Pacers lift curtain on new baseball season

Staff file photo by Noah Feit Ryan Milewski will open the season on the bump for USC Aiken in today’s first game of the 2013 campaign against Lincoln Memorial.

Last season didn’t end the way Kenny Thomas wanted for his USC Aiken baseball team.

The Pacers head coach was very disappointed his squad wasn’t selected to participate in the NCAA postseason in spite of a 37-18 record and being ranked as high as third in the nation at one point.

But Thomas isn’t dwelling in the past. He’s focused all of his attention on this season, which will start today. USCA’s playing host to Lincoln Memorial in a season-opening three-game series, with the first contest to be played today at 4 p.m. at Roberto Hernandez Stadium. The final two games will be Saturday and Sunday, with first pitch scheduled for 1 p.m. both days.

“I feel good and am ready to go,” an enthusiastic Thomas said Thursday, officially putting the 2012 campaign behind him. “We don’t want to talk about last year. It was a bad deal, and we have a chip on our shoulder, but we don’t want to talk about it anymore. It’s a new season, and I’m excited to play, and the players are so excited.”

Any coach, player or fan is enthusiastic at the start of the season. But Thomas has genuine cause for his optimism, for two reasons – pitching and experience.

“We’ve got tremendous senior leadership,” Thomas said of his squad, which has nine seniors and 15 juniors on the roster. “I’m not sure if I’ve ever had a team this focused and dedicated. I hope that makes good things happen.”

Thomas will put experienced pitchers on display from the get go. Against Lincoln Memorial, an opponent USCA is opening its season against for the ninth year in a row, Thomas will give the ball to seniors Ryan Milewski and Wyatt Brown as well as junior southpaw Derek Beasley. Milewski will make the start today, with Beasley and Brown slated to go Saturday and Sunday respectively.

Last season, Milewski was selected to the All-Peach Belt Conference second team after posting a 7-1 record with a 3.99 ERA. Struck out 41 and walked only 19 while holding opponents to a .256 batting average. Beasley pitched a team-leading 751/3 innings and earned a team-high nine wins, going 9-4, with a 3.46 ERA. The left-hander also led the Pacers with 89 strikeouts, while only surrendering 19 walks.

Rounding out USCA’s trio of weekend starters is Brown, who was just tabbed a third-team All-Southeast Region selection by the National Collegiate Baseball Writers Association. Last season Brown was named to the PBC All-Tournament Team and went 7-2 with a 2.36 ERA. Brown struck out 47 and allowed only 14 walks.

While Thomas plans to ride his top starters to a successful season, he’s not going to overwork them this weekend. That’s because he’s got a lot of capable pitchers who could step up and assume one of the weekend starter’s roles should Milewski, Beasley or Brown falter. If not, the group of pitchers that includes Ben Black, Zach Hayden, Taylor Peed and Adrian Rivero give Thomas great depth in his bullpen and many capable long relievers. They should all see some action the next three days as Thomas keeps his starters’ pitch counts down and gets a look at what his team is capable of.

“We have guys who can be big-time starters. We’re going to use several guys this weekend. I feel like the strength of this team is depth, so why not use it this weekend,” said Thomas, who has a plan for how he wants to employ his first few waves of pitchers. He also has a plan for end-of-game scenarios. “We have five or six guys, I call them the Sick ’Ems, because I tell them, ‘go sick ’em,’ about the other team. They can go from the seventh inning on if we’re ahead.”

The pitcher who could lead the group Thomas is counting on to make short work of opposing batters at the end of games is Taylor Grover. The junior from Midland Valley led the Pacers last season with seven saves and struck out 31 batters while allowing opponents to hit only .219. Other members of the Sick ’Ems include right-handed junior Jake Padgett, right-handed sophomore Sam Daniel, left-handed sophomore Danny Wissmann as well as newcomers James Lynch – who’s listed as an infielder and right-handed reliever – and southpaw Caleb Smith, a transfer from Coastal Carolina who played for South Aiken High School.

“They’re as good as any closer you can find in (the PBC) and we’ve got six of them,” Thomas said, expanding his thoughts on the depth of his pitching staff. “We’ve just got to figure out their roles and use them in the right spots.”

What will help Thomas is the fact that he’s got a veteran behind the plate, handling the pitching staff. Senior Josh Miller figures to do a lot of on-the-field coaching after catching almost every game last season, starting 50. Miller was named a preseason All-American by the Collegiate Baseball Newspaper, preseason All-PBC selection and All-Southeast Region Second-Team by National Collegiate Baseball Writers Association as much for his performance at the plate as well as behind it. In 2012, he hit .376 with 14 doubles, seven home runs and a team-best 57 RBIs to go along with 46 runs scored.

Thomas doesn’t want to burn his star out this season and is planning on using him in one of the corner outfield spots regularly, even most Saturday’s, to preserve Miller. It helps that he’s got two newcomers to help lighten the load.

John Fidanza is a transfer from Coastal Carolina that Thomas described as being Major-League ready behind the plate with a big-league arm. He’ll likely get most of the playing time when Miller’s elsewhere, but the Pacers also have a true freshman in Charles Padilla that Thomas said can swing the bat and is the catcher of the future.

By getting so much offense from a defense-first position, USCA might be able to overcome the loss of Stephen Carmon, a tremendous run producer. The four-year starter is being replaced at shortstop by another true freshman, Sean Miller. Together with his former high school teammate Ryan Metzler, a second baseman who transferred from Siena to be reunited with Miller, the Pacers will have a pair of unproven hitters who should provide stellar defense up the middle.

“Defensively, they’re as good as any I’ve seen,” Thomas gushed. “They work together so well.

They’ll probably be at the bottom of the batting order today against the Railsplitters, but Thomas feels confident in the group he’s got in the middle of the order. He said senior center fielder Bryce Baur, Miller, senior designated hitter Bill Gerstenslager and sophomore first baseman Ty Barkell should all be fixtures at their positions and their spots in the order, going from the two-hole to fifth respectively. JJ Loker and Ben Donath – who’ll start today with Lincoln Memorial southpaw Brandon Cowan getting the start – will platoon at third and Thomas has got four outfielders for two corner positions that he likes a lot.

Grayson Smith, a former South Aiken player and brother of Caleb, will battle for playing time with Branden Millhouse, Dylan Durham and Tyler Moore – a converted infielder who might bat leadoff today. They’re all speedy and athletic to provide Thomas with reliable gloves, they just have to distinguish themselves at the plate. They’ll get the chance today in game that might feel like Spring Training, but is very important to Thomas.

“The most important thing is to win the games, they’re regional games,” he said of the opening series, which will help him determine some roles. “I want to see the outfielders play and find the best scenario for playing them and I’m anxious to see how we pitch. I want to see how good we can be.”

This is the first of 17 consecutive games at Roberto Hernandez Stadium to open the season for USCA. On the weekend it’ll face Lincoln Memorial starting pitchers Logan Sawyer and Austin Johnson. The formula for this weekend and the season is simple according to Thomas.

“I want to be ahead and use the Sick ’Ems.”

Noah Feit is the sports editor for the Aiken Standard and has been a professional journalist for more than a dozen years after graduating from Syracuse University.