CHARLESTON, S.C. – Charleston Southern opens the 2016 baseball season on Friday when the Buccaneers face West Virginia at Joe Riley Park. The times for the weekend series have been shifted to 11 a.m. in downtown Charleston on Friday and Saturday, followed by a 10 a.m. start on Sunday.
CSU head coach Stuart Lake begins his eighth season and expects his team to be ready for the challenge ahead. Outfielder Chris Singleton inspired in the wake of the last June's tragic events in downtown Charleston and the strength he showed has carried over to the baseball field. Singleton's leadership and courage has shaped the entire team's mindset as the Bucs get back to baseball.
"I think this team will benefit from being mentally tough and can handle anything that comes its way," Lake said. "Not only the tragedy that struck Chris' family and this city, but we've had other players who have suffered life-changing losses this offseason. This group is mature beyond its years and it will show this season."
The Bucs are picked seventh in the Big South Preseason Poll, but Lake doesn't plan on finishing there. A trio of pitchers return from Tommy John in '15 and one of the most experienced infields in the conference could propel CSU into the top third of the Big South.
"Our goal is to be in the top four in the Big South," Lake said. "Our league has become a multiple-bid (NCAA Tournament) league. Our schedule is set up so that we could have a good RPI if we handle our business and get some wins against South Carolina, West Virginia, and Georgia early in the season."
The Bucs will rely heavily on a veteran ace to anchor their weekend rotation and set the tone for each series on Friday night.
Senior RHP Evan Raynor was 4-5 last season, but had a team-low 3.01 ERA and was 4-2 in Big South play. He had two complete games in league play in wins over Gardner-Webb and Longwood, in addition to posting 78 of CSU's school-record 471 strikeouts.
"I feel like our starting pitching is our strength," Lake reiterated earlier this week. "There are guys like Raynor and Johnson who we will need to give us those 6th and 7th inning-type starts because our bullpen is young. It might be the most talented bullpen I've had, but they don't have much college game experience. Our tough schedule early will be a test, but I'm excited about what we could be as a staff in April and May."
Sophomore LHP Daniel Johnson has been one of the biggest surprises in the offseason. He pitched just 11.0 innings as a freshman, but blossomed last summer in the Valley League. He has worked his way into the starting rotation with an impressive fall and spring.
Piriz worked 32.2 innings last season and was 1-0 with a save in 19 appearances as a reliever, third most on the team. Ministeri made 11 appearances during his junior season and Dyson eight, returning as two of the Bucs' most experienced options.
Senior RHP Chayce Hubbard will take the role as closer following ateam-high 25 appearances in '15. He was perfect at 4-0 with 41 strikeouts in 25.2 innings.
Hartsell was impressive as a freshman in '14 before suffering an early-season injury and missing the year in '15. Smith stepped up late in his freshman season started to see some key innings in middle relief in April and May.
Andrew redshirted as freshman and has come into his second year on campus a different player with a much livelier fastball. Mobbs and Childress are two impressive freshmen who will impact the Bucs' bullpen this season and could impact the rotation for the next four years.
CSU will bolster one of the most experienced infields in the Big South and maybe all of college baseball. The Bucs will likely start three seniors alongside a junior and two-year starter on the infield.
"The infield is as experienced as any group I've had," Lake said. "I look around and there isn't anyone starting who hasn't played a lot of college baseball here. It will really show defensively. I think we'll turn a bunch of double plays and could be really good offensively."
Senior Bryan Dye, who earned honorable mention All-Big South last season, will likely get the starting at first. He was second on the team with a .320 average and 25 RBI last season. Newcomer Brandon Gragilla, at 6-foot-6 and 240 pounds, gives CSU a second option at first and will also see time at DH.
Seniors Ryan Maksim and Kevin Hickey will split time at second base. The two combined for 37 hits at the position last season with Maksim batting .293 as a junior and putting together a nearly .400 on-base percentage. Hickey could also see time at first base.
Senior Cole Murphy will anchor the Bucs' defense at shortstop and will factor largely into the CSU offense. He batted .277 with 11 doubles as a junior in starting 52 games at short. Freshman Zuriel Collins is a talented freshman who could push for time at the position.
Junior Nate Blanchard will take the starting spot at third base and leadoff for the Bucs. A year after leading the team in batting at .325, which included a 21-game hitting streak, Blanchard has turned himself into one of the top offensive threats in the Big South. He also led the Bucs with 14 doubles and a .411 on-base percentage last season. Sophomore Mason McClellan will play at both third and first, giving the Bucs a big bat off the bench.
Speed, depth, and youth are three words used to describe the Bucs' outfield. Seniors Sly Edwards and Brandon Burris return along with sophomore Chris Singleton as the most experienced outfielders from last year's squad, but it's the addition freshmen Cole German and Jacob Childress, along with senior Jack Crittenberger to the mix that gives Lake reason for excitement.
"I think we're going to surprise some people in the outfield," Lake said. "I think our speed and athleticism are going to help us make some plays we haven't made in the past, but our depth…to have 6 or 7 options out there will really help us in tight games. Sly really came on at the end of last year and, obviously, Chris has become one of the true leaders on our team. Cole German is a freshman who will play a lot for us and is going to be a big part of our lineup."
Edwards batted .300 last season and had a stretch of 13 hits over five games to close the year. He'll see a lot of time in centerfield along with Burris.
Singleton will get the starting nod in right. The sophomore has bulked up and looks to build on a freshman campaign of 39 hits and seven doubles.
German will start the season in left field and will bat near the top of the Bucs' lineup. Senior Jack Crittenberger had spot starts last season and was a key bat off the Bucs' bench, including a game-winning home run against Campbell to spark the Bucs to a sweep. Childress and Hannifin will fight for playing time and give Lake offensive options off the bench.
Sophomore Mike Sconzo will take over catching duties after a season of learning behind now assistant coach Sam Remick. Sconzo played in eight games last season and is another Buc who has made huge strides following his first season.
"Sconzo has done a great job behind the plate played well all fall and spring," Lake said of his sophomore catcher. "He's really come along in the way he handles himself and our pitchers back there, especially replacing a player like Sam Remick, who was as a good a defensive catcher as I've had."