Tiger baseball has relatively new group
By CONOR NICHOLL
The Fort Hays State University baseball team has to replace its top-four starting pitchers, closer and entire starting infield from a 23-22 squad. But fourth-year coach Steve Johnson sees many positives in virtually a brand-new group. Johnson calls 2014 maybe the best team chemistry in his tenure.
Fort Hays has struggled with pitching depth, but has more options than usual on the mound. Johnson said the Tiger offense could be better than a '13 team that collectively batted .341 and averaged 7.1 runs per game. FHSU finished sixth nationally in batting average and eighth in homers per contest.
"They really seem to get along, they seem to push each other everyday, and that's always step one is to get the team chemistry going," Johnson said. "Saw a lot of good signs in the fall -- guys wanting to work everyday and not having to tell them to."
The three returning starters, senior outfielders Jordan Miller and Clayton Garland and senior designated hitter Horace Johnson, have all earned honors.
Miller carried a team-high .390 batting average.
Garland hit .388 and then earned Jayhawk League Player of the Year honors in the summer for the Hays Larks. Garland suffered a broken hand in the fall, but is fully healthy for the spring.
Johnson (.336 average, team-high nine homers) collected second team preseason All-American honors this spring. Johnson was first team all-league, while Garland and Miller collected honorable mention selections.
After several snowouts, Fort Hays opened the season Saturday with a three-game series at Texas A&M-International in Laredo, Texas. FHSU is expected to go with a four-man rotation of junior right-hander Steven Federau and sophomore left-hander Joe Mapes, both junior college transfers.
Junior right-hander Tyler Patty, also a juco signee, is the No. 3 and junior left-hander Nathan Zimmerman, a Thomas More Prep-Marian graduate, is the No. 4. Johnson said FHSU has normally had seven to eight pitchers for four to five spots. Now, it's 11 to 13 for eight or nine spots.
"Nathan has got such an outstanding arm," Johnson said. "We want to put him in a situation where it's not the seventh inning with the game on the line, and give him a chance to settle in. If he develops for us, it can make a whole difference in our season. I think that's the best way to do it."
Zimmerman went 0-1 with an 8.78 earned-run average in 10 appearances (two starts) as a freshman and posted a 3-1 record and 10.59 ERA in 10 appearances (three starts) last season. Johnson has worked with Zimmerman on not letting one bad pitch snowball into multiple poor offerings.
"He has made great progress," Johnson said. "There is still some inconsistency there, but now it's an inconsistency with three pitches whereas it was an inconsistency with one pitch and not much there with either of the other two offspeed pitches. He is starting to learn. Sometimes, I think he can be his own worst enemy, because he wants so bad to do it right and to succeed."
Sophomore Austin Unrein, who struggled at Kansas City Community College last season after an all-state career at Hays High School, will play some at shortstop and is expected to see plenty of time on the mound as a long reliever. Unrein reached out to FHSU after a difficult 2013.
"He has come in and worked, never said a word, willing to do anything for the team," Johnson said. "I am just happy that his arm feels good. The last couple of weeks, he has said that his arm feels really good."
Junior Alex Cox, a starter at Pratt Community College, and returners Nathan Briar and Drew Martineau are in the mix, too. Junior right-hander Trevor Rinne was lost for the year with an injury.
Junior Gabe Cook, an impressive defensive shortstop and Butler County transfer, is the likely closer.
"There is some exceptional arm strength there," Johnson said. "It's probably the best that I have ever coached at short."
At second base, junior Gus Strunk and redshirt freshman Nick Hammeke, also a TMP product, will share time and also pitch. Hammeke has put on approximately 15 pounds of muscle in the last year.
"One through nine, we are pretty scary," Horace Johnson said.
Junior Cooper Langley and Horace Johnson will split time at first base and designated hitter, while FHSU is young at catcher with sophomore Kodie Fewin, who had a medical redshirt last season at Colby Community College and true freshman James Denton. Junior Kevin Czarnecki is expected to start at third base.
"Catcher is probably our biggest question mark," Johnson said.