EDWARDSVILLE, IL – In 2018, Saint Louis couldn’t have been much more of a veteran team, and they got the most out of that experienced group. They went 38-20 overall, won the Atlantic 10 with a 19-4 mark, and captured the league’s automatic bid by virtue of winning the conference tournament.
But with a veteran team one year often comes roster turnover the next, and that’s what faces head coach Darin Hendrickson and his Billikens as they work toward the 2019 season.
Gone are shortstop Alex King, catcher James Morisano, first baseman Nick Reeser, third baseman Carter Hanford, and outfielders Parker Sniatynski, Aaron Case, and Kyle Fletcher from the lineup. From a pitching perspective, SLU waved goodbye to staff ace Miller Hogan and key bullpen arms Sean Frontzak and Luke Sommerfeld at the end of last season.
All of that turnover means that Hendrickson and his staff are approaching this fall a little bit differently than in seasons when they’ve returned more experience.
“We’re playing a lot more people,” Hendrickson said. “We have more depth than probably we’ve ever had, but it’s just a lot of new faces. Sixteen new faces. If you watch the game tonight, I thought our pitchers threw the ball well, and I thought we had some new guys peek their heads up and do some good things. Shane Benes, obviously. When you get those guys, even though they’re transfers and are older, some of them haven’t played, and that’s the part I’m looking for. They need to knock the rust off and go play. That’s what we’re looking for out of the fall.”
There’s quite a bit to be settled when it comes to the lineup, but if you’re going to have to build up an offense almost from scratch, bringing back your leading hitter from the previous season is a pretty good way to start. That’s a luxury the Billikens have with the return of Jake Garella (.352/.421/.458, 14 2B), who manned right field and hit third in his team’s scrimmage against SIU-Edwardsville on Wednesday night.
A strong right-handed bat, he barreled the ball up as consistently as anyone in the Saint Louis lineup a year ago, and that, combined with his doubles total and a physical build, suggests that there might be some additional home run power in there that he hasn’t quite tapped into yet.
Another returner is second baseman Cole Dubet, which is important from both an offensive and defensive standpoint. Offensively, he gives the team a bit of everything. He hit .303, showed more power than you might think given his five-foot-nine-inch, 170-pound frame with 11 doubles and five homers, and flashed some speed with eight stolen bases a season ago. Defensively, his return is important because the Billikens will be breaking in a new shortstop (more on that in a bit), and if you’re going to be doing that, returning the other half of the double-play combination provides at least a modicum of peace of mind in a key defensive area.
Morisano, who played 143 games in his four years in the program, might be gone from behind the plate, but the Billikens do have a couple of experienced options to choose from as his primary replacement. The most notable is junior Ryan Hernandez, who played in 40 games a year ago, which also included some time serving as the designated hitter.
Offensively, the tool he’s flashed the most is power. As a freshman in 2017, four of his 11 hits in limited playing time were home runs. Last season, he added five homers. To become a better all-around threat, though, he’ll have to work on his plate discipline. In 2018, he struck out in about 42% of his at-bats and collected just nine walks, which had great bearing on his .211 batting average and .283 on-base percentage.
Defense and intangibles are just as important in a catcher, however, and Hernandez passes the eye test there. He’s got a strong arm that could go a long way toward shutting down the running game, and he’s not shy about being vocal and animated, whether that’s in communicating with his pitchers on the mound or with teammates in the dugout during an offensive half-inning. Also in the mix behind the plate is sophomore Ben Livorsi, who got into 23 games a year ago, and began the Wednesday scrimmage as the team’s designated hitter.
As important as establishing consistency at catcher will be, the most pressing void for the Billikens is shortstop, after the graduation of Alex King. A four-year contributor, King was a steady hand defensively, and during his time on campus, he also went from being a singles hitter as an underclassman to becoming one of the best power bats in the A-10 as a senior.
Truthfully, SLU has been spoiled at that position for even longer than that, as King was preceded by Alec Sole, who hit .316 in his three seasons at the position (including a .352 average as a junior) and went on to reach as high as AAA in the Tampa Bay Rays organization. In other words, this is a program that hasn’t had to worry about this position very often of late.
Candidates to fill in there include Kevin Jordan, Jr., a JUCO transfer from College of San Mateo and originally from Australia, who started the scrimmage against SIU-Edwardsville, and sophomore Zach Frieling, who saw significant time on Wednesday evening as well.
“For me, it’s our biggest question mark,” Hendrickson said. “We’ve had Alec Sole for three years, from ’11 to ’14, and then King for the next four. So we had the same shortstops for seven years in a row. You love that because they played right away. We’ve got a huge void there for me. But we’ve got some guys. Kevin Jordan’s got a chance, Zach Frieling played well tonight. They’re just young. It’s going to have to be a dogfight this fall, like everywhere.”
One player who clearly looks like a solution to one of the holes to fill on the infield corners is Shane Benes.
To say that Benes took a circuitous route to SLU would be an understatement. An abridged version of his journey to this point goes like this: he’s torn his ACL three times since his senior year of high school, he stepped away from baseball while at Missouri, his first stop in college baseball, picked the game back up to play at Division II Drury University, stepped away again during his time at Drury, and is now back in the game at SLU as a grad transfer. That means not only is he jumping back into Division I baseball after several years away from this level of play, but he’ll be taking on a graduate-level course load at Saint Louis University, which is certainly no breeze as far as academics go.
His baseball career hasn’t gone as he would have hoped when he was considered a premier prospect during his high school days, but if Wednesday evening is any indication, he’s poised to end his time in college baseball with a bang, as he hit three home runs off SIU-Edwardsville pitching. The first was a towering shot to center field on a hanging breaking ball, the second was yanked to left field on a 92 MPH fastball, and the third was an absolute rocket that got out in a hurry to left-center. For good measure, he also added a double and a single to give him five hits on the evening, and to top it off, he looked solid in time spent at both infield corners.
“There’s a lot of good, talented kids around Division I baseball, but how many kids really have desire? That’s something I’m going to preach,” Hendrickson said. “Kids get lost in everybody’s got talent, everybody’s got numbers, showcases, and tweets going on, but that kid’s got desire. When you’ve been through the ACL issues that he’s gone through, sat out, battled through it, and come back, and he’s willing to go to grad school and put the work in and come back and do this…Everybody’s rooting for him. How do you not root for the guy? He’s full of gratitude, he’s full of humility, and he’s full of a lot of talent.”
In the outfield alongside Garella, redshirt junior Corrigan Bartlett got an extended look in left field on Wednesday, and could be ready to take on an important role after sitting out all of the 2018 season. His most memorable play from Wednesday came not at the plate, but in the field, on a play that actually scored a run for SIU-Edwardsville. The Cougars’ Garrett Carmichael brought a run home with a sharp single to left, but as a runner attempted to go from first to third on the play, Bartlett fired a seed to third base that arrived in the exact right place at the exact moment the runner went into his slide, recording the out and helping squash the rally.
Another player to watch in the outfield is JUCO transfer Tyler Reichenborn, who manned center field on Wednesday. Last year at Iowa Western, one of the premier JUCO programs in the country, he had a monster season, hitting .418/.522/.670 with 15 doubles, eight triples, five homers, 50 RBI, and 19 stolen bases. Certainly he has the pedigree to suggest that he can be a real spark plug at the top of the lineup for the Billikens.
On the mound, the surest thing SLU has is Drew Reveno, who was nothing short of outstanding as the team’s Sunday starter a year ago, going 10-2 with a 2.13 ERA and a .203 opponent batting average. He looked comfortable in his outing on Wednesday, working with good pace and leaning heavily on a fastball that sat in the low 90s.
Behind him, there are more questions, but it’s not a team without options.
One obvious option is Jackson Wark, a six-foot-six-inch senior righty. He’s got plenty of experience, what with more 160 career innings under his belt, and when he’s on, he’s capable of dominating a game. At the same time, however, he’s sometimes struggled with efficiency and working deep into games. He did show improvement on this in 2018, as he completed six innings eight times in 16 starts, compared to just four times in 14 starts in 2017. His numbers also improved across the board as he went 9-2 a year ago with a 3.80 ERA, which was nearly a run lower than the previous season’s 4.66 mark. On Wednesday, he was the second pitcher out of the chute for the Billikens, and he looked sharp, striking out two hitters, both on offspeed pitches.
Redshirt senior Connor Lehmann, another towering righty, provides a very intriguing rotation option as well. He was solid last year in a swingman role, putting up a 3.04 ERA and a .204 opponent batting average in 47.1 innings of work, but his most notable resume items have to be two dominating performances late in the season. In a midweek start on May 1 against Southeast Missouri State, he threw six no-hit innings, but then took things to the next level about a month later at the Oxford Regional, when he threw five no-hit relief innings against host Mississippi. He wasn’t at his sharpest on Wednesday in Edwardsville, but he’s done enough to prove that he’s going to be in the mix.
Then there’s a new face in Luke Matheny, a transfer from San Jacinto College who began his college career at Oklahoma State. He threw two scoreless innings on Wednesday, relentlessly pounding the strike zone along the way, and working his way out of a mini-jam in his second inning of work after a double and a walk put two men on.
Perhaps Cody Luther, yet another tall righty, is someone to watch as well. The redshirt junior pitched in just three games in 2018, but two of those were starts. On Wednesday, he started the second of the two six-inning scrimmages and worked quickly on the way to throwing two scoreless innings. He impressed in the second inning in particular, showing the ability to get swings and misses with his breaking ball.
“Reveno is for sure,” Hendrickson said. “Connor Lehmann maybe didn’t show it as early on tonight, but Connor Lehmann is going to be a guy for us. He threw five innings of no-hit ball at Ole Miss in the regional. But he had a good summer, he went off, and he’s up in the 90s. When you look at that (the rotation competition), you’re going to see a fight with Luke Matheny, who’s a sleeper. San Jac product that throws strikes, pounds the zone, could be a really good Sunday guy potentially. So we’ve got some choices. I think you saw some good arms tonight. I think our strength will lie in our bullpen. We might have five or six inning guys. We just don’t have Miller Hogan.
“We may have to be more of a bullpen-type team where we just don’t go as deep with a true ace. Reveno won ten games. You can’t overlook that. He was 90-92 tonight, and Wark, I think that you’re going to find he’ll be there in the end. He’s a senior.”
From a bullpen standpoint, Ryan Lefner (3.86 ERA, 7 SV) is the top returning arm among those who worked primarily in a relief role, and he made an appearance as the team’s closer of sorts on Wednesday, coming in to throw the sixth and final inning of SLU’s 4-1 win in the first of two abbreviated scrimmages the teams played.
Others returning include junior Charlie Sheehan (4.30 ERA, 37.2 IP) and sophomore Colin Townsend (5.40 ERA, 15 IP). They’ll be joined in the bullpen by the aforementioned pitcher(s) who don’t end up carving out a role in the starting rotation, and a host of newcomers, including two guys who threw on Wednesday, JUCO transfer Evan Floyd and Illinois State grad transfer Jack Spicer.
Heading into 2019, SLU clearly has questions to answer, and that could help open up the top of the A-10 standings a little bit. But it seems a safe bet that the Billikens will find enough answers to those questions to once again be a part of that competition at the top of the league.