. But as I look back at the fall this is the best fall we've had statistically as far as ERA and way guys have pitched. I think Chris is a guy from a lot of baseball writers and those people who follow it and we'll talk a lot of that, but when you talk about the rest of our staff we have a lot of good pitchers and guys who throw more than one pitch into the strike zone. It's why we've had a lot of success this fall. When I look at the staff as far as top to bottom to be honest with you in years past we said we needed six guys. Only six really pitch. Three starters and a couple relievers and a guy who starts on Tuesday night are your main group. Seven or eight will pitch innings but after that there's not a lot of innings to divvy out. This team has as much depth as maybe that 05 team as far as ready to pitch right now. Guys you can hand the ball to. There may not be a lot of compliments and accolades and the Draft but it's guys who can have success on the mound. As far as the offense I don't know if anyone talks about power anymore with the way the bats are. It's not that we don't have guys with power, as I look at Will Allen and Sikes Orvis and Colby Bortles and Preson Overbey, we have guys in our lineup who are physical. We'll run guys out there who are 6-foot-2, 220-pounds plus. We don't want to say we're not going to hit extra-base hits or drive balls out, and I don't have the statistics, but guys don't hit home runs like they used to. It's still part of the game. You have to score different ways. There's more emphasis on moving runners and hit and run and being able to bunt and steal. This past fall when you look at our team athletically we have a physical presence in the lineup but I also think we have guys who can run. Braxton Lee, that's why he was recruited, to bat leadoff and play a lot like Tanner Mathis. He'll play left field and bate leadoff on Opening Day. He'll cause havoc out there. He'll steal bases. He's like Mathis but a little faster. And then I think Bousfield and Jamison and Woodman and Dulin and (Cameron) Dishon are guys who can steal double digit bases if they get the opportunity.
On if it is concerning to have so many new faces in new roles... That's the exciting part is you don't know. You watch the young guys compete. A lot of times when new guys come in they take a backseat to the veterans. One of the things that was mentioned in the leadership council meeting I had with a few of the players last week was how surprised that the young guys right away felt part of it. They right away when we went to do our early hitting, a lot of times it takes time for freshmen to feel comfortable to go in the cages when older guys are in there. They wait their turn, but this year you don't see that as much. You see more confidence in that group. A lot of what we've done there's no classification to it. You're not a freshman, you're not a sophomore, you're not a senior, you're a varsity baseball player. They have competed just like the other guys and done a great job.
On Senquez Golson... Senquez came about three weeks ago and wanted to play baseball this year. We sat down and talked about it. One of the things that's a difficult situation for everybody in college baseball is we're only sport in NCAA that has a roster limitation - scholarship limitation but roster limitation. We can only have 35 guys who can participate in baseball, and we have to make that decision before the first game. When Senquez came to me we talked about it. Do you want to play right now, do you have to play, what happens if you don't start? Are you willing to hang in there? These are difficult questions for a guy who is super talented. So the way we left it is let's go the next three weeks and see how good he can be. I'll be honest with you. From a human standpoint, you're thinking here's a kid who hasn't played baseball in a year and a half and he has no chance. But from reality you watch him and the first weekend he got four hits. You say wow and if anybody can do it, Senquez Golson can do it. He's a super talent. We talked at end of last week. He pulled his hamstring after the first weekend which will put him down for about a month. We look it where he hasn't played in a year and a half and plays one weekend and then has to sit down another month the chance he contributes right away aren't very good. By that time spring football will roll around and so the best thing for him is to be a non-roster player. He can practice baseball but he can't practice with the team. He's going to hit with Coach Godwin and take fly balls when he can this spring and when he's healthy. Still go to football practice and be a football player fulltime and do their weight and their trainer and then continue to work on baseball skills which to be honest with you he hasn't done much from when he stepped out on field as a freshman. He'll finish out his senior year on the football field and then come back here in January and he can focus on baseball full time.
On freshman Errol Robinson... He's an outstanding defender. He has to continue to improve offensively, but he's a kid who when you watch him as a shortstop and a true freshman his range, his baseball awareness and he's a terrific player who is going to have a long career. We have to continue to work on the bat and his strength, but I'm super proud of him. A lot of depth. When you walk out there the first day you're standing next to a guy who started at that position for three years, and Austin Anderson could still do that. He could walk about there tomorrow and be able to handle it. I am proud of the way he's handled it as a teammate, and he's really helped Errol with his progression. Errorl has competed and deserves a spot on Opening Day.
On senior Will Allen... Last year I'm proud of the way Will handled it. He's the starting catcher as a sophomore and had a good year for us and then we recruit the best catcher from the country and he came in. Stuart Turner won the Johnny Bench Award which is given out to the best catcher in the country. Will was moved to backup role and designated hitter and first baseball and has handled it terrifically. He's catching better than he ever has over the last three weeks. He's thrown out a ton of runners. He's really swung the bat terrific. He's done a great job, excited top have him back there for his senior year.
On Hawtin Buchanan... Hawtin has had the best fall and early spring, from weekend to weekend, outing to outing, that he's had in his three years. He realizes what he needs to do to get innings and log innings. He has to dominate the strike zone with that big fastball of his that can range in the mid 90s, and his slider has improved a lot. He's more consistent than he's been in the past. He's a guy in the mix. He's going to get innings and opportunities early and deservedly so. He's pitched really well this fall and spring.
On freshmen Colby Bortles, Evan Anderson and Brantley Bell... Evan Anderson won't travel the first weekend because he has some tendinitis in his arm; nothing serious. He'll throw a bullpen tomorrow, but it puts him on the shelf at least the first weekend. It's likely he could pitch in first home game or certainly first four home games the next week. He's hit for us, as well, and he's a guy that has a shot because of the big left-handed power bat, but he has a ways to go with that as well, but we need to wait and get him healthy and get back throwing consistently. Brantley Bell had a great fall for us offensively. He'll be with us the first weekend and may get some opportunities off the bench because of his right-handed bat. He can play second or third, but again with the depth there are a lot of people at those positions, but the more he hits the more opportunities he'll get. Of the guys mentioned the guy who has swung the bat the best is Colby Bortles. Very physical right-handed hitter for a true freshman and for a big kid, physical kid he's super advanced in his approach and how he handles each at-bat. He's very difficult to pitch to. He can hit it as far as anybody, but he can hit the ball the other way. He can handle off-speed pitches and fastballs on both sides of the plate. Really excited the way he's played. Had a really good fall and backed it up with a really good spring as well.
On importance of this season for the longterm outlook of the program... They are always important, but this is this team. It's bad at this time, or any time, for me or anyone to look at it historically and that's for you guys to write about. As I've said we've been so close the last couple years. When you look back and kick yourself because a game here or a game there we would be in a different spot. When you look at the people who move on it's who is playing well at the end. Last year we went the last week and lost two of three. If we'd won two of three we'd probably been in a totally different position going into the SEC Tournament; The chance to host maybe. It's a different feeling for everybody, and it's just one game. One of those games at LSU we're winning in the bottom of the eighth. You look back at different games that slipped through your fingers, and you're not talking about 10 games. You're talking about one or two games that make a difference. The good news is the way this team looks we're so close. All we need to do is make a couple better pitches or a couple better plays or get a couple more hits, and we can find ourselves in a totally different position. When you want to talk about historically we were 15-15 in this league last year, which is never the goal for anybody. But that was the 10th time in 13 years we've played .500 ball or better in the league. Only one other team has done better than that, and that's South Carolina. The only team tied with that is Florida. We've put ourselves in good company, but that's our league. Everybody is bunched up from 15 to 20 wins. The difference is that one more game or two more games to get to 17 from 15. To host a regional or play at home where you have a 70 percent chance of moving on. That's why we know it's so important to be here and play in front of this atmosphere at the end of the year instead of the road. Certainly it's our goal to be here."
On improvements Bianco can make... The toughness and how to handle the adversity or fall into a stretch where you can't get out much like last year are big things. We were 21-3 at any point and won here Friday night against Texas A&M and then lost two close games on Sunday and then went to Florida and won on Friday night and lost two more games. Then lost two one-run games and an extra innings game against Vanderbilt. You look at that stretch of three weeks and we were good enough certainly, but we didn't play well enough. Not just the coaches but everybody. You just have to do more.
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