by Peter Marx
OXFORD, Ohio - As the Miami University baseball team boarded a bus Thursday morning for the warmer climate of South Carolina, high expectations were in the air.
The RedHawks, which went 30-29 last season and made it to the semifinals of the Mid-American Conference Tournament as the seventh-seed, open their season playing Northwestern Friday at 1 p.m. The team then plays Michigan State Saturday at 4 p.m. and concludes the first weekend of play with a game against Furman Sunday at 3 p.m. The forecast in Greenville calls for a high of 61 degrees on Friday and will be in the upper 40s during the weekend.
Miami, which returns six starting position players and three starting pitchers, was picked to finish second in the MAC Preseason East Division poll, the league announced Tuesday. Kent State was picked first, while Bowling Green was selected third. Ohio was fourth, Akron fifth and Buffalo was sixth.
Central Michigan was the top pick in the West Division, as it edged the coaches' second selection Toledo. Eastern and Western Michigan were picked third and fourth, respectively, while Ball State and Northern Michigan rounded out the West predictions.
Miami coach Dan Simonds, who is entering his eighth year, has led the program to a .500 or better record in six of the last seven seasons.
"We have high expectations," Simonds said. "We want to get back where we need to be and be a championship-caliber team. I know our seniors have been really, really hungry for this."
The RedHawks will build their outfield around sophomore left fielder Matt Honchel and senior center fielder Alex Johnson.
Honchel, a preseason All-America selection, earned Freshman All-America, MAC Freshman of the Year and first-team all conference honors after batting .395 last season. The 6-foot-1, 180-pound lefty also finished with a team-high 92 hits with 26 RBIs.
"He's an incredible hitter," Simonds said. "As far as a kid that can get the barrel on the ball, he and (former RedHawk) Adam Eaton (2008-10) are on the same level. He has pure bat speed and a really good approach."
Honchel is also one of the team's best base runners, as he stole 10 bags on 20 attempts last season.
Johnson, a 6-foot-2, 190-pound righty, played in only 10 games last season due to a hand injury he sustained while diving back into a base during the spring break trip. The Cleveland State transfer, who was an All-Horizon League player in 2011, batted .368 and tallied Miami's second-highest slugging percentage (.447) in his 10 appearances.
"Here's a kid that has had a lot of success at the Division I level," Simonds said about Johnson. "He's really chomping at the bit to get going. He's going to be a middle-of-the-lineup guy, he's a leader and a very good center fielder. To have him back and to have his leadership I think is going to be a huge, huge plus."
In right field, junior Marcus Makuch and freshman Chad Sedio are expected to compete for playing time.
"Those two guys are fighting it out right now," Simonds said. "Sedio is kind of a 5-tool guy. He's very talented, can run, hits for power and has the best throwing arm in the outfield."
Sedio is a 6-foot-2, 185-pound righty who bats left. He's a Medina, Ohio native, who played at Highland High School.
Makuch, a 5-foot-10, 200-pound righty who also bats left, started 16 games last season and finished with a .203 batting average.
"Marcus was our best freshman two years ago and last year because of Matt Honchel he didn't play as much. But I see him back in the mix now. He's improved, he's gotten faster, he's swinging the bat well, so we have some good competition in right field."
In addition to playing right field, Makuch could also play DH.
Freshman Jake Romano, who Simonds says is the fastest player on the team, will contribute in the outfield and will also be used at DH and also as a pinch runner.
Senior first baseman Kevin Bower highlights the returning infielders.
The 6-foot-4, 215-pound righty who bats left, batted .352 last season and finished with a team-high 52 RBIs. The Indianapolis native also had 15 extra-base hits with three home runs and led the team with a .471 slugging percentage.
"Bower to me is a professional hitter," Simonds said. "He knows his swing, makes adjustments at the plate and he's matured."
Sophomore Scott Slappey returns to the shortstop position, while junior Dan Walsh is back at third base.
Slappey finished last season batting .259 with 20 RBIs and had nine extra-base hits. The 5-foot-11, 170-pound Alpharetta, Ga., native also had a .943 fielding percentage.
"He'll be hitting towards the top of the order," Simonds said. "He can put the ball in play and he's not going to strikeout a lot. He drove in some runs last year and was hitting at the bottom of the order. I feel he can do some things in that No. 2 hole."
Walsh, one of the team's three captains this year, batted .276 and had 17 RBIs with only 12 strikeouts in 185 at bats last season. The 6-foot-2, 180-pound Downers Grove, Ill. native also had a .330 on base percentage.
Sophomore Ryan Elble and junior Matt Packer will compete for playing time at second base.
Elble, a 6-foot, 170-pound righty, played in 13 games last season and started in seven. Six of his seven starts were at second. The East Grand Rapids, Mich., native also served as a pinch-hitter and pinch-runner. He batted .200 and had five RBIs in 2012.
Packer began his collegiate career at Chapman University, but didn't see any action. The 5-foot-11, 175-pound righty attended Taft Junior College in 2011, his red-shirt freshman season, and tallied a .273 batting average with three home runs and 20 RBIs. He also had 10 stolen bases.
"(Packer) can really, really hit," Simonds said. "We are just trying to work him in. He was more of a third baseman at the junior college level. He's trying to get used to play second base."
Senior Brooks Fiala will start the season on the mound for the RedHawks.
The 6-foot-2, 190-pound righty made 15 appearances, including 11 starts last season. He posted a 2-7 record with one save and finished with a 6.82 ERA. The Carmel, Ind., native had 50 strikeouts with only 19 walks.
Senior Mac Thoreson and sophomore Nathan Williams are projected to be second and third, respectively, in Miami's rotation.
Thoreson, a 6-foot-3, 200-pound righty, was a starter in all 15 of his appearances in 2012. He finished with a 7-3 record (tied for the most wins on the team) and had a 4.77 ERA. The Knoxville, Tenn., native struck out 47 batters and walked only 25.
"We are hoping Fiala and Thoreson return to their form, which I think they will," Simonds said. "Watching them in the preseason and in the fall, they are definitely back to where they were and I think they are both very talented kids. They are both captains and will anchor our staff."
Williams, like Thoreson, is also a 6-foot-3, 200-pound righty. He made 21 relief appearances, the fourth-highest number on the team, and had a 0-3 record with three saves last year. The San Diego, Calif., native tallied a 1.88 ERA and had 26 strikeouts with 13 walks.
Sophomore righty Ryan Powers is expected to challenge Williams for the third spot in the rotation, Simonds said. Additionally, sophomore lefty Brian Thene, junior lefty Seth Varner and junior righty Charlie Zubrod will also be in the mix.
"Our strength right now is the depth of our pitching staff," Simonds said. "We have 11 or 12 guys we feel pretty comfortable with. But ultimately, guys are going to have to fill roles."
Simonds continued, "I feel we have a pretty good idea of who our weekend starters are going to be and who are mid-week starters are going to be. I think more right now we are finding out who those middle guys and specialty guys are going to be."
The coach said he would use a closer-by-committee approach until one player rises to the top. Senior righty and sidearm pitcher Brandon Atkins, freshman righty Wynston McMartin, senior righty Cory Klenke and junior righty Charlie Suich will all have a chance to compete for the closer position and will be used out of the bullpen.
Senior Nate Bowles, junior John Crummy and sophomore Max Andresen all saw significant time at the catcher position last year.
Crummy started the most games behind home plate (23), while Bowles and Andresen both had the same number of starts (18 apiece).
"I'm pretty excited about these guys," Simonds said. "We have three guys behind the plate that can not only call a game, but skill-wise, blocking the ball, throwing the ball, they are all pretty solid."
But the coach said he doesn't see all three players sharing as much time as they did last season.
"If I had to say right now, I would say Andresen and Bowles (getting the lion's share) with Crummy also having an opportunity to play regularly," Simonds said. "Crummy kind of surprised me last year. He was one of the leading hitters on our team and did end up catching some. A lot of that had to do with Andresen's injury, though."
Bowles batted .300 last season and had 13 RBIs, while Andresen finished with a .262 average and 15 RBIs. Crummy batted .305 and tallied 28 RBIs.
The RedHawks play their first home contest of the year against Indiana Tuesday, March 19 and begin conference play Friday, March 22, hosting Eastern Michigan for a three-game series at McKie Field at Hayden Park. Click HERE for the team's full schedule.