Indiana State’s baseball team had a historic season in 2019. The Sycamores finished 43-18, won the Missouri Valley Conference Tournament for the first time since 1995, the hard way via the loser’s bracket, and finished in the nation’s top 25 after losing to eventual national champion Vanderbilt in the regional.
It was ISU’s best season since the 1980s, but many of the principles have moved on.
Eight of the nine everyday players for the Sycamores exhausted their eligibility. Three ISU standouts of 2019 – Clay Dungan, Jake Means and Triston Polley – were selected in the Major League Baseball draft.
So 2020 was always going to be a challenge for the new-look Sycamores, but unexpected challenges have arisen that will make it an even higher mountain to climb.
ISU coach Mitch Hannahs was asked who slated into what positions, but circumstances have not made that an easy question to field.
“It’s still a work in progress. Normally, I’d say by now it’s pretty much done, but the kid we had slated to play leadoff is gone for the year. Max Wright is having issues and our third baseman is having hamstring issues,” Hannahs said last week.
The issues Wright, the only returning starter, had were not known at the time of the discussion, but are now. He has a broken wrist is out at least six weeks.
The leadoff hitter-to-be is Josue Urdaneta, who was slated to play second base. He tore a ligament in his foot during preseason practice, had surgery, and is out for the season. The third baseman is Diego Gines. His status is still unknown.
Not a good hand to be dealt with an inexperienced team, but not every corner of the team has inexperience. ISU’s strength will be its pitching, where it does return some important cogs from the 2019 team.
Chief among them is starter Collin Liberatore. Named a Preseason All-American, Liberatore was 10-2 with a 2.96 ERA in 2019 as ISU’s Saturday starter. He’ll ascend to the Friday starting role this season.
Joining Liberatore in the rotation is Tristan Weaver, who didn’t play in 2019 due to injury. In 2018, Weaver was the third starter and had a 4.75 ERA. Rounding out the rotation is Max Klein.
The bullpen returns two important pitchers too. Austin Cross will be the bridge from the starting rotation to closer Tyler Grauer, who had nine saves and a 1.91 ERA in 2019.
Several pitchers, veterans and newcomers alike, will fill the bullpen roles. One exciting prospect is Cam Edmonson, who is throwing in the 90s.
“Pitching-wise, I feel real good about who we can run out there,” Hannahs said.
As for the everyday players? That’s a work in progress. ISU starts the season with a nine-day trip to Florida, playing a variety of teams at varying levels of talent. In effect, it will give Hannahs a chance to see who’s ready and who isn’t.
It’s not a great position to be in, but Hannahs isn’t left with much of a choice.
“We haven’t seen them enough to know who can hit or pitch through a scouting report, that’s the tough thing right now moving forward,” Hannahs said. “You can talk and prepare, but there’s still a learning curve. Last year, we pushed the team all year because we could. This year? We have to show more patience.
“That’s why we scheduled to be in Florida for two weeks,” Hannahs continued. “We can literally try to figure out how we line up going forward. By the Kansas weekend [March 6-8], we want to know our lineup and our pitching rotation.”
So who gets the first crack at starting positions? There’s a couple of veteran holdovers who ascend from reserve to starting roles.
Terre Haute’s Jordan Schaffer will start at shortstop after he came off the bench in 2019. Ellison Hanna, who was an occasional designated hitter in 2019, will likely play some left field. Brandt Nowaskie, another spot starter, will be in right field.
After that? New faces abound.
First base will be shared by Miguel Rivera and Brian Fuentes, both from Wabash Valley Junior College. Urdaneta’s injury makes second base an open spot. Gines can also play second and Edgewood veteran Joe Kido can play in the infield.
If Gines can’t go at third base, Dom Cusamano and Manny Garcia are in the mix.
Center field will be manned by JUCO Sean Ross, a player the Sycamores are excited about. Big Mitch Barrow will likely slot in as the DH. Until Wright returns, Grant Magill, Brian Harbison and Fuentes can catch.
Having that many newbies in the starting lineup certainly presents challenges.
“The tough thing was these guys is usually you like to have three or four guys figuring it out for the first time. When you have eight or nine, there’s no one to lean on out there,” Hannahs said.
ISU was picked fourth in the MVC preseason poll, an acknowledgement of the success the Sycamores have had under Hannahs as much as a reflection of the roster.
Though ISU will depend on a lot of newcomers, Hannahs hopes the culture of winning that has been established by the players who came before the current ones takes hold.
“That doesn’t go away and you work hard to establish that so each new group understands what they’re jumping into. You hope there’s a ripple effect and carry over,” Hannahs said.
ISU will play seven games in Port Charlotte, Fla., starting at noon today against Pittsburgh, the school Liberatore transferred to ISU from.
ISU’s first home game is against San Diego on March 3. ISU’s first home series is against Michigan State starting March 13. ISU opens MVC play against Evansville at home on April 3.