EDWARDSVILLE, IL – At times in past seasons, the SIU-Edwardsville offense felt a little bit stuck. If they weren’t stringing together hits, they weren’t making much happen, because they just didn’t really have the ability to drop down a bunt for a hit, beat a slow roller to first, take an extra base on a hit, steal a base to get a guy into scoring position, or just generally put the type of pressure on a defense that leads to rushed throws, bobbles, and misplays.
So head coach Sean Lyons and his staff set out to change that, putting an emphasis on recruiting players who would provide an infusion of athleticism to the roster.
“That’s been a part of our team the last two years that we’ve just lacked,” Lyons said. “The ability to beat out an infield single, steal some bases, go first to third. We’ve got some guys now that can bring that, and that in itself brings energy to the dugout.”
In the Cougars’ two scrimmages last week, one on Wednesday against Saint Louis and another on Friday against Missouri-Saint Louis, you could already see the product of those efforts shining through as part of a new-look lineup.
Three freshman, shortstop Brendan Ryan, second baseman Brady Bunten, and outfielder Jack Rigoni, started both scrimmages, and all told, six new faces started both games. That’s the three aforementioned freshmen, plus JUCO transfers in first baseman/outfielder Justin Perkins, infielder Raul Elguesabal, and outfielder Dylan Burris.
Each, in one way or another, serves the purpose of making the Cougars a more dynamic, versatile team.
Ryan is probably the first guy who stands out in this way. On defense, he looked smooth and showed little reason why he couldn’t hold that position as a freshman, which isn’t an easy task. At the plate, swinging from the left side, he hit at or near the top of the order in both games and consistently made hard contact. Senior Jordan Ross, who manned shortstop in 2018 and hit .254 on the season, is back in the fold as well, so perhaps one of them ends up elsewhere on the field, but if nothing else, Ryan has made it clear he’s at least capable of being a nice depth piece in the middle infield.
For that matter, so has Bunten, who showed particularly well in the scrimmage against UMSL, when he collected hits in his first two at-bats out of the nine spot in the lineup. With both of last season’s primary second basemen gone, the position is open for Bunten to step in, but you have to figure he’ll find competition from those who don’t win starting jobs at other infield spots, in addition to returning junior Aaron Goecks, who primarily plays the outfield but can handle second base as well.
Speaking of position battles, Elguesabal looks ready to compete in a couple of places. He started both scrimmages at third base, but in the second scrimmage, he also saw some time at shortstop. In addition to the versatility he provides on the infield, he’s got some pedigree with the bat. Last season at Jefferson College, he hit .360 with 16 doubles and ten homers. In the UMSL scrimmage, he showed some of that pop with a ground-rule double that missed leaving the park for a home run by a couple of feet. Freshman Brett Pierson saw some time at third base after Elguesabal slid over, adding to the available depth.
Perkins brings some power to the table as well, having hit ten homers of his own at Jefferson College last year, and at six-foot-two and 230 pounds, he certainly looks the part. He hit lasers all over the field in the two scrimmages, although he did hit a few right at people, which kept him from being on base as much as you might think given how hard he hit the ball. He saw time in the outfield and at first base over the course of the two games, and while those are two areas where it will be hard to crack the Cougars’ lineup, he looks like the type of guy for whom you want to find at-bats however you can.
The outfield does appear fairly crowded, but Rigoni and Burris will probably be firmly in the mix for playing time out there. Burris, an Edwardsville High School product, had a .486 on-base percentage in his one season at Wabash Valley College. Rigoni is a lanky athlete who you can see becoming more physical as the years go by.
With so many new players factoring into position battles in so many places, you can see how the fall practice period is particularly important to Lyons and his program this time around.
“It’s so beneficial to everybody, but especially those freshmen,” Lyons said. “We’ve got some transfers as well, but a lot of new, young freshmen that, as the fall has gone on, have made a lot of young player mistakes. And getting out here and just being put in live action, and just in these two nights, seeing them get more comfortable and just the team getting more comfortable with themselves these two games, it’s so extremely beneficial.”
One of the reasons at-bats in the outfield will be tough to come by in 2019 is the healthy return of fifth-year senior Dustin Woodcock. A .308/.406/.487 hitter in 566 career at-bats in Edwardsville, he can handle all three outfield positions if needed. The Cougars’ offense got derailed before it could even get going last season when Woodcock, a strong left-handed bat with 60 career extra-base hits, was lost for the season after just one game.
“Last year, losing him there so early in the year was devastating to our lineup and it put a lot of pressure on guys that were in the middle that were hoping to have that security blanket,” Lyons said. “But to have a veteran, mature hitter that he is back really kind of solidifies things at this point for us in the middle.”
Other players who will factor into the competition in the outfield include Goecks, who started 34 games in the outfield in 2018, redshirt junior Eric Giltz, the team’s starting center fielder a season ago and a .302 hitter two years ago, senior Bret Fehr, who made 20 starts in left field last year, and senior Jackson Layton, who has played in 90 games in three seasons in Edwardsville.
Another area where the Cougars have some certainty is behind the plate, with the return of senior Brock Weimer. He had a monster sophomore season, what with a .329/.471/.685 slash line and 15 home runs, and he followed that up with a solid junior season featuring a .275 batting average and eight homers.
Behind him, sophomore Steven Pattan adds some depth, having started 24 games at catcher last year. He swung it well in the scrimmage against UMSL, collecting two hits, including a double. Freshman Jackson Caley saw time during the scrimmages as well.
At first base, Perkins might push his way into playing time, but the incumbent is senior Peyton Cordova-Smith, who hit .259 in 2018 with 11 doubles and five homers. His bat was relatively quiet in the first scrimmage against Saint Louis, but it came alive against UMSL. His two-RBI double into the right-center gap in that game was among the handful of hardest hit balls of the evening. At his position, he’s a smooth mover around the bag and his line drive swing is one that suggests that he could pile up doubles in bunches if he can put it all together, as he did at Everett Community College, where he had 26 two-baggers as a sophomore.
Cordova-Smith’s double against UMSL was well-struck, but it wasn’t the hardest-hit ball of the day. That honor belongs to the two-run home run off the bat of redshirt sophomore Garrett Carmichael in the 4th inning that ricocheted off the scoreboard and electrified the SIU-Edwardsville dugout as his teammates came out to greet him. An inning later, for good measure, he had a sharp RBI single. In the first scrimmage against Saint Louis on Wednesday, he drove in SIUE’s only run with an RBI single.
Carmichael missed time early last season with a broken hand, but took over as the team’s starting third baseman upon returning, finishing the season with a .266 average and .349 on-base percentage. He’ll spend his fall and spring battling with Elguesabal and Pierson to hold onto that starting role, but if he does more of what he showed in the two scrimmages last week, he’ll be a big part of the team’s plans.
While all coaches would love to have a proven, veteran roster each year, there’s excitement in having a roster like this one, at once full of players with some experience and new faces who will not only push those veterans but improve the depth all over the field.
“All these new players have brought us an energy and a competition to the group,” Lyons said. “This is really our first fall that we’ve had some real competition at positions, and if you were to say ‘hey, what lineup are you going (to use)?’, we’re not set on that because there’s a lot of guys having some good falls and really competing, and that’s an exciting part that brings energy to practice and here to the ballpark every day.”
The Cougars will look to show improvement on the mound and bring down their 6.48 team ERA from 2018.
In the rotation, they have three strong candidates to help them do so.
At the top of that list is junior Kenny Serwa, who was a revelation in the rotation a year ago for the Cougars. In 15 starts, he had a 4.45 ERA and a 57-to-15 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 85 innings of work after transferring in from Division II St. Joseph’s. If that storyline sounds familiar to you, it might be because University of Illinois Friday night starter Quinn Snarskis followed a similar path, taking the school’s closing as a chance to move up and shine in Division I baseball.
Behind Serwa, six-foot-four redshirt sophomore David Llorens shows a ton of promise from the left side. His 5.59 ERA in nine appearances (seven starts) from 2018 isn’t the prettiest figure, but his peripheral numbers suggest that he’s better than that. When he’s throwing well, he can dominate. In 19.1 innings last year, he struck out 30 and held opponents to a .162 batting average. His downfall, however, has been walks, as he issued 22 of them a year ago.
In his appearance on Wednesday against Saint Louis, he showed more of his 2018 form in that he struggled with walks, but also overmatched hitters at times. It will be key for the SIUE rotation that he do more of the latter and less of the former in 2019.
Similarly talented is six-foot-six sophomore Collin Baumgartner. He had a 6.57 ERA in 2018 in a swingman role, but the raw tools are there for him to be very successful, and he showed that on Wednesday, when he started against Saint Louis. His fastball hit 91 consistently on the gun and it had some late life to it, which seemed to help it play up a bit, never more so than when he used it to strike out SLU leading hitter Jake Garella to end the first inning of the scrimmage.
Perhaps other candidates emerge, but Lyons is confident in that trio giving his team a chance every time out.
“Kenny and Collin, they showed last year they were ready to be the top two guys in the rotation,” Lyons said. “That three spot, David was fitting into there last year before kind of a minor injury to finish the year, but he’s competing for that and he’s done a nice job. He’s got experience, but that rotation, and just the pitching staff has been extremely competitive this fall. We’ve added some pieces there that, I think, are going to give us some depth we’ve not had in the past. So it should be fun to see these guys as they progress over the next three or four months before the season gets here.”
In the bullpen, there are some innings to replace, as two of the most effective relievers from last year, Mason McReaken and Brock Fulkerson, aren’t around anymore, but that’s not to say that there aren’t experienced arms available.
Chief among those returning is senior Chris Robinson, who leads all returning relief pitchers in appearances (21) and innings (38) from 2018. His 5.21 ERA is also good for second among returning relievers, behind only junior Braydon Bone, who had a 4.58 ERA in 17.2 innings. Also back is senior Tyler Hutchinson, who pounded the strike zone as well as anyone on the team a year ago. In 16.1 innings, he walked just one hitter. He’ll certainly want to lower his .392 opponent batting average from 2018, but he’s not someone you have to worry about getting into trouble with free passes. Senior lefty Ryan Byrd is also back in the mix after throwing 57.2 innings as a swingman in 2018.
With that said, there are still plenty of innings to be had between returning pitchers who weren’t able to carve out roles in 2018 and new pitchers getting their first experience at SIUE. No matter their level of experience, Lyons knows what he wants to see from them.
“Those were some big losses with those guys (McReaken and Fulkerson), some key guys who pitched some really big innings for us the last two years, really,” Lyons said. “But we do have Chris Robinson back, whose been a guy who threw quite a bit for us in the bullpen. I’m really looking for guys that are ready to just go attack hitters.”
If battling is what Lyons wants to see out of relief pitchers, they can count on freshman Adam Drewry. At five-foot-eight and 210 pounds, he doesn’t have a prototypical pitcher’s body, but there’s good reason for that. He was a catcher throughout most of his high school career before picking up pitching as a senior at nearby O’Fallon High School. As if making up for lost time, in his scrimmage appearance, he worked with good pace, was around the strike zone in all three of his innings, and after the last out of his final inning of work, he came off the mound with fire in his eyes.
JUCO transfer Cole Milam, meanwile, was the biggest arm SIUE sent to the mound in their scrimmages, as he was up to 93 with his fastball. He got hit a little bit against Saint Louis and was one of the three pitchers victimized by a Shane Benes home run on Wednesday night, but while it was against a lower level of opponent on Friday, he was much more effective in his inning against UMSL.
“You saw tonight, the little freshman, Adam Drewry. He’s been really impressive for us this fall,” Lyons said. “He just kind of takes the ball and comes after you. We added the piece with Cole Milam, a hard thrower. If we can keep Cole in the zone, I think he’s going to help us a lot on the back end. Finding out those pieces in the bullpen, that’s the piece to the puzzle that’s so important once we get into the spring. But there are quite a few guys competing there.”
Sophomore righty Brian Chandler, another transfer from Wabash Valley College, was effective in his outing against SLU on Wednesday, as was funky freshman lefty Cameron Prayer. The latter’s six-foot-five frame, combined with his low slot delivery, provides a ton of deception, and his slider has the look of a quality out pitch.
Senior lefty Michael Shereyk, who started and threw the first three innings against UMSL, also showed some promise. With a big curveball that he can throw for strikes or use to get swings and misses, he could be a weapon in a number of roles.
With a solid nucleus of veterans and a quick influx of what appears to be impact talent from the high school and JUCO ranks, SIU-Edwardsville has the luxury of some depth that they just simply haven’t had before. In the past, they’ve had competition in certain areas on the field, but heading into 2019, they have competition just about everywhere.
Whether or not it leads to an immediate move up the OVC standings remains to be seen, but it’s clearly progress for a program still looking to make its first splash as a member of Division I.