The 2013 Ashland University baseball team did a lot of thing well. It had some of the best pitching in the region. There was great balance up and down the lineup.
However, the best attribute of those Eagles was how sure-handed they were with their emotions. This team never really had any ups and downs. As their 37-19 record indicated, flat line shouldn't be confused with falling flat.
That demeanor, the mark of a confident, veteran team, should return in 2014. The Eagles have a strong veteran nucleus. A year ago, AU won the GLIAC Tournament championship for the first time in program history, finished the regular season as the top seed in the Midwest Region, and advanced to the NCAA Regional in Springfield, Mo.
AU will be attempting to do at least all of that in 2014. Here's a look at the Eagles as they prepare for the start of the season.
Few teams have a tandem on the corners like the Eagles.
First baseman Tyler Gray was a first team All-GLIAC selection last season. He hit a team-high .369 with two homers and 36 RBI. Gray, a senior, was fifth in the GLIAC in batting average and ninth in RBI.
"He became a lot more consistent last year," said AU head coach John Schaly. "He's solid, he's a four-year starter and he's seen it all."
The starter at third base is senior Wade Kaido. Kaido was the MVP of the GLIAC Tournament and an honorable mention all-league selection. He hit .357 with a homer and 35 RBI. Kaido was seventh in the GLIAC in batting average and tied for sixth in stolen bases (13-of-15).
Kaido is one of AU's most versatile athletes. He could end up playing in the outfield or in the middle infield at times. When that happens, sophomore Mike Lewandowski will probably be inserted at third. Schaly has a great deal of confidence in him.
"We could do a lot of things," Schaly said. "Mike's going to be in there someplace."
Junior Austin Walts returns as the starting shortstop. He was named second team all-conference last season when he hit .314 with a homer, 30 RBI and 12 stolen bases (15 attempts).
Lewandowski could see time at shortstop, too.
At second base, AU has to replace Matt Gundlach, who hit .328 as a senior. Stephen James is expected to fill that spot. He played in 34 games a year ago, 16 as the starter.
"We're a veteran infield," said Schaly. "We think it will be a very solid defensive group and that's going to help our pitchers. There's no question this is the strength of our lineup."
While there are few questions with the infield, the Eagles enter this season looking to clarify the catching position.
"We have three and we're going to play all three," promised Schaly.
Murphy has the most experience at AU, he hit .282 in 23 games last season backing up John Broll. Brooks comes to Ashland from Mercyhurst Northeast. Vasil is a true freshman.
"We're going to try and maximize the strengths of all three," Schaly said. "We could catch a couple of guys in a game."
Senior center fielder Alex Sortwell was one of the most productive hitters in the region a year ago. A first team All-GLIAC pick, he hit .315 with 10 doubles, three triples, eight homers, 40 RBI, 97 total bases and a .536 slugging percentage. He was tied for second in the GLIAC in homers and fourth in RBI.
"Alex hits with power and he can run," reminded Schaly. "Plus, he's a very good defensive center fielder."
In left field, the Eagles will turn to sophomore Mackenzie Hampshire. A year ago, he was inserted into the lineup as the designated hitter midway through the season. Once he got in the lineup, there was no way to get him out. Hampshire hit .385 with 10 doubles, a .442 on base percentage and a .490 slugging percentage. He was a named second team All-GLIAC.
"For a freshman to step into the third spot in the batting order, that's rare," Schaly said. "We think he's going to be even better with a year under his belt."
Sophomore Nick Edwards is projected to be the starter in right field. He played in 32 games last season and started 17 times so he has a good base of experience.
"We think he'll show more consistency at the plate and he'll do a good job defensively," offered Schaly. "He comes from a great high school program (Archbishop Moeller). We think it's his turn."
There's no telling what those youngsters can provide. As for the three starters, Schaly knows what he's getting there.
"Each one of these guys has a great arm, these are probably the best outfield arms I've ever had," said the AU head coach.
The starting point for this unit is junior right-hander Jake Baldwin. A year ago he was a first team All-American, the Midwest Region pitcher of the year and the GLIAC pitcher of the year. He went 8-0 with a 1.58 ERA and three shutouts. Opposing hitters managed a .217 batting average against Baldwin. Baldwin has been tabbed as a 2014 Preseason Second Team All-American (NCBWA).
"Jake had a great sophomore year," said Schaly. "Guys felt with him on the mound that we were going to win. He's better now. He's picked up three or four miles per hour in velocity. He's a legitimate pro prospect."
A year ago the Eagles had three outstanding veteran pitchers in Brad Thomas, Zach Botjer and Eric Vaughan. All three of those pitchers secured some sort of all-conference honors during their career. Graduation has claimed all three and the Eagles have to build the rotation behind Baldwin and sort out the bullpen.
"Art's another guy who throws in the 90's," said Schaly. "He's got a great arm, a good breaking ball and very good command of his pitches.
"Frate's a veteran and he's a great competitor," added Schaly.
Frate was the winning pitcher in last year's GLIAC Tournament championship game. He started seven games and was 3-4.
Schaly is anxious to see sophomores Alex Smith and Sam Shafer, freshmen Cory Teachout and Mitch Cox and junior Matt Kruzel pitch in Florida. All of these pitchers are trying to work their way into the rotation. Kruzel is the lone lefty in the bunch.
The bullpen features seniors David Devine and Cole Hudson and junior Jon Thacker. Hudson appeared in 12 games last season and during his career, has started and pitched in relief. Thacker pitched in 10 games last season and Devine worked in six games.
This and That
Schaly is 611-295-1 in 16 years at Ashland. In 26 years as a college head coach he is 974-507-1. With 26 more victories, Schaly will reach 1,000 for his career. His late father, Don, won over 1,000 games at Marietta. The Schalys would be the second father-son combination at any level of college baseball to win 1,000 games apiece.
Schaly has led the Eagles to NCAA postseason play 12 times and to the College World Series four times.