ISU baseball coach Mark Kingston is ready for his fourth season at the helm. (Photo courtesy of GoRedbirds.com)
By Bryan Bloodworth
A season of strong optimism for Illinois State University’s baseball team begins today with a three-game series at the University of Memphis with single games each day through Sunday.
The Redbirds return 21 lettermen, including six starters, from last year’s 33-19 team that finished fourth in the Missouri Valley Conference standings.
“We have a lot of reasons to be optimistic about the success we can have and should have,” said fourth-year coach mark Kingston, who has a 101-61 record at ISU. “We have a lot of players returning.
“We have some important guys to replace (reliever and major league draft pick Kenny Long, pitcher Justin Hauer, second baseman Kevin Tokarski, catcher Matt Mirabal and outfielder Ty Wiesemeyer), but we also have a lot of returning players who have been through the wars and done well.”
The Redbirds return seven pitchers and regain the services of red-shirt junior JD Learnard, who missed last season with an injury after posting an 8-2 record with a 4.04 earned run average in 2011.
“Pitching has a chance to be a real strength,” said Kingston. “We have a lot of options in the starting rotation and bullpen. It will just take some time to figure things out.”
Senior right-hander Brad Sorkin, who was 4-3 with a 4.31 ERA last season, will be the starting pitcher Friday. Other starters this weekend will be sophomore left-hander Dylan Craig, who posted a team-high eight wins in 12 decisions with a 4.84 ERA a year ago, and red-shirt sophomore right-hander Dan Savas.
Red-shirt sophomore Joe Claver will be the set-up man in the bullpen from the left side with sophomore Jeremy Rhoades, who led relievers with four wins last year, handling things from the right side.
Senior right-hander Chris Razo, who had a 7-4 record with a 4.55 ERA as a starter, has moved to the bullpen and will fill the closer’s role vacated by Long’s graduation. Long had 13 saves a year ago.
The Redbirds return the bulk of the players who helped the team to a No. 6 ranking nationally in fielding percentage (,979) and No. 12 in runs scored (361).
“We have several guys returning who have gotten significantly better,” added Kingston. “We expect our offense to be as good as last year and our defense be right there again. And two years ago, we were at the top of the conference in pitching. I don’t see any reason why we can’t be there this year.
“You put those three things together, along with our speed and power, and there are a lot of reasons for optimism.”
The top returning every-day players are senior third baseman Zac Johnson and senior right-fielder Eric Aguilera, who were both all-Valley selections a year ago. Both are pre-season all-league picks this year along with senior shortstop Brett Kay.
“I think our offense will be as good as last year if not better,” said Johnson, a Normal Community graduate. “Our lineup, one through nine, might be the best I’ve ever been in and I’ve been in some pretty potent offenses.”
Johnson hit .323 last year with a team-high 15 doubles, drove in 43 runs and scored 37 in addition to his .516 slugging percentage. Aguilera is the top returning hitter with a .330 average. He led the team with seven home runs, while driving in 36 and scoring 41.
Joining Johnson on the infield will be Kay at shortstop, speedster Joe Kelch at second and Kyle Stanton at first. Stanton hit .304 with 35 RBIs last year. Kay and Stanton are seniors with Kelch being a red-shirt freshman.
Aguilera will roam the outfield along with Normal Community graduate Chad Hinshaw, whom Kingston’s calls possibly the best defensive center fielder in the country, and Normal West product Brock Stewart in left.
Hinshaw, a senior who handled 125 fielding attempts last year without an error, scored a team-high 43 runs while stealing a team-best 23 bases in 26 attempts. Stewart, a red-shirt sophomore, is returning after missing all but six games last year with an injury. He also can play all four infield spots.
Junior Mike Hollenbeck, who started all 51 games at catcher, returns with his .298 batting average and 39 RBIs. Junior college transfer Dylan Johnson, a Bloomington High School product, will likely move into the designated hitter role.
“Our biggest weakness could be our lack of depth at a couple of positions,” said Kingston. “We don’t have a proven back-up at catcher and second base. We have guys capable of playing those positions, but they are just untested at this point.”
ISU plays a record 29 home games this year, beginning with a March 15 non-conference tilt against Bowling Green. The Redbirds open Valley play April 5 against pre-season favorite Missouri State.
The Redbirds, who were picked to finish third in the league's pre-season poll, also will serve as hosts for the first time for the State Farm Valley Tournament from May 21-25.
All games can be heard on wjbc.com
Bryan Bloodworth can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org