MARTIN, Tenn. - A key part of any athletic team’s success is leadership in the locker room. With that said, The University of Tennessee at Martin baseball team will look to take advantage of the experiences that 13 seniors have faced on their journey towards the Ohio Valley Conference tournament during the course of the 2013 campaign.
"I have never had a team with this many seniors, even going back to the junior college days," Skyhawk head coach Bubba Cates said. "That’s a great big number and you hope that plays into something special on the field. You want so badly for them to go out in a way that ties them even closer together."
Along with the 13 seniors, there are two redshirt juniors that account for 21 upperclassmen amongst the 33 roster spots.
"I feel good about this year because we have some older guys that are motivated," Cates said. "I think we have a really good chance to be a lot tougher than we’ve ever been."
That toughness has already been tested this preseason, as the Skyhawks have had to deal with an injury that forced Cates to shuffle his infield around just days prior to the start of the season. Jake Deason - the returning starter at shortstop - suffered a broken thumb and is out indefinitely. As a result, sophomores Sonny Mastromatteo (second base to shortstop) and Nico Zych (third base to second base) will appear at new positions this spring.
"That was a tough thing to happen for Jake because he is going to be an outstanding player in our league," Cates said. "That’s a big blow and it is certainly a concern of ours, we just have to approach things in a little different way now."
Both Zych and Mastromatteo earned OVC All-Newcomer accolades last season, combining to start in 94 games. Also expected to see playing time is freshman Wes Piersall.
"Nico and Sonny are good players and what we are asking them to do now is be flexible players," Cates said. "What we are asking them to do is not something that they haven’t done before. It’s not a foreign thing for them. Wes is our next infield option - he’s done a solid job since he’s been here. He’s still learning and getting his feet wet and he may have more of a role than we thought in the beginning."
The other three remaining infield slots will be filled with veterans of the program. Four-year seniors Ben Brewer and Matt Haynes will start at catcher and third base, respectively, while two-year senior Wade Collins will man first base.
"Ben’s played a lot over the years but he hasn’t been a full-time guy," Cates said. "He adds a different dimension to our team when he’s on the field and we’re excited about him being a guy who will be in the middle of what we are doing."
Freshmen Luis Paublini-Campos and Drew Erie will back up Brewer behind the plate.
"Luis and Drew have done a good job," Cates said. "Each of those guys has their own strengths and each one can help in a different way."
Haynes has started in 61 percent of his games in the past two seasons, a stat that comforts Cates.
"Matt’s not a stranger over there," Cates said. "He’s played a good bit for us over three years already and he’s taking a different role now. You know what to expect with Matt."
Along with Collins, Phil Sorensen and Hagen Nelson also provide Cates with raw power at the first base/designated hitter slot. Sorensen has been one of the team’s most trusted batters in his first two years in the program, tallying 59 RBI.
"We are counting on some offensive production there out of those guys," Cates said. "They are run producers. Wade and Phil are left-handed and we have a good park for a left-hander. When you look at the guys who have potential power on our team, those three are definitely included."
For the second straight season, Cates finds a wealth of depth in the outfield. That six-man group includes returning seniors Grant Glasser, Matt Young and Byron Johann - who combined to make 113 starts last season. Redshirt senior Kyle Bargery - whom Cates calls one of the best defensive and baserunners amongst the outfield crew - also returns.
"We are deeper in the outfield than anywhere else," Cates said. "We have to find a way to be creative and get them all involved. Each one of those guys have some things that they do well that can help us and we have to make sure they get enough work to stay sharp."
A pair of newcomers also provide intriguing options in the outfield for Cates. Redshirt junior Brent Morris returns to the program after putting together an OVC All-Freshman campaign for the Skyhawks in 2010. Cates also has been impressed with the play of freshman Kenny King, who joins the Skyhawks out of Providence Catholic High School in Illinois.
"We are excited to have Brent back," Cates said. "Three years ago he was one of the more honored freshmen in our league. Throw Kenny into the mix, who has the potential to be an outstanding hitter in our program. He brings some power with him as a freshman and has the ability to drive in some runs that we need from our right side because we are kind of left-handed dominant at the top of our order."
On the mound, Cates believes his starting rotation is one of the most talented he has seen in his 14 seasons at UT Martin. He will call upon Dan Tobik, Taylor Cox and Alex Boshers - all of whom made at least 20 relief appearances last season - to slide into starting roles in 2013.
"From a velocity standpoint, there’s a similarity between all of them," Cates said. "I’m excited because I think 1 through 3, from an ability standpoint, we haven’t had three as good as they are. What they all have the ability to do is be in the top third of the guys in our league who are throwing on each of those days. And the fact that there are two seniors in there – there’s a maturity level there and I feel good about that."
Tobik is coming off a season in which he was one of the most dominant relievers in the OVC, leading the league in opponent batting average (.212), strikeouts per nine innings (10.80, 12th in the NCAA) and home runs allowed (zero in 55 innings).
"Dan’s is a little different situation," Cates said. "He’s had two terrific years here but the one year that he didn’t have that was so good was when he was a starter for us."
Cox showed tremendous potential last season, making 23 appearances (second-most on the team).
"Taylor is a good competitor – you don’t have to worry about that with him," Cates said. "He’s going to stick his nose right in the middle of it and give it his best effort."
Boshers is the most experienced starting pitcher on the 2013 roster. He has made 19 starts, 16 of which came in his first two seasons.
"Alex will be the third guy and a lot of people might say to throw the seniors on Friday and Saturday and throw the sophomore on Sunday but Taylor’s a left-hander and I’d like to break those two up," Cates said. "Alex has pitched a lot of innings over three years in different roles. He started again last summer and had a really good summer. He has the ability and he has experience and we need for him to help lead our staff."
Junior college transfer John Houston and sophomore left-hander Dalton Potts are the two most likely candidates to make an impact as mid-week starting pitchers in 2013.
"John is going to throw for us a lot in the middle of the week. He’s a mature guy and he has been a starter in junior college the last two years. Dalton has also thrown well. Dalton and John were both hurt in the fall but Dalton is better than he was a year ago and John is new so we are seeing different guys than we saw a year ago. We’re giving these guys roles that are really important to us. Just because its nonconference doesn’t mean it’s an easier ballgame. Many times that ballgame in the middle of the week we are facing teams that are as talented if not more talented than the guys we are seeing on the weekend."
Returners Stu Jones, Trevor Lundgrin and Carter Smith figure to be a big piece of the bullpen plans this season, along with junior college transfer Chris Ross.
"We have a couple of guys that will be closer-types and late-inning guys – guys that you are counting on to have the ball in their hand when the game is on the line," Cates said. "Stu is one of those guys and Trevor is another. Those two guys will be pitching later for us and in shorter stints because we like to use them a lot. Carter has pitched a lot of innings last year, threw some conference games for us and pitched in some games that we needed to win and did a good job. Chris is probably a guy who might get to the mound before they do in the ballgame. I feel good about him having the ball – he’s a durable guy. I feel like he’s going to throw a lot of innings for us. I’d feel real good if Chris threw in 25 to 30 ballgames for us."
Also returning are right-handed relievers Nick Wilson, John Skubina and Cody Miller. All three are in their third year in the Skyhawk program.
"Nick is an older, more durable guy and he’s a better pitcher than he was a year ago. His arm is in better shape since he dealt with some injuries and physically he’s in better shape too. John and Cody have both improved a lot in a year’s time. I feel like they are going to give us some quality innings when they get the opportunity to get in there."
Newcomers Isaac Armstrong, Jacob Gansert and Chris Flores also will factor into the team’s plans, along with Jordan Stokes - who will pitch this season after spending his first three years as a catcher.
"Jacob’s been dealing with hamstring issues but he’ll be a relief guy for us – maybe a little bit more earlier in the ballgame and get multiple outs for us. Chris gives us an opportunity to get a left-hander in there. Isaac sat out last year as a transfer and pitching is new for Jordan but he’s a guy who’s been around the block a little bit. They are older guys who provide some depth in there for us."
All in all, Cates expects all members of the bullpen to play a pivotal role.
"It’s important to me to try to get everybody involved if you can," Cates said. "We certainly would like for those guys to get an opportunity to help. I think they can all help in one way or another."