Blue-White World Series provides preview for things to come
The Middle Tennessee baseball team kicked off its 2012-2013 campaign this week with the annual Blue-White World Series, a fall intra-squad scrimmage pitting teammate against teammate at Reese Smith Jr. Field.
However, along with the usual story lines that accompany fall baseball, such as the development of returning players and addition of impact newcomers, this year’s Blue Raider squad also features a transitioning coaching staff after the retirement of 25-year Head Coach Steve Peterson this past July.
The man who will be replacing the MT coaching legend will be his long-time assistant and friend Jim McGuire, who spent 20 years with the team before being named the head coach on Aug. 9. McGuire brings with him a pair of new assistant coaches in Scott Hall and Skylar Meade.
Hall joins the Blue Raiders after six seasons with the Belmont Bruins where he served as an assistant coach before being promoted to recruiting coordinator in 2011. He will continue to serve in that role with the MT staff, as well as working with the offense. Meade takes over as pitching coach after five seasons as an assistant with Eastern Illinois.
“I think [the coaching transition] been a lot smoother than anticipated,” McGuire said. “They’ve both jumped in and done a great job and done a great job from the recruiting end of it, because we were very far behind in that. We’re getting caught up with that now, but they’ve also jumped in well with the team, and they’ve blended well with the team, adjusted well.”
For as much turnover that has taken place on the coaching staff, the team that took the diamond for the Oct. 22-24’s three-game series was much the same as the one that fans saw last season.
MT returns all but three players from last year’s 31-win campaign that finished sixth in the Sun Belt in the regular season and fell only one game short of the Sun Belt Tournament Championship game.
One of those returning is senior starting pitcher Hunter Adkins who turned down an offer from the Milwaukee Brewers after being selected in the 18th round of the MLB first-year player draft this summer. Adkins noted that one of the reasons for his return was what he believed this team could do in 2013 and what they still have to prove to the rest of the Sun Belt.
“I expect an awesome year,” Adkins said. “There’s so much team chemistry. Everybody’s playing together well. We all know our purpose here. Everybody’s fired up. We have a new coach in [Jim] McGuire, we have a new pitching coach and everybody’s fired up and ready to go, and I feel like it’s going to be a great year.”
The Blue-White World Series was this Blue Raider team’s first chance to show off that potential in front of the home fans.
Keaton Baker got the start on the mound for the White team in Game 1 and quickly proved why McGuire and the other coaches have been so high on the redshirt sophomore this fall after he struggled for much of the 2012 season following Tommy John surgery the year before.
Baker retired eight of the first batters he faced Monday and finished with five shutout innings, tallying four strikeouts while allowing just two hits.
“He pitched as a starter this summer in a collegiate league, and he played really, really well and was one of the top pitchers in the league,” McGuire said of his sophomore right-hander. “He’s carried that over to fall, and he’s really established himself as one of the top guys on the team.”
Blue team starting pitcher Johnathan Frebis did not experience the same success in his appearance as a sophomore after posting one of the best seasons by a freshman in program history last spring.
After getting to Frebis for one run in the first inning, the White batting order scored six runs in the third and sixth innings with the help of a two-run double from Johnny Thomas and a two-run homer from junior-college transfer Jake Ellison.
The White hitters got to their opponent’s pitching again in the sixth, scoring seven runs and going on to take Game 1 by a score of 15-1. Thomas, Ellison, Connor Tracy and true Heath Slatton posted three RBIs each for the White team in the dominating victory. Slatton, a true freshman, also took the mound in the ninth and pitched a perfect frame in relief.
Tuesday’s Game 2 matchup followed much the same template as Game 1 for the White team, as another dominating performance from a starting pitcher and a sixth inning in which the offense batted around powered the team to a 16-3 victory.
Adkins stepped onto the mound in the first inning for Team White and proceeded to sit down the first 13 batters he faced before the Blue Team finally got to the Signal Mountain, Tenn. native in the fifth inning for a pair of runs when Ryan Stephens took an Adkins’ offering deep over the right field fence for a two-run shot.
“I was just really loose,” Adkins said of his five-inning performance. “My fastball was working great, and I let my defense do a lot of the work.”
Blue team starter Zac Curtis struggled early, but was able to rebound to keep his team in the game through 4.2 innings of word. The score sat at 3-2 in favor of White heading into the bottom of the fifth.
The bottom of the sixth would begin with eight-consecutive White hitters reaching base before the Blue pitching staff recorded its first out of the inning. A pair two run-hits in the fifth and sixth from Slatton and two bases-loaded walks helped White take a commanding lead, 14-2 after a sixth inning that lasted over 30 minutes. It would go on to win, 16-3, clinching a series win before Game 3 had even begun.
After the game, McGuire spoke about Slatton picking up seven RBIs in the first two games of the series just months after graduating high school.
“He’s very talented, even for a freshman. He does a lot of things well. When you watch him in batting practice, he may have the most raw power of anyone on this team,” McGuire said.
Slatton stepped to the mound again in Game 3 to start this time for his team, but it would be another Blue Raider true freshman who would steal the show in Wednesday’s series finale.
Blue starting pitcher Garrett Ring joins the MT baseball program after starring for Mount Pleasant High School in Southern Middle Tennessee during his high school career.
Ring struck out three in five shutout innings to help Blue avoid the sweep and take the series’ final game, 10-1 behind strong offensive performances from his catcher, Dain McNabb and Dalton Henzman.
The Blue offense got to Slatton early for two runs each in both the first and third innings.
After getting out of a couple of jams, Ring got some more help from his offense when Dalton Henzman launched a towering two-run bomb that bounced off the top of the Lee Victory in left field. The ball bounced just feet from where his solo homerun had hit the night before in Game 2.
McNabb added a two-run shot of his own in a three-run eighth that helped seal the deal for the Blue team in the victory. The senior finished the afternoon 3-for-3 with three RBIs.
The Blue-White World Series marks the end of fall practice for the Blue Raiders, who will take the field again in early spring before playing their first game on Feb. 15 against Ball State at Reese Smith Jr. Field.
During that time, MT will finalize its fall recruiting class with the early signing period, and the players will have time to prepare for the season and rehab injuries.
McGuire said after Tuesday night’s game that starting pitcher Jonathan Sisco will have to redshirt this season after undergoing surgery to repair a torn labrum. The loss could prove to be a huge blow for the Blue Raiders’ rotation. Sisco was among the top pitchers in the Sun Belt in the first-half last season before struggling to finish out the season.
Also suffering a torn labrum is star third baseman Hank LaRue who was unable to participate in fall practice, but McGuire hopes to have his junior back sometime in spring.
“He’d had his right away, and, for a position player, he’ll have a better opportunity to come back. You know, he’s not able to play this fall, but we really feel like he’s in his throwing program right now and that he should be ready to do something come Feb. 15, whether it’s [designated hitter], or first baseman, or third baseman or whatever we decide he can do because he’s a big, big part of our lineup,” said McGuire.
Spring will bring with it position battles and the preseason expectations that accompany a team returning as many key players as this Blue Raiders do. For now, the players and coaches get a well-deserved break as the 2013 season approaches.