2009 Pacific Baseball Season Preview

FROM CBB NEWS SOURCE
Stockton, Calif. – In 2009, Pacific welcomes back 20 returning letterwinners as Head Coach Ed Sprague enters his sixth season with a new coaching staff. During the summer of 2008, Sprague brought aboard Don Barbara, Mike McCormick and Chris McCormack after the three worked together at Sacramento State. Barbara is especially familiar with the Big West Conference, as he spent seven years as an assistant coach at Long Beach State (1997-99, 2001-04). For the second straight season, Sprague has Wes Yourth as his director of baseball operations. Rounding out his staff, Sprague will be joined by Noah St. Urbain as an undergraduate assistant coach, after Noah spent three of his four collegiate years with the Tigers (2005, 2007, 2008).

Of the 20 returners, the Tigers have eight seniors, six juniors and six sophomores. New to the roster this year are four junior transfers and seven freshmen.

“I think the biggest thing for us is that we have several seniors who will see some significant playing time. The season depends on how well those guys execute,” Sprague said. “They know the style of Big West play pretty well. It really boils down to them going out, using their experience and playing good baseball.”

PITCHING
Expected to split the role of the staff ace this season will be seniors LHP Joey Centanni (San Diego, Calif.) and RHP Cole Akins (Seattle, Wash.). Centanni’s 4.97 ERA was the team’s second best in 2008, and he logged the fourth-most innings pitched with 41.2. Akins just topped Centanni with 49.1 innings in 2008. Sprague said that Centanni will take the hill Friday nights for Pacific, followed by Akins on Saturday and junior RHP Hunter Carnevale (Roseville, Calif.) will close out the series as the Sunday starter. Senior RHP Mark McCain (Dallas, Texas) has proven that he can withstand many innings a week and will most likely be Pacific’s mid-week starter, while coming out of the bullpen in relief during weekend series. McCain recorded 17 appearances last season, with the team’s second-most innings pitched at 84.1

Among other relievers who will see some time this season are junior RHP Andrew Mintun (Stockton, Calif.), senior RHP Larry Holscher (McArthur, Calif.), junior LHP Jamie Niley (Elk Grove, Calif.) and junior LHP David Rowse (Pleasanton, Calif.). Mintun led the team last year with a 3.60 ERA and posted a 2-0 record in relief while holding opposing batters to a .184 average. As for the closer, Sprague can rely on sophomore RHP Thomas Berolzheimer (Stockton, Calif.), who found success dabbling in that role as a freshman last season. Berolzheimer will again have the opportunity to come into his own as a closer and will be given the ball for Pacific in save situations this year.

CATCHING
Entering the new season as a 2008 All-Big West Conference Honorable Mention recipient, senior Joe Oliveira (San Diego, Calif.) will lead Pacific’s battery as the starting catcher in 2009. Oliveira recorded a .968 fielding percentage last season with 248 putouts from behind the plate. In conference, Joe finished third in the Big West for runners caught stealing at 22. Offensively on the basepaths, Oliveira led Pacific with 24 stolen bases in 28 attempts. He will be looked upon to do the job in 2009 and will also be a main component in the batter’s box, as his .271 batting average was the Tigers’ sixth-best last year.

“We’re fortunate we’re returning a three-year starter in Joe Oliveira. He’s been a two-time All-Big West Player, last year he was honorable mention and two years ago he was a first-team player,” Sprague said. “Joe’s a tremendous defensive catcher. He’s a good catch and throw guy, he threw 64 percent out last year. This year, offensively he’ll be much improved from last year. He brings a good deal of speed too.”

McCormick will be working all season with additional options behind the plate as senior Kurt Wideman (Fallbrook, Calif.) and freshman Derek Baum (San Diego, Calif.) will also see time in catcher’s gear. The Tigers have versatility and a range of options in whoever they put in the field. Oliveira manned the outfield last season when Wideman stepped behind the plate in 2008. Similarly, when Oliveira donned the catcher’s gear, Wideman logged time fielding the first, second and third base positions. Wideman is a natural defensive option for the Tigers as his 199 putouts last season rank second only behind Oliveira’s 248.

INFIELD

Returning to lead the infield are sophomore J.B. Brown (Alvin, Texas) and junior Mike Walker (Marysville, Calif.). While Brown proved he had the range to serve as an infield utility player last year, he will have the opportunity to develop his career strictly as a second baseman this season. At second, the Tigers have a back-up option in freshman Josh Simms (La Mesa, Calif.).

Walker has locked up third base for 2009, after spending some time there last season. He furthered his cause with strong offensive numbers that put him in a position to start this season. Walker posted a .293 average in 44 games for the Tigers last season.

As for the rest of the infield, fans can expect to see several new faces in 2009. After a successful fall campaign, junior transfer Ben Gorang (Turlock, Calif.) has solidified his place as the infield’s anchor in the shortstop position this season. The starting shortstop at Merced College in 2008, Gorang was named first team all-league in the Central Valley Conference last season. As another middle infield option, Sprague can call on junior transfer Scott Isbell (Carlsbad, Calif.) to field the shortstop position. Prior to coming to Pacific, Isbell served as San Diego City College’s shortstop, hitting .260 with two home runs, 25 runs and 10 stolen bases.

“Ben Gorang has won that job pretty much outright, and Scott Isbell will also see some time there as a back-up, but Gorang has come in as a junior college transfer from Merced and has done very well defensively.”

The Tigers’ infield will see another junior transfer as Niley will serve as the go-to first baseman when he’s not pitching out of the `pen. After two years at Cosumnes River College, Niley rightfully laid claim to a First Team All-Big 8 Conference award, when he hit .338, with a .613 slugging percentage, 41 runs, 54 hits, 38 RBI, 14 doubles, three triples and eight home runs.

OUTFIELD
Headlining the outfield for Pacific in 2009 will be 2008 Louisville Slugger Freshman All-America and All-Big West Conference Honorable Mention Nick Longmire (San Diego, Calif.) in left field. Longmire led the Tigers in three categories last year: overall batting average (.323), triples (three) and RBI (31) and on defense did not have an error in 54 Big West chances.

Longmire will be joined by Centanni in center field, who is slated to start on days when he is not pitching. On Fridays, if Centanni is on the mound for Pacific, Sprague will fill in center field with either junior Matt Fuson (Lodi, Calif.) or freshman Brett Christopher (Livermore, Calif). Nick Longmire also has the range to slide over to fill in the gap at center from time-to-time.

That leaves senior Mike McKeever (San Diego, Calif.) as Pacific’s starting right fielder in 2009. McKeever’s .311 batting average was the third-highest on the team in 2008, and he led all players with a .518 slugging percentage. When he’s not in, the Tigers can go to freshman Allen Riley (Fresno, Calif.) for another arm in the outfield.

Off the bench, Sprague can call on freshmen Kyle Dodge (Sonora, Calif.) and Ronnie Burton Jr. (Colorado Springs, Colo.) to take to the outfield this season. Both freshmen had impressive senior seasons at their respective high schools in 2008, and will serve as valuable replacements both in the field and on offense. Dodge hit .436 as a senior at Sonora High School, while Burton was only the third person in Air Academy High School history to surpass the .600 batting average mark in a single season. Additionally, Burton holds single season records for hits (49) and RBI (49), which he set in 2008.

“We have more interchangeable parts this year than we’ve had in the past,” Sprague said. “We got some guys who can play infield and outfield, which is nice.”

SCHEDULE
As in past years, Sprague has again compiled an extremely competitive schedule for the 2009 season.

According to Boyd’s World, Pacific’s overall schedule is the 11th strongest of all Division I schools across the nation. Discounting Big West Conference match-ups, the Tigers’ non-conference strength of schedule is ninth in the country.

“I think it’s got a good balance. It’s certainly very difficult,” Sprague said about the strength of schedule this year. “It’s always a challenging schedule, but hopefully with our experience we’ll be able to handle it a little better this year.”

Baseball America’s Pre-season Top 25 list includes five of Pacific’s 2009 opponents, with the highest-ranked being conference foe, No. 5 Cal State Fullerton. The Tigers will open the season on the road at No. 8 Baylor. Other ranked schools in Pacific’s 2009 schedule include No. 9 UC Irvine, No. 11 San Diego and No. 14 Stanford.

The Collegiate Baseball NCAA Division I Pre-Season Baseball Poll released the top 40 Division I teams in December 2008 and lists No. 30 UC Santa Barbara and No. 39 California in addition to Baseball America’s selections.

“The conference has gotten stronger and stronger every year. I think that’s come from the middle-of-the-pack teams, not necessarily the top teams,” Sprague said. “The middle of the pack has raised the conference level up quite a bit, so it’s a challenging schedule. Anybody can beat anybody on a given day of the week, and I think everybody knows that.”

The Tigers play host to 26 games at Klein Family Field this year and compete in 55 overall contests in 2009. Pacific’s home schedule begins on Tuesday, Feb. 24 against Sacramento State under the lights at 5:35 p.m.

Big West Conference play begins from the familiar confines of Klein Family Field when Pacific hosts UC Davis from Mar. 27-29, starting at 5:35 p.m.

Finally, the Tigers close out regulation play against Cal State Bakersfield in its first year of baseball competition. The Roadrunners will take turns filling in the odd-man-out slot in the nine-team Big West Conference throughout conference play during the second half of season, concluding with three games at Pacific from May 22-24.

In 2009 the Tigers have a great deal of experience and versatility to rely on and Sprague will look to that talent to be competitive against his top-ranked schedule.

“My expectation is that we use the experience that we have and maintain our confidence level no matter what happens the first couple of weekends,” Sprague said. “It’s a long year and I think we’re a more improved team than we have been in the last couple of years. We’re a closer knit crew, so hopefully we can continue to play that out as the season goes on.”