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February 19, 2014

Hannahs era off to good start for ISU baseball

Pitching uncertainty looms, but Sycamores are 3-1

TERRE HAUTE — Mitch Hannahs waited eight years to get his chance to become Indiana State’s baseball coach. Twice a finalist for the job, the former ISU All-American’s third try was successful as he replaced Rick Heller last July.

Since he became the Sycamores’ boss, he’s had little time to reflect on the long road it took for him to get the position. There’s been too many pressing matters.

Most notable was the state of ISU’s pitching staff. Friday starter Sean Manaea was drafted by the Kansas City Royals and Saturday starter Devin Moore was drafted by the Chicago White Sox last June. Injuries claimed Sunday starter Daniel Peterson and possible starter Jeff Degano.

The Sycamores had a problem … not enough arms.

“We had to make a decision in the fall. We had six guys out with arm injuries, including Peterson, Degano, Greg Kuhlman, Tyler Pazik and Josh Negele. It caused us to re-focus our fall,” Hannahs said. “We couldn’t scrimmage as much because of the limited pitchers, but we made that decision so we could rest our pitchers and really begin process of starting a throwing program in November.”

Peterson and Degano, who are not on ISU’s roster, and Kuhlman, who still is, were the projected starting rotation. So where did the Sycamores go from there?

A mix of experience and youth. Veteran Kurt Kudrecki pitched in ISU’s Friday slot in a loss to Auburn last week. Junior college transfers David Stagg and Brad Lombard and freshman Trent Lunsford started in wins against Connecticut and two victories against Ohio State as the Sycamores got off to a promising 3-1 start.

“It’ll pretty much be that way as long we stay healthy. One reason we wanted them on a throwing program in November was so that we could work them 90-95 pitches early in the season. We basically sacrificed the fall to have those guys conditioned and ready on the front end,” Hannahs said.

How Stagg, Lombard and Lunsford handle their roles will go a long ways towards the kind of season ISU has. Predicted to finish seventh in the MVC, the Sycamores are obviously hoping for more.

“We’re kind of short-staffed this year. The new guys have big roles, even though they just got here and aren’t as experienced,” said Kudrecki, who’s been on ISU’s staff since 2011.

The relief corps is in a similar state of flux. Hannahs said there’s no lockdown arm (no one throws over 85 miles per hour), though freshman Ryan Keaffaber made a solid bid for late innings duties with four innings of shutout work. He had two saves and was named Missouri Valley Conference Pitcher of the Week.

There is a good mix of right and left-handers and Hannahs said the bullpen has a characteristic he values most.

“We sacrifice stuff for poise. The number one characteristic I want out of bullpen is poise. It served us well last weekend,” Hannahs said.

ISU’s everyday position player situation is more stable. Eight of the nine projected starters have suited up for the Sycamores before. While there’s little power (four combined home runs among returning players), there’s solid defense and speed.

“We have to be scrappy at the dish. We have to work long counts. We have to try to keep the ball on ground and get long drives. This team isn’t built on power numbers,” ISU shortstop Tyler Wampler said.

Mike Fitzgerald returns to catch and will be spelled by Taylor Steen. Fitzgerald hit three of those home runs in 2013, but Hannahs wants him to prioritize handling the young pitching staff, rather than provide oomph with his bat.

First baseman Jeff Zahn, second baseman Derek Hannahs, shortstop Wampler and new third baseman Brian Romero form a solid infield combination. Cody Zimmerman and Andrew Gutierrez will also get time in the infield.

The outfield has Connor McClain in left, Landon Curry in center and Jacob Hayes in right. Owen Conway and Tony Rosselli might also contribute there.

Hannahs doesn’t have an overriding philosophy on how to handle offense. He said, “every game has it’s own personality”, and ISU needs to adjust to that personality. With one more year to go in the dead-bat era — seamless balls will be used starting in 2015 with the hope that offense will improve — small-ball rules the college baseball roost at present anyway.

Mainly, Hannahs wants the Sycamores to be aggressive to take pressure off the young pitchers.

“We had to make the position guys a tough-nosed group so they could pick up the load while we deal with these young guys on the mound,” Hannahs said.

One thing the players mentioned was a relaxed atmosphere and good camaraderie.

“It doesn’t feel like the same team as last year, even though it’s many of the same guys,” Kudrecki said. “I feel like coach brings more fun and competitiveness. We have a little more swagger than our team had last year.”

Another carrot for coaches and players alike is the Missouri Valley Conference Tournament, which will be hosted by ISU in May. ISU last hosted the MVC Tournament in 1982.

“It’s really exciting, especially for me playing at home,” said Wampler, a West Terre Haute native. “We want to get our fans on board towards the end of the season. Winning a conference tournament will be fun.”

Conference tournament? For the team chosen seventh in the MVC?

“I think this team is really good. We’re really gritty and tough. I think we can surprise some people,” Wampler said.

ISU travels to Tennessee this weekend and goes to New Orleans the following weekend before it plays its first home game on March 4 against Eastern Illinois.

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