Pitching seen as key for HPU baseball
High Point University baseball coach Craig Cozart will have plenty of experience at his disposal as the season opens with a three-game set in Charleston beginning today.
The Panthers return all of their starting outfield, most of the infield starters and most of their key pitchers from a team that made it to the semifinals of the Big South Conference tournament.
“It’s nice to have a club familiar with our systems and style of play, and to have a bunch of guys who have experience and leadership qualities to impart to the new guys on the club this year,” Cozart said.
Even with all that talent coming back, Cozart believes one of the keys to a successful season will be a healthy, productive pitching staff after injuries sidelined three of his five starters as HPU limped to a 28-31 finish, finished seventh in the regular season and had the seventh-best ERA at 4.63.
“If there has been one area we’ve been inconsistent here, it is on the mound,” Cozart said. “This game can be frustrating if you can’t control your situation on the mound. But we have confidence that our staff can pitch at a high level and pitch at a national level. We have lofty expectations for what we can do. And that is what it is going to take.
“It’s going to take this group of guys on the mound to take us where we’ve never been before. We’re going to be able to catch the ball and score runs, but the thing that has to show up day-in and day-out is what happens on the mound. I tell the guys every day that pitching will set you free.”
His starters for this weekend are right-handed senior Jacob Newberry today against Kansas State, 6-7 junior lefty junior Sean Townsley on Saturday against George Mason and senior righty Jared Avidon on Sunday against The Citadel.
Newberry, who has a fastball clocked at 93 miles an hour, was 4-7 with a 4.60 ERA last season, 58 strikeouts and 19 walks. Avidon was 3-5 with a 6.82 ERA. Townsley redshirted last season while recovering from Tommy John surgery.
Ryan Retz (4-5, 4.16 ERA), who will start at first base, will be a midweek starter. Zach Haile, who has battled injuries and pitched just five times last season, is seen as a midweek starter and reliever.
Retz, Newberry and Avidon accounted for 26 starts last season.
Two other hurlers coming off injuries are Jamie Schultz and Malcolm Clapsaddle. Schultz, who was primarily a reliever, had surgery on his pitching hand and won’t return until March. Clapsaddle, who made just four starts before being hurt, will start out the season in a bullpen which will have Joe Goodman as the closer. Mike Lewis, a transfer from St. Louis, will also be a reliever as will Kyle Wigmore.
One of the reasons pitching is key for HPU and most other teams? Home runs and big hits have been less prevalent since bats were changed a couple of years ago to prevent balls from carrying as far.
“Our style is get up on the plate, get the hit-by-pitch, hit the ball the other way, put the ball on the ground and be aggressive on the bases,” Cozart said. “We’ll have an old-fashioned, blue-collar style of baseball. Because of the new bats, the days of sitting back and waiting for the three-run homer or the six-run inning are over.”
Returning starters around the rest of the diamond include Sean Wilson in left field, Dane McDermott in center, Devin Bujnovsky in right, Retz at first and speedster Willie Medina at short, with Josh Spano and Spencer Angelis at catcher.
Kyle Brandenburg, the former Ragsdale star and transfer from Guilford Tech, is expected to start at second while also possibly playing at short and pitching. Adam Barry, a transfer, is expected to see a lot of time at third base. Scott Glover, a senior, will see time at designated hitter as will Blake Hutton, a transfer from Ohio State who also catches.
The Panthers were picked to finish third behind Liberty and Campbell in the Big South North as the league split into two division. Because teams play only schools from their division in the regular season, they won’t see league power Coastal Carolina at all unless they meet in the eight-team conference tournament.
The top two finishers in each division will automatically qualify for the tournament. The other rest of the field will be the next four teams with the best conference records.
“The North is deep with us Campbell, Liberty, Radford — that’s going to be a real battle,” Cozart said. “But everyone is going to have to go through Coastal because it is going to be interesting because of the divisions.”
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