FROM CBB NEWS SOURCE
BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — UAB enters the 2009 baseball season having established itself as one of the top offensive teams in Conference USA.
Under third-year head coach Brian Shoop, the Blazers have improved at the plate each season, ranking third in the league in team hitting in 2007 and moving up to second in the conference a season ago with a team batting average of .311.
In 2009, UAB returns six players who hit better than .300 last season, led by preseason All-Conference USA selection Brint Hardy, who posted a .338 batting average in 2008.
Hardy, who was named the Player of the Year last summer in the Alaska Baseball League, combines his consistency at the plate with a little power and a lot of speed. He hit five home runs and ranked fifth in C-USA with 24 stolen bases last season to bring his career steals total to 60, counting his freshman season at Birmingham-Southern.
Hardy leads a group of returning hitters who believe their lineup will be improved despite the loss of third-team All-American Ryan Keedy, who led C-USA in 2008 with a .423 batting average. Keedy also drove in 69 runs, doubled 29 times and hit 10 homers before being drafted in the 16th round by the Chicago Cubs. He and outfielder Phil Bell are the only losses from last season’s everyday starting lineup, but both will be difficult to replace.
“The way you get better is to do it collectively,” Shoop said. “I’m not anticipating a Ryan Keedy year out of anybody. That’s too much to expect out of anybody. But we have some veteran presence now, and we do feel like it’s a good, balanced offense and a tough offense for opposing pitchers to get through. We feel like we’ll be very competitive on that side of the ball again.”
Junior Luke Stewart returns as the top power hitter for UAB after a solid 2008 campaign in his first year as a Blazer. In addition to his .301 batting average and 54 RBI, the Georgia transfer led the team and ranked fourth in the conference with 13 home runs.
Only two Blazers finished 2008 with more RBI than Stewart. One was Keedy. The other was Cody McMurry, who returns to the UAB lineup in 2009 for his senior season.
McMurry drove in 58 runs last season in his first action at UAB after transferring to the school and redshirting during the 2007 campaign. He finished the season with a .318 batting average to go along with eight home runs and 16 doubles, and he also ranked fourth in the league with four triples.
Junior Jonathan Merritt and sophomore Nick Crawford are also back after impressive offensive seasons in 2008. Merritt tied a school record with 68 runs scored to go along with a .324 batting average, nine home runs and 30 RBI. He also finished second on the team with 15 stolen bases.
Crawford posted a .325 batting average in his first season of college baseball on his way to C-USA All-Freshman Team honors. A skilled bat-handler, he led the league and finished third in NCAA Division I with 21 sacrifice bunts.
“Offensively, I think our strength is that we can do a lot of different things,” Hardy said at Thursday’s Alabama Sportswriters Baseball Media Day. “If we have a bad day hitting, we can come in and lay a couple bunts down, score a couple runs and look to our pitching staff to maybe win a game 3-1 or something. I just think the versatility of our lineup will be a big plus for us.”
The Blazers also return senior Austin Taylor, who spent the majority of last season as the team’s designated hitter, and senior Allen Aubin, who hit five homers and drove in 24 runs in 2008. They are joined by returning hitters in senior Ben Drust, juniors Kevin Cope and Digger Towe, and sophomore Andrew Manning. Three redshirt freshmen bats are also back for UAB in Devin Hamilton, Bradley Hicks and Danny Volk.
The 2009 freshman class includes hitters Jamal Austin, Keith DePew and Trey Early.