It is no secret in baseball that having great pitching is key for a successful season. Over the past two years, the men’s baseball team has led the Southern Conference in ERA, which catapulted the Cougars to the NCAA Tournament in 2012 and produced a solid regular season in 2013.
But as in all collegiate sports, talent graduates and teams must rebuild their lineups with incoming players. In 2014, the pitching staff will be a constant work-in-progress for Head Coach Monte Lee.
The Cougars lost 70 percent of their pitching from a season ago, including three of their top five starting pitchers. With the departing players, Coach Lee will be relying on a mix of old and new faces to lead the pitching staff.
One of those old faces include 2013 Freshman All-SoCon selection, Nathan Helvey, who started 10 games for Charleston last season, finishing with a 3.12 ERA and a 5-3 record. Helvey looks to be the Cougars’ ace at the front of their rotation in 2014.
The Cougars will rely on some new transfer talent in the starting rotation as well. Sophomore Eric Bauer is a transfer from the College of Central Florida, where he was selected a Florida Collegiate All-Star in 2013. Taylor Clarke, a transfer sophomore, was a starter for Towson in 2012 before suffering an injury last season.
Helvey, Bauer, and Clarke will be Coach Lee’s initial weekend series rotation, but the weekday rotation is poised to compete for a spot in big series. In the weekday rotation is a South Carolina High School Player of the Year in Tyler Thornton, a Rawlings Perfect Game Regional Team selection in Hayden McCutcheon, and Collegiate Baseball All-America Second Team pick in Bailey Ober.
“We lost a lot of innings and a lot of experience from guys who threw a ton of meaningful innings for us. With that being said, the only thing I am going to expect out of this pitching staff is that they go out and compete every single day,” remarked Coach Lee. “The great thing about this year is that these young guys are going to get thrown into the fire right away and they are going to get to develop, fail, adjust, and get better.”
But it is not all inexperience for Charleston in 2014, as the batting order is returning eight of nine starters from last season.
The lineup is led by preseason All-CAA selections in outfielder Brandon Murray and middle infielder Gunnar Heidt. Murray has had an impressive career with the Cougars over the past three years, playing 133 games and recording 22 home runs and 100 RBIs. He led the team with 54 RBIs in 2013 and was second with nine home runs.
“It is real important for us as veterans, who have played significant time on the field, to be catalysts and score some runs for [the young pitchers], so that they can be confident on the mound,” commented Murray on the importance of returning eight position players.
Heidt is considered a strong prospect for the upcoming MLB Draft after his strong 2013 campaign. He led the Cougars with a .349 batting average and tied Murray for tops on the team with 54 RBIs.
One of the biggest factors in the Cougars’ season will be the continued development of sophomore infielder, Carl Wise. Wise burst onto the scene in Charleston during his freshman season, leading the team with 10 home runs despite not starting the first 15 games of the season. He was selected to Baseball America’s All-Freshman Second Team and the SoCon All-Freshman Team for his impressive first year.
“I just want Heidt and Murray and also Carl Wise, who got left off [the All-CAA] list somehow, to be them and I don’t want them to feel like they have any more pressure or try to do more because we have a younger pitching staff,” commented Lee. “They are productive hitters and they know what is expected of them, so I haven’t said a whole lot to those guys because they know what our expectations are.”
Joining Heidt and Wise in the infield is All-SoCon Second Team selection Blake Butler and freshman Nick Pappas. Blake, who may be the Cougars’ best fielder, only posted four errors in all of 2013 and finished with an batting average of .321, which was good for second on the team. Pappas was a top five high school prospect out of South Carolina in 2013 and will get the majority of time at first base.
“Blake has a real solid glove, he rarely makes errors. Carl and I have been practicing a bunch of ground balls because Coach Lee preaches defense wins championships, so our whole infield has been working on defense because with a new pitching staff, we are going to have to make plays to win,” remarked Heidt on the strength of the Cougars’ infield defense.
Catching for the Cougars is team captain and senior Ryan Welke, who played in all but six games for Charleston last season. Welke, who is dubbed the emotional leader of the team, will be tasked with working with the young pitching group the Cougars have. Ben Boykin, who played mostly designated hitter in 2013, will spell Welke behind the plate throughout the season.
“If we can stay healthy positionally, we have a decent amount of depth and we have some guys who might not be everyday players but have some skill and ability, so we should be pretty balanced and strong,” said Lee.
With the move to the CAA, the Cougars are leaving the SoCon, a conference in which they found great success during their 15 seasons. Charleston was picked to finished second in the CAA, behind UNC Wilmington, in the preseason poll. Coach Lee expects tough play in the CAA, which sent three teams to the NCAA Tournament in 2013.
“The Southern Conference was a three bid league in 2010 and 2012, and we were fortunate enough to get bids in both those years, so that is what we are used to. We are used to playing in a really good league and the CAA is an even better league, so we know what we are getting into, a very high quality of baseball at the college level.”
The players are ready for the challenge of the new conference as well and are prepared to play some tough teams.
“It’s a change, but hopefully a good change. We’ve got some good teams in this league, but I don’t expect much of a change in competition from the SoCon. But it’s a new conference, there are new expectations, so we need to prove ourselves,” commented Murray.
But before Charleston gets to conference play, they face a tough initial schedule, which includes opening the season against the University of North Carolina at Patriots Point. UNC is currently ranked 12th in the national poll and is consistently one of the best baseball programs in the country. With that being said, Coach Lee and the Cougars are ready for the challenge.
“I’m excited for our guys to get to play against such a respected program. [UNC] will run out pro prospects that are high level players so it is going to be a heck of a challenge for us,” commented Lee. “The only way you are going to get your team ready for conference play and for the postseason is you have to play good people and challenge your team.”
The season opener against UNC is Saturday Feb. 15 at 2 p.m. The series will continue on Sunday (2 p.m.) and conclude on Monday (1 p.m.).