Feb. 11, 2009
For the 2009 edition of Memphis Baseball to be successful, they must be prepared to take on a list of unique challenges, meanwhile putting a tough 2008 season out of sight and out of mind.
"The main point that we've talked about as a staff is to keep this team focused and upbeat with two major hurdles to overcome," said fifth-year head coach Daron Schoenrock. "One of them is to overcome the demons of last year and what we went through as a young team. Second is to change the outcome of those 12 one-run loss games."
To accomplish these goals, the Tigers must find a way to elevate their play against strong C-USA opponents, with somewhat of another young team, and then overcome the thoughts of the struggles of the previous year.
Playing without a home in 2009 will make that task an even bigger undertaking. However, the coaching staff is encouraged by this team's accountability in regards to the distinctive circumstances.
"Our approach (with this season) has been a little bit different," Schoenrock stated. "We've asked a little bit more from this team from the standpoint of accountability in the fall in every area of their life and it has generated a feeling where we have more guys on the roster now that have taken ownership in what they are doing everyday than we've ever had."
As has been the case since Schoenrock arrived in Memphis in 2005, staff continuity is important. pitching coach Michael Federico and hitting instructor Jerry Zulli return for their fifth year with Schoenrock. Director of Operations Al Woods returns for a second season, while former four-year starter K.K. Chalmers joins the staff as a student assistant. First-year volunteer assistant coach Derrick Dunbar joins the Tiger staff and will take over the infield coaching duties.
"The roles played by Derrick (Dunbar), Al (Woods) and K.K. (Chalmers), surrounding what Coach Fed and Coach Zulli do everyday, make this a staff that is very close," commented Schoenrock. "This is a tremendous staff and provides another opportunity for these kids to become better young men and better players."
In every college baseball season, success or failure usually looms with pitching first. The Memphis coaching staff is optimistic about this year's staff of hurlers. According to Schoenrock, the depth of the Tigers' pitching staff, from top to bottom, is as solid as it's been in his time at Memphis. The Tigers have a healthy rotation, led by junior co-captain Brach Davis. Davis had a solid 2008 campaign and logged summer innings that should help him. Junior college transfer Ryan Fraser has stepped in to win a spot in the weekend rotation after an impressive fall. The development of Brennon Martin and his progression in his three years in the program have him in a position to pitch on the weekends in 2009.
Marc Ashley will get some early looks as the fourth starter after a great fall season. A capable three-pitch guy, Ashley's key to success will be whether or not he can stay healthy.
"Marc has battled injuries the last two springs after coming off pretty good falls," said Schoenrock. "We're keeping our fingers crossed that his injuries are behind him. The fourth starter role is an ever-critical, unsung role of `Can you win on Tuesday and Wednesday and help this team get to an NCAA Regional?'"
A trio of Tigers pitchers will vie for the fifth starter's job early in the year. Ryan Holland returns, having pitched in that role last year. True freshman Ben Paullus will be in the mix as well. Paullus is one of the group's hardest throwers and could settle into a starting role as he continues to fine-tune his mechanics. After sitting out the majority of the 2008 season rehabilitating an injury, senior Duke Williams looks to compete for either the fifth starter job or a significant bullpen job.
"Duke has a great work ethic and he's the quiet leader of the pitching staff," Schoenrock commented. "Not having him in the mix really affected our pitching last year. We counted on getting quality work out of Duke and we look for him to be a big cog in our staff."
Whoever doesn't win the fifth starter position, will immediately get put in the mix as early inning bullpen options. The Tigers have three or four choices in the middle innings. Junior Garrett Hachtel had the best fall he's had in his three years in the Blue and Gray, and understands what he has to do to be successful. A groundball pitcher, Hachtel will be leaned on to perform his skill, often in short spurts.
"We're not looking for our middle relief pitchers to be 7-8-9-out type guys," said Schoenrock. "They're going to be guys that are going to see one or two innings, get us back in the dugout and hand the ball to a late-inning guy."
Sophomore lefthander Marcus Barnes pitched in a tough, late-inning role as a true freshman last year, and will once again take that role early in the season. Barnes has a live fastball, is a fierce competitor on the mound and has a solid recovery time.
Junior Mark Jobe will get some looks as a middle type reliever because his of drop down delivery and groundball capabilities. The emergence of Worth Tate coming off an injury-riddled redshirt year will give Schoenrock a quality option out of the bullpen.
Schoenrock's plan is to get the ball handed to some pitchers late in the game that the staff has confidence in. Matt Yokley, the program's all-time saves leader, has been in that role for three years now and the coaches feel comfortable with the ball in his hand with the game on the line. The emergence of true freshman Heath Hatfield has proved that he could be that type of guy as well as junior college transfer Josh Ross. Those three guys possess swing-and-miss type pitches that the Tiger coaches want late in the game.
"Matt's (Yokley) health is going to effect how we use him," said Schoenrock. "He's finishing the rehab from the injury he battled from about the midpoint of last year and I don't know if he'll be able to be an everyday-type reliever that he's been in the past. His role may have to change and one of these other young guys--Hatfield or Ross--could step up and fill that role on days Matt isn't available."
All in all the Tigers have the ingredients to fit the pieces of a solid pitching puzzle together. Although not a dominant, high velocity group of guys, it will be a staff that showcases more depth and more different types of looks.
Much like the pitching staff, the Tigers are as deep at the catcher position as ever. With the loss of two-year starter Chris Kirkland, the Tigers will put a new face behind the plate. The addition of juco transfer Shawn Ablett was to add offensive punch to the U of M line-up. After fall workouts, the coaching staff has no doubt that he can do just that and he'll get early looks behind the plate to provide offense. Senior Dan Kaufman benefitted greatly from going through fall drills and will assume the backup duties.
Part of the depth in the catching corps is the addition of true freshman Trey Turner and the emergence of and the physical improvements of Cole Shelton's game.
"Depending on who can handle the pitching staff, protect the ball and keep the ball from going to the back stop on a daily basis, we'll try to have those type so guys on the field when the game's on the line," said Schoenrock." "The basic things I look for in a catcher is to make the pitcher look good and keep the ball from going to the back stop and if you can do those two things and provide offensive punch, you'll get an opportunity."
The Tigers will put a very athletic group on the infield with senior Brett Bowen making the move from third base over to shortstop. Bowen played shortstop in junior college and is comfortable in the middle of the field. That pushes sophomore Chad Zurcher, who was the Tigers' everyday shortstop last year, over to second base. The emergence of true freshman Jacob Wilson's capability to play third at the collegiate level gives Schoenrock some other infield options.
"I feel like we can handle the routine play and that's what I look for, putting guys in a position where they can be comfortable enough to dominate the routine play," Schoenrock commented. "I want my captain in the middle of the field whenever I can get him there. We have two shortstops up the middle, and Bowen and Zurcher seemed to work well up the middle in the fall."
Redshirt freshman Adam McClain has now become a dual-position player and will get looks at second base. On days the coaching staff needs to make adjustments on the infield, Zurcher is capable of playing shortstop, while Bowen is definitely capable of playing third.
"If we get banged up anywhere, we have guys who are movable," said Schoenrock. "We're going to give Jacob Wilson every opportunity to be the everyday third baseman. But, because of how fast things go as a freshman, he may need some days off. That's where McClain's versatility will benefit us."
A dual position threat, the coaching staff has experimented with McClain in the outfield to get more right handed bats in the lineup. He's transitioned from second base to mostly to left field during fall drills, but will get looks at both spots. Although he could be more of an outfielder than an infielder, Schoenrock likes his ability to provide talented depth to the Tiger infield. Zach Clark, who has been in the Tigers' system four years now, will also supply the U of M infield with quality depth. A coach in practice, Clark understands the Tigers' systems and always pushes guys around to make them better everyday that he plays either through his knowledge or through his work ethic.
Last year's offensive leader, Trey Wiedman returns at first base, but could also get some looks in the outfield as Memphis creates more depth with the ability to rotate its lineup around right handed and left handed pitchers. Shelton had a great fall, offensively and defensively, and can be adequate at first base if Wiedman goes to the outfield. The coaching staff feels like Shelton's bat has to be in the lineup everyday. He'll settle into the DH slot on days he's not in the field. Chase Sain has made a move from catcher to first base this year and although he's helped some with catching, he continues to develop with his bat and could provide some power as a pinch hitter off the bench. Ablett will also get some looks as a DH on days that he doesn't catch.
"Once again we're trying to create more depth, create competition, and also help this club overcome any injuries or setbacks we might have early in the season," said Schoenrock.
Memphis will showcase a new-look outfield with the absence of K.K. Chalmers, and Robby Graham completing rehab from an injury he suffered at the end of last season. Graham's injury forced him out of fall practices and allowed the coaching staff to look at some other guys in the outfield as Graham went through the rehab process. Junior Tyler Huelsing is the lone returning Tiger outfielder and will make the move from leftfield to rightfield. The young Tiger outfield will get much-needed leadership, experience, work ethic, speed and power with the return of Chris Newsom as a fifth-year senior. Newsom, who has worked into a starting role in each of his previous three seasons, will battle for a position at any outfield position and is an asset who can come off the bench as a pinch runner, pinch hitter, or reserve outfielder. Graham will move to left and battle with McClain as the Tiger staff tries to find a way to get more right handed bats in the lineup. McClain is slated to start in leftfield early on. His offensive skills will help him find his way into the lineup on a daily basis. True freshman Drew Martinez will get the nod in centerfield. He will have big shoes to fill as Chalmers' successor, but proved this fall that he's mature enough to handle the everyday grind at the Division I level. A mature player, Martinez will benefit from Chalmers being in the dugout with him.
"We're basically replacing the guy that played centerfield every pitch for four years for us," Schoenrock said. "We're excited about the potential that Drew brings."
Other right handed bats that could see time on the outfield are Heith Hatfield and Trey Wiedman. Offensively, the coaches are taking it slowly with Hatfield, who could see significant time on the mound. Schoenrock is excited about the makeup and athleticism of the outfield.
"I think we'll cover gap to gap very well," he said. "Defense is going to be a little bit more of a primary importance. We're playing at a bigger park in Millington's USA Stadium so, we'll keep an eye on any defensive replacements we have to make late so we can defend the gaps."
Memphis is faced with a sizeable challenge in the facilities department this year. With major renovations of Nat Buring Stadium on the docket, Schoenrock and his squad are forced to play home games at three different venues--Millington's USA Stadium, AutoZone Park and Tony Gagliano Field.
"The excitement of what this program has needed for a long time to compete in this league is actually going to happen and that's the facility renovation," an optimistic Schoenrock said. "There's really never a good time to renovate baseball facilities that won't disrupt a season. Either a fall, which is a very critical time for preparation, or spring. In this case it happens to be the spring so we're going to be a little bit displaced this year."
Since his arrival in 2005, it has been a goal of Schoenrock's to improve Tiger baseball facilities. While renovations are taking place, the squad will call Millington's USA Stadium their primary home.
"We are definitely very fortunate that we have a place like USA Stadium so close to go to play weekend series' in a league which has been mentioned as being one of the top three leagues in the country," he said.
With baseball being such a game of routine, the challenge for the 2009 Tigers is going to be getting comfortable and play in a new home. Success will be gauged on how quick the Tigers can get comfortable with USA Stadium being called home.
Memphis will take their show to Tony Gagliano Field for three midweek games against opponents that it has had some battles with in the past. The Tiger staff will be challenged to keep the guys excited about playing at so many sites and to keep them fired up as they get on a bus basically 56 times.
AutoZone Park has also opened up their doors for the Tigers for five games this spring.
"Obviously our guys love playing at AutoZone," Schoenrock said. "Unfortunately, when you deal with working around a minor league franchise, game times become a little bit tough to schedule."
Despite facing a set of unique challenges, Schoenrock is hopeful that as his team continues to practice at Nat Buring on a daily basis, around the construction, the guys see things happening that will encourage them and push the younger guys for the future while showing the senior class that they had a big part in doing the things on the field that helped this facility become a reality.
"It's definitely going to be a busy, crazy time in the spring," Schoenrock said. "I don't know if I've ever faced so much uncertainty in how a team will react to something, but I'm anxious to get it going."