OXFORD, Ohio – While snow may be on the ground in Oxford, this week has the feel of spring all the same as the Miami University baseball team opens up the 2014 season at Arkansas State (Friday-Sunday) under first-year head coach Danny Hayden. Start times are at 7 p.m. ET on Friday, 3 p.m. ET on Saturday and 2 p.m. ET on Sunday.
About Arkansas State: The Red Wolves were one of the most patient teams in the country at the plate last year, drawing 273 walks (21st nationally). ASU’s pitching staff fanned 8.2 batters per nine innings (12th in the country). The Red Wolves were pegged seventh in the Sun Belt Conference’s Preseason Coaches’ poll after going 28-31 last year and taking eighth in the SBC at 12-18.
Series History: Miami and Arkansas State have met only once, a 4-0 MU victory at the Jody Ramsey Tournament (Edinburg, Texas) on March 19, 1992.
Projected Pitching Matchups
After finishing third in the Mid-American Conference East Division standings with a 14-13 MAC record (26-30 overall), Hayden is hoping to hit the ground running in his first year in the dugout. His roster possesses the talent to make a climb up the league standings with 14 returning letter winners in tow to form the core in a young roster that features just four seniors.
“The biggest thing I’ve noticed is how easy it’s been for the guys to buy into what our staff is trying to do,” Hayden said. “Everyone is used to working hard, so there wasn’t much of a culture shock. There is a lot of talent on this roster and the biggest thing we’re trying to do is get everyone comfortable in their own skin, especially late in ball games. I want players who are trying to make great plays instead of players that are scared of messing up routine plays. We did well with that this fall and we hope it carries over into the spring.”
Four Miami regulars batted .317 or better in 2013 and each returns to anchor an offense that batted a collective .281 (second in the MAC) and scored 322 runs (third). That core includes sophomore outfielder Jake Romano (Algonquin, Ill./Dundee-Crowe), who led the MAC with a .370 batting average en route to MAC Freshman of the Year and Freshman All-America honors a year ago. Junior outfielder Matt Honchel (Harrodsburg, Ky./Mercer County) was a First-Team All-MAC pick last year and is a former MAC Freshman of the Year and Freshman All-American in his own right. He hit .340 with a conference-best 80 hits. He also finished with a team-best 18 stolen bases.
“It’s awesome to have the players that we have returning,” Hayden said. “I’ve sat down many times trying to put together a lineup and I think there are 12 or 13 guys who will get a lot of at-bats, but there are guys nipping on their heels and you can only play nine at a time. We have four proven contributors that we can count on to be even better than last year and I think we have four or five others that can play at that level. Offensively, I think we’ll be able to score a lot of runs. I think our lineup will put pressure on pitchers. While I have confidence in our pitching and defense, our lineup is without a doubt our clear-cut strength.”
A former catcher in his playing days, Hayden has a bevy of talented options to choose from behind the plate. Senior John Crummy (Butler, Pa./Butler) saw most of his at-bats as the RedHawks’ designated hitter last spring, but he has caught games for the team during his first three seasons and has the inside track on the starting job after hitting .317 with 31 RBI in 2013. That said, Miami has another experienced backstop in junior Max Andresen (Granger, Ind./Penn), who started 24 games (23 at catcher) and clubbed two home runs while driving in 18 runs a year ago.
In addition to those two, sophomore Tommy Ricciardi (Arlington Heights, Ill./Buffalo Grove) saw 11 at-bats and earned a start behind the plate as a freshman. Based on his fall, he could also factor into the mix at catcher. Freshman Spencer Dull (Indianapolis, Ind./Hamilton Heights) is regarded as a strong defensive catcher who has also been working to round out his game offensively.
“I think we have four very good defensive catchers right now,” Hayden said. “John is ahead right now because of his bat, but the other guys are nipping at his heels. Max saw a lot of time and showed some potential in spurts offensively last year. Tommy is probably the best of the three defensively and that could force his way into the lineup. Spencer might actually be our best defensive catcher and he has put in a lot of work this fall that I think he could develop into a solid hitter as well.”
The Red and White figure to boast a potent infield with plenty of depth this spring. Senior Dan Walsh (Downers Grove, Ill./South) is expected to serve as the leader of this group after combining for 54 starts at third and second base and finishing second on the team with 36 RBI last season. He is slated to be the team’s starting third baseman in his final collegiate season.
“Dan will probably play close to 50 games at third base this year,” Hayden said. “He is as hungry to win as anyone on the team. He is a senior who desperately wants a ring and he’s working his tail off to do his part to get it.”
After spending the majority of the season roaming the outfield before seeing time at third base, sophomore Chad Sedio (Medina, Ohio/Highland) is shifting to shortstop this season. His bat played everywhere in his debut campaign as Sedio’s .318 average was third on the team.
When the season opens, the RedHawks will be handing the keys to second base over to freshman Steve Sada (Saegertown, Pa./Saegertown). Sada impressed during fall practice and that hard work has carried over into the winter. He graduated as Saegertown’s school record holder in hits and he batted .460 while swiping 82 bags during his prep career.
Depending on how other position battles shake out, several players could see time at first base. Junior Scott Slappey (Alpharetta, Ga./Milton) is the likely starter at the position come opening day, but his versatility could see him get at-bats in several different spots this year. Slappey’s athleticism put him in the lineup for 49 games with 44 starts at shortstop last spring.
“When we moved Chad to shortstop, I figured we would shift Slappey to second base,” Hayden said. “However, Steve has been very good at the plate and has handled second base very well in the practice and during the fall. While Scott is our likely first baseman to start the year, my plan is to play him all over the place. He could play as many as five or even six positions this year.”
Should the need arise, Hayden can count on the experience of junior Ryan Elble (East Grand Rapids, Mich./East Grand Rapids), who logged 40 combined starts at second base and shortstop a year ago. Like Slappey, Elble’s versatility will allow him to spell players all over the diamond and he will be counted on to step into any game at a moment’s notice.
“Ryan’s at-bats are going to be coming as a defensive sub or a pinch hitter early on this season,” Hayden said. “Having someone like him as a backup to several positions is a testament to how deep our infield is. I look for him to play a lot of positions very well this year.”
While time will tell how much he plays this year, freshman Ross Haffey (Bloomfield Hills, Mich./Brother Rice) flashed potential during the fall and is expected to do big things down the line for the RedHawks.
The RedHawks have an enviable outfield that features the last two MAC Freshmen of the Year in speedsters Honchel and Romano. Those two combined for a .351 average, 127 hits and 82 runs scored and figure to be starters in left and center field, respectively.
In two seasons, Honchel has already amassed 172 career hits, putting him well on pace of Clark Mace’s school record of 316 at the halfway point of his career. His .368 batting average through two seasons would place him fourth in school history if his career ended today. He is the first Miami player to land on the All-MAC First Team in consecutive years since John Ely did so in the 2006 and 2007 seasons.
Despite missing time due to injury last year, Romano made quite an impact on a per game basis. His 1.38 hits per game (47 in 34 games) was a shade behind Honchel’s 1.43 while his .441 on-base percentage would’ve ranked third in the conference if he had enough plate appearances to qualify.
“Honchel and Romano are as talented as anyone I’ve coached,” Hayden said. “The biggest thing for both players is to let the game come to them more. Jake is a baseball rat who loves being on the field, he plays with a high motor and does everything the right way. He may need to be a little more selective as teams pitch him a little more carefully, but there’s not much to change with him.
“Matt has tried to do a little too much at times in the past, but I’d rather have that in a player than the alternative. He is always trying to make a play and show how good he is at all times and that is a great trait to have.”
After missing last season due to injury, sophomore Jacob Wolf (Downers Grove, Ill./South) has the inside track to start for the RedHawks in right field. Two years ago, Wolf posted seven RBI in 23 games (10 starts) and he was one of the team’s top hitters this fall.
“Jacob really crushed the ball during the fall,” Hayden said. “He is coming off arm surgery, but he is a great athlete that can handle playing in the outfield. I would hate to have to move him to designated hitter because he is a capable outfielder and we have other people we want to reserve that position for.”
Another player who has a chance to see playing time in the outfield is junior Kendall Johnson (Columbus, Ohio/Bishop Hartley), who could also see reps at first base. Freshman Will Schwartz (Birmingham, Mich./Brother Rice) and sophomore Gary Russo (St. Louis, Mo./Mary Institute and St. Louis Country Day) both showed high-end offensive potential that may force their way into the lineup, whether it is in the outfield or at designated hitter. Sophomores Reed Schlesner (Loveland, Ohio/Loveland) and Julian Flanary (Indianapolis, Ind./Lawrence North) along with freshman Ryan Miller (Pickerington, Ohio/North) are athletic enough to handle the outfield and could see spot duty at numerous positions.
“Gary is a walk-on who can really change a game with his bat,” Hayden said. “I’ll be shocked if he doesn’t play at least 40 games somewhere. He needs work defensively, but that bat will play at designated hitter. Will is another guy whose bat has potential and I could see him fighting for playing time because of that alone. Kendall is a good athlete that we want to see what he has in that bat. He can be a scary hitter and we want to see what steps he can take. Reed, Julian and Ryan can all handle the outfield and they have the talent to get some at-bats.”
On the mound, Miami is relying on several pitchers to thrive in expanded roles in its weekend rotation. After a look at his staff during the fall, Hayden is optimistic about the group’s chances of improving upon its 5.12 ERA from 2013.
Miami’s first pitch this season will be thrown by senior left-hander Seth Varner (Batavia, Ohio/Clermont Northeastern). Varner went 2-1 last spring and fanned 25 batters in 33.1 innings. The rest of the opening weekend games will be started by juniors Nathan Williams (San Diego, Calif./Scripps Ranch) and Ryan Powers (LaGrange, Ill./Nazareth), respectively. Among Miami returners, Williams led the Red and White with 12 starts and 66.1 innings pitched a year ago. Powers served as MU’s primary closer in 2013 and finished the year with five saves.
“Seth and Nate give us two very good upper classmen to set the tone for us on opening weekend,” Hayden said. “We expect both to give us six or seven innings and get the ball to our bullpen when they go out. They are both talented and fierce competitors who have really stepped up as leaders of not only our staff, but the team. Ryan is a big time power arm who is as talented as anyone on the staff, we just need to see more consistency out of him.”
Past the weekend starters are several promising arms that could see starts during the week or crucial innings out of the bullpen late in games. One of those pitchers is junior Clay Cinnamon (Salvisa, Ky./Mercer County), who fanned 10 batters in 13.2 innings of work.
The Red and White will use the early portions of their schedule to challenge the pitchers in their bullpen and work out the late innings of games. Junior Charlie Suich (Powell, Ohio/Scioto) fanned seven batters in 6.1 innings a year ago and his performance during the fall leads Hayden to believe bigger things could be in store.
“The ball comes out of Clay’s hand very well,” Hayden said. “He has three very good pitches and when he is on, hitters worry about getting embarrassed. He will get some innings for us, whether it’s starting for us on weekdays or tossing innings late in games out of the pen. Charlie has been a pleasant surprise so far. He is a quiet guy who goes about his business, but he is tough and hard to pick up. It wouldn’t surprise me to see him closing ballgames at some point.”
One of the RedHawks’ top returning pitchers is senior Charles Zubrod (Winnetka, Ill./Georgetown Prep). After posting a 4.04 ERA in 15 games (10 starts) two years ago, Zubrod led the team with a 2.87 ERA in 31.1 innings pitched this past season. Whether it’s starting or pitching out of the pen, Zubrod figures to have a big role on the staff in his final season.
Two other returners could also find themselves in the mix for key innings in sophomore Wynston McMartin (New Albany, Ohio/New Albany) and junior Brian Thene (San Diego, Calif./Torrey Pines). Those two combined for 24 appearances, with Thene making seven starts, in 2013.
The MU staff could also get a lift from redshirt freshman Ryan Marske (LaGrange, Ill./Nazareth), who missed last season rehabbing an injury. Freshman Jacob Banks (Cincinnati, Ohio/Cincinnati Hills Christian Academy) showed promise during the fall and may be in the mix for innings as well. Senior Alex Brown (Riverside, Ill./Riverside-Brookfield), junior Ryan Haynes (Cincinnati, Ohio/Archbishop McNicholas), freshman Christian Bokich (Hinsdale, Ill./Central) and freshman Brad Schwartz (Marietta, Ga./George Walton Comprehensive) will also provide depth on the mound.
“I think we have a lot of depth in our pitching staff,” Hayden said. “I am confident with our weekend rotation as it starts out, I think there are some guys that could push for starts on the weekend. When we’re playing weekday games, I think we will have the best starting pitcher more often than not. We’re going to throw a lot of guys into challenging spots early in the year and see who responds to that adversity the best, not just in results, but in their demeanor on the mound as well.”
With the season about to get underway, Hayden is confident that Miami fans will enjoy the brand of baseball he envisions this team playing.
“We have 55 opportunities to prove we are the toughest team on the field,” Hayden said. “While I believe that we have plenty of talent in our dugout, that alone doesn’t win ballgames. I want our players to enjoy what they do and be passionate to play the game. That’s what I believe keeps teams fresh late in the season.”