Stephen F. Austin has its Sights Set on the Southland Tournament

Erik Gregerson returns to Stephen F. Austin for his senior campaign after getting selected in the draft a season ago by the Cincinnati Reds. He struck out 62 batters in 2008.-Courtesy: Southland.org
Erik Gregerson returns to Stephen F. Austin for his senior campaign after getting selected in the draft a season ago by the Cincinnati Reds. He struck out 62 batters in 2008.-Courtesy: Southland.org

FROM CBB NEWS SOURCE

New leadership and a new, more accountable and aggressive philosophy outline what should instantly be an improved Lumberjack baseball team in 2009.

Johnny Cardenas was promoted to head coach in the off season and immediately began to change the culture of the SFA program after the ‘Jacks went 25-29 and just missed out on the Southland Conference Tournament in 2008, despite winning 11 of their final 15 games.

SFA watched two more players get drafted in 2008 and said farewell to eight seniors, but a solid recruiting class as well as a veteran core of pitchers look to have the ‘Jacks primed to make some noise in a wide-open Southland Conference in 2009.

Catchers

Returning: Ryan Sinclair, Alex Moshier

Newcomers: Joe Staley, Jarid Scarafiotti

The ‘Jacks will enter the season with plenty of depth behind the plate with veteran Ryan Sinclair and newcomer Joe Staley battling it out for the majority of the starts.

Sinclair sat out the 2008 season due to injury, but brings a strong arm and defensive presence in addition to a familiarity with the pitching staff back to the field this year.

Staley was originally drafted by Tampa Bay out of high school, but decided to forego that opportunity to head to the college ranks. The sophomore spent last season at Grayson County Community College and will immediately have one of the most powerful bats in the conference when he steps on the field in 2009, possessing power from both sides of the plate.

“It’s really not a battle for the top spot between those two guys,” Cardenas said. “We look at it as having two quality catchers that can play, and play well, and that we have a really good situation no matter who is behind the plate.”

Freshmen Jarid Scarafiotti will provide some added depth at the position as well, while Alex Moshier will provide another option after seeing time as not only a catcher, but also a well-used relief pitcher last season.

Starting Pitching

Returning: Erik Gregersen, Erich Lehmann, Jared Schrom, Jared West, Jeremy Tamez, Zack Taylor

Newcomers: Brett Rogers, Ryan Priest

One of the first acts Cardenas had as head coach was to find a pitching coach to help incorporate a more aggressive mindset into the pitching staff, and he found just that in Weatherford College pitching coach Chad Massengale. He inherits a staff that will be carried by a pair of seniors at the top of the starting rotation in Erik Gregersen and Erich Lehmann.

Gregersen showed flashes of dominance in 2008, tying for the team lead with 62 strikeouts and picked up his first two career wins as he made the transition from the bullpen to a weekend starter as the year progressed. His 90-mph fastball, deceptive slider and projectable 6-5 frame helped him become a 36th-round draft pick of the Cincinnati Reds before deciding to return to SFA for his senior year.

Lehmann won 17 games in his first two seasons, but struggled out of the gate last year, finishing with only one win. He was moved from the starting rotation to the bullpen where he quickly regained form, putting up a 3.49 ERA in 11 appearances in relief, including a pair of saves. The all-time leader at SFA in both career wins, he is one of only two SFA pitchers with 200 strikeouts for a career and needs only 20 more strikeouts to move past Sean Wood for the all-time strikeout title for the ‘Jacks.

“Lehmann and Gregersen will almost certainly be the catalysts for our season,” Cardenas said. “Both of those guys, as seniors, have had success before and we need them to be at their best this year. If those two guys pitch well, we’ll be good.”

Those two will be joined by Wichita Falls freshman Brett Rogers on the weekends. The right-hander was a standout at Rider High School, where he struck out 99 hitters and only walked seven in 67.1 innings of work as a senior. His has command of his three-pitch repertoire and was one of the pleasant surprises of fall camp.

“Rogers showed a lot of promise in the fall, enough so that we feel confident putting him as a No. 3 or No. 4 starter,” Cardenas said.

The ‘Jacks can also throw out a number of other starters, including senior Jared Schrom who had an outstanding sophomore campaign and posted a 3.75 ERA in 2008 before going down with an injury.

Sophomores Jeremy Tamez had a solid freshman season, proving himself to have a tough mentality on the mound and even earned four starts in his first season. He, along with Jared West, bring a year of experience under their belt and will be joined by Zack Taylor and Tanner Sprinkle as other possible starters, likely on midweek games.

Bullpen

Returning: Richard Folmer, Jonathan Gutierrez, Jason West, Travis Harrelson, Alex Moshier

Newcomers: Ryan Priest, Chris Court, Cory Ochs

SFA was forced to mix and match in its bullpen last season, but has found a steady hand over the past two seasons in Richard Folmer at the back end of the staff. He led the SLC with 28 appearances in 2008 and posted 38 strikeouts in only 30 innings.

Folmer needs just six saves to tie Kyle Standley for the all-time saves mark at SFA, and his arm will be counted on even more in 2009 as the ‘Jacks do not return another reliever that logged more than 16.2 innings last season.

“If he doesn’t lead the league in saves this season, we haven’t done our job as a team,” Cardenas said.

Sophomore right-hander Alex Moshier posted a 5.11 ERA as a freshman in 11 appearances, a number that likely will drop after he is able to focus on pitching primarily after splitting time on the mound and behind the plate in ‘08.

Jonathan Gutierrez, Jason West and Travis Harrelson each provide more bullpen options for Cardenas with each having made strides within the last calendar year. Gutierrez brings the ability to neutralize right-handers with his sidearm delivery, while West holds arguably the team’s best curveball and Harrelson’s fastball was good enough to fan a hitter per inning last year.

The ‘Jacks did have an influx of new arms, though, that could very well make an immediate impact. Ryan Priest was a key part of an Alvin Community College team that went to the Junior College World Series a year ago and will see plenty of time on the mound while splitting time in left field and the infield as well.

Chris Court, a junior transfer from Hill College, could be the ideal middle reliever with an accurate and tireless arm while freshman Cory Ochs was another surprise from the fall that throws a heavy ball that could see him eating up innings early in the season.

Middle Infield

Returning: Gabriel Garcia-Serrano, Luke Baker, Brian Ferguson, Jeffrey Kello

Newcomers: Tanner Hines

The defensive strength of the 2009 SFA team should come up the middle with what could turn out to be the most dangerous double-play combination in the Southland in Tanner Hines and Gabriel Garcia-Serrano. SFA turned 35 double plays a year ago, but with this year’s combo plus a new pitch-to-contact pitching outlook, that number could easily rise.

A local product from Hudson High School just outside of Lufkin, Hines was originally a 44th round pick of the Pittsburgh Pirates out of high school before deciding to go the junior college route where he earned all-conference honors for San Jacinto College. A hitter who rarely strikes out, he was savvy on the base paths as well, stealing bases on 37 of 41 tries in two seasons.

“This is the best defensive pair of infielders we have had since I have been here, and I could see that in the fall on some of the double plays that those guys were turning,” Cardenas said. “Tanner and Gabe really get along well and have a good feel for each other, and having that kind of tandem up the middle is really going to help our pitching staff to get out of big innings this year.”

Garcia-Serrano was used mainly as a defensive replacement and pinch runner in 2008, but is set to bring his slick set of defensive skills and speed to the lineup in 2009. Despite only 36 official at-bats a year ago, he still managed to cross the plate 12 times, draw eight walks and steal three bases. That patient approach could quickly pay dividends for him as a junior as he takes over an everyday role.

Brian Ferguson, Jeffrey Kello and Luke Baker each have the ability to step in and play up the middle as well although Ferguson could also be used in the outfield at times after a season that saw him smash his first two career home runs in 2008. Kello may have the steadiest glove of anyone off the bench for SFA, while Baker brings a high ceiling after utilizing his redshirt last year.

Corner Infield

Returning: Adam Bosley, Sean Meyers, Jeffrey Kello

Newcomers: Justin McAninch

Sean Meyers brings back one of the best bats in the SFA lineup for 2009 after hitting .333 with four home runs in his first year at the Division I level. He saw time at both first and third base as a junior, and will likely see time at both spots this year. Cardenas feels it imperative for him to have a good year in 2009, and be a leader not only in the middle of the order but in the clubhouse as well.

Redshirt junior Adam Bosley is also back and healthy, who before an ankle injury midway through last season, provided a steady glove at first as well as a patient eye at the plate, putting a .434 on-base percentage.

Jeffrey Kello saw time as well at first and third base last year and provides another option there this year. Also in the mix is Nacogdoches freshman Justin McAninch, who earned all-state honors as a prep standout for the Dragons.

“Our depth in the infield I feel is really going to help us this year,” Cardenas said. “We have both quality left-handed and right-handed bats and will be able to utilize that late in games to help put ourselves in better situations.”

Outfield/Designated Hitter

Returning: Zach Gardner, Justin Long, Trent Blanchard

Newcomers: Bo Coffman, Ryan Priest, Thomas Staley

Zach Gardner has been a mainstay in center field for SFA since it brought back baseball in 2006 and his maturity and leadership will be counted on even more in 2009. The senior is the only returnee from last year’s core group of outfielders that included all-conference performer Kevin Crabtree, and will try and regain his form from his sophomore year when he hit .345 and provided a spark at the top of SFA’s lineup.

“Zach is really what we expect all of our athletes to be, both on the field and off,” Cardenas said. “He has a great work ethic and conducts himself in a professional manner at all times. There are really no flaws in his character.”

With Crabtree’s power numbers gone from the lineup it will be up to junior college transfer Bo Coffman to shoulder the load after hitting in the middle of the lineup for the Grayson County Vikings last year, leading them to the Junior College World Series title. Coffman brings a powerful left-handed bat to the lineup and can cover plenty of ground in right field after hitting .382 and slugging .646 as a sophomore for the Vikings.

Ryan Prest will likely start out the year in left field after hitting .370 in 29 games in the field at Alvin Community College in 2008, but Trent Blanchard, Brian Ferguson and Thomas Staley are all options in the outfield as well.

Trent Blanchard, Thomas Staley and even Brian Ferguson will also likely see time in left field, especially on days where Priest is pitching. Blanchard got in a dozen games in ‘08, with eight starts, in both the outfield and at third base while Ferguson hasn’t been in the outfield since high school but has been getting reps throughout the fall.

“The battle in left field is going to be big for us, and we are certainly going to need to get production out of that spot,” Cardenas said. “We have several good options there and we’ll have to mix it up from time to time, but having a healthy competition is going to be good for us.”

Rounding out the lineup will likely be Justin Long at the designated hitter spot, although he can be used in the outfield as well. Long hit .290 as a true freshman in 2007, but was forced to use his redshirt year last season after suffering an injury just before the start of the season. A powerful left-handed bat, he is another middle-of-the-order force that could certainly break out as a sophomore now that he has returned to full strength.