Baseball Team Earning Preseason National Recognition
Feb. 13, 2012
MILWAUKEE - The University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee baseball team gets the 2012 season underway this week when it takes on East Carolina in the season opener February 17.
Over the past few weeks, various publications and websites have come out with their college baseball previews and players from the Milwaukee roster have been earning some recognition.
Baseball America lists a trio of Panthers among its top prospects, tabbing junior Jordan Guth and sophomore Sam Koenig in its "Quick Hits" section in addition to giving redshirt freshmen Joshua Uhen the title of the "Horizon League's top pro prospect". It goes on to list Uhen as No. 1 and Koenig No. 2 in its "Top Prospects" section. In addition, the publication predicts a third-place finish for UWM and junior Will Fadness to be among the "Top Newcomers".
The website collegebaseballinsider.com polled the league coaches for its preview, with Wright State coming in as the team to beat. Senior Paul Hoenecke was named one of the "Best Three Pure Hitters" in addition to being named the "Most Underrated Hitter" in the conference.
The season opener is just four days away, as UWM starts the 2012 campaign at East Carolina Friday, set for a first pitch of 1 p.m.
The 2012 media guide is also available as a link on the website.
Click HERE for the publication.
2012 Milwaukee Baseball Preview
The University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee baseball team has always been known for outstanding offense. While the bats again helped the squad rank at or near the top of all categories in the Horizon League a season ago, it was the pitching that made its mark for the Panthers.
When all was said and done, the Milwaukee pitching staff set school records by posting the lowest earned run average in program history, accumulated the most total strikeouts, most shutouts and finished with the second-best opponent batting average.
Graduated from the offense are talented seniors Doug Dekoning, Cole Kraft, Sam Sivilotti and Chad Pierce. Those four players alone accounted for 55 percent of the team's extra-base hits, 47 percent of the RBI's, 45 percent of runs scored and 44 percent of total hits.
"Obviously, we had some very good seniors that did some really good things in the batters box last year, but it was a team with youth everywhere," UWM head coach Scott Doffek said. "What I see is that we have 56 percent of our hits, 55 percent of the runs and 53 percent of the RBI's returning with a year more of experience. Last year was a very young team. If you look at the games at the conference tournament, there were times when we had four or five freshmen in the game for us. That's a great opportunity for those guys to learn on the fly and go through things you cannot practice. I think that experience is invaluable and we are really looking to build on it."
The young players stepped up as well, with junior Jonathan Capasso and sophomore Tell Taylor selected as members of the all-league second-team. In addition, Taylor and sophomore Ryan Solberg were honored as members of the Horizon League All-Newcomer Team.
"We are actually in a position that I can't remember being in before with having so much youth in the lineup last season," Doffek said. "It certainly showed at times, as we were kind of all learning, and then you throw in the bat change. At this point, I look at it as a positive. They had a chance to learn and get used to the speed of the game. They have had good summers, good falls and are looking forward to what this season has to bring."
Pierce led the way on the mound as well, earning Horizon League Pitcher of the Year honors while pacing the staff in wins, innings, starts and strikeouts while limiting opponents to a .236 average, one of the lowest marks in the league. He went on to be selected by the Milwaukee Brewers in the MLB Draft.
Overall as a staff, UWM finished first in strikeouts (389) in the Horizon League and second in ERA (4.16) and opponent batting average (.256).
"I am happy with the way our young pitchers have started to embrace a different culture," Milwaukee pitching coach Cory Bigler said. "The culture of pitching at UWM has definitely been elevated. I think it's a hard-working group and each senior class has left the next better than they found it. The attitude is better and the pitching has started to match what the hitters have done over the years."
Losing Pierce and his 100-plus innings of work is difficult, but Milwaukee also graduated several other key members of the staff.
"The young arms that we have, if they mature, should step up and fill that gap and void that Chad Pierce left," Bigler said. "His mentality was his No. 1 tool. I think pitch-wise, we should be as good as or better than last year. It's just that mentality that we have to instill - that hard-nosed attitude that needs to permeate the whole staff."
One important factor will be the experience of the starting rotation, as players that accounted for 38 starts in 2011 are back on the mound this year.
"I think it is one of the most important things," Bigler said. "We talk non-stop about the ability to slow the game down. And, when you have been through it, mentally you can slow the game down a lot easier. That is our goal to get the rest of those starts that Chad left us filled with guys that believe. If we do that, we should stay in a lot of games and give our team a chance to win a lot of games."
A look around the diamond starts at first base, where the Panthers will be counting on a strong season from senior Paul Hoenecke. A first-team all-league choice as a utility player as a sophomore, Hoenecke batted .304 with five home runs and 31 RBI as a junior, spending most of his time as the starting catcher. After playing numerous positions in his career, he will enter his senior campaign knowing the starting job at first base is his.
"We have been unfair to Paul if you look at his career here," Doffek said. "He played a lot as a freshman at third base. In his second year, and we move him to second. Then, last season, we throw him behind the plate because of need. And now, we are going to move him to first base. He has bounced around and not had a stable practice or game environment. Not that he won't catch at all, but by being the everyday first baseman he can get comfortable and confident and relaxed when he comes to the park every day. He had a tremendous summer after recovering from the hand injury. We know it's in there. With some added stability, we are looking for his numbers to pop."
The Panthers will be looking to replace everyday starter Kraft at second, but already had an option in place a year ago. Senior Jim Lundstrom sat out the 2011 campaign as a redshirt and looks to be the starter. Another redshirt, freshman Michael Porcaro, is also part of the picture.
"We were fortunate to redshirt Jim last season, who was behind essentially one of the best players in the Horizon League in Kraft," Doffek said. "He gets the nod headed into the season, but right behind him is Mike Porcaro, who is definitely nipping at his heels. They are both really good competitors and good teammates and sound baseball players."
Shortstop looks to be in the capable hands of sophomore Tell Taylor after a second-team and all-newcomer season a year ago, batting .267 in 47 games, making 38 starts.
"I definitely see Tell as that guy," Doffek said. "He had some health issues, but those seem to be behind him. We look for him to be a mainstay on the field. He is an upper-echelon shortstop that can really play defense. He is physically stronger and I think his bat is starting to show some leverage."
Sophomore Sam Koenig started 47 of the 50 games he appeared in as a newcomer last year and will again be counted on as the starter at third base. He scored 24 runs and knocked in 13, stealing 11 bases in 12 attempts.
"He had a tremendous fall and took care of some health issues over the summer," Doffek said. "He was playing at about 70 percent last season and really gutted it out. He is healthy now and we really look for Sam to be a guy that can take off and be a major piece of the middle of the order."
Other players looking to earn time on the field are juniors Alex Erdmann (23 games in 2011) and Nick Lingvay (.253 in 30 games, 21 starts), senior Phil Striggow (29 games) and newcomer Trevor Theissen.
"Nick Lingvay was splitting time with Tell and had the hand injury when he got stepped on and never really recovered from that," Doffek said. "He gives us a bat, can play third and can play short. Same thing with Alex Erdmann at third base. They both give us added flexibility and depth. Striggow is a guy we brought in last season who was coming out of a junior college with tremendous offensive numbers but could just never get comfortable. He had a good fall and we are hoping that he can pick up where he left off at the end of last season where he was much more comfortable. I see him fighting for time at first base as well as the designated hitter spot."
Last year, Hoenecke played behind the plate based on need. Fast-forward just one season and UWM has many more choices at the position. Junior Drew Pearson made 24 starts in 30 appearances in 2011 and will be joined by junior college transfer Will Fadness and freshman Mitch Ghelfi.
"Compared to where we were a year ago, we feel much better about our catching situation," Doffek said. "We brought in Will Fadness who we look at to come in and solidify that position and also be a guy in the middle of the order to give us quality at bats. When Paully (Hoenecke) played last season, he was impressive and we would be doing him a disservice to not let him play some back there. We also have Pearson, who did a nice job catching and blocking last year. He is working on being more consistent with his throwing and has always showed bat speed. He gives us added depth. Ghelfi is a switch-hitting catcher with very good game instincts. He is recovering from two major hip surgeries but is doing well. This kid has a chance to be very good."
With Dekoning no longer roaming center field after four years of doing so, just one of the outfield spots is locked up heading into the new campaign. Capasso remains the experienced leftfielder and comes off a second-straight .300 campaign, batting .313 in 54 games, driving in and scoring 27 runs. "We have a group of about six guys that are fighting for innings and at bats," Doffek said. "We can count on Capasso for sure as an everyday guy. You could see him starting to take off at the end of last season and then he had a great summer in the Prospect League. We look for him to take what he's done and continue to build."
Other returnees include senior Mark Strey (.221 in 40 games, 19 starts) and sophomore Derek Peake (37 games, 16 starts), as well as Solberg (.284 in 24 games, 33 starts), who will be moved to the outfield after mainly playing at first base as a freshman. Newcomers include Luke Meteer, Sam Hammer and Dan Barwick.
"Center will be a combo of Derek Peake and Mark Strey," Doffek said. "It's going to be an outfield by committee a little bit. We moved Solberg to outfield. He is a guy that can really throw so we are doing him, and us, a favor by moving him to the outfield. Also in the mix, you have Sam Hammer fighting for time in the outfield as well as DH. We moved Dan Barwick from infield to the outfield, so he is working hard at practice every day trying to make the adjustment. Luke Meteer is a real toolsy kid who is trying to learn the game and doing a great job. You aren't going to outwork Luke. It won't be too long and he will find his way into the lineup pretty regularly. You can't teach his speed."
With the NCAA-mandated bat change in 2011, each and every team went through an adjustment period. The Panthers were no different.
"No question everyone has to deal with it, but it was a factor," Doffek said. "Last year we just got thrown into it and no one really knew the effect it would have. We knew going in that execution of small ball was going to be paramount. But there is an adjustment period for all of these guys. If you look at the power across the country, home runs were down by 50 percent."
The team stole 87 bases - second most all-time - and used things like sacrifice bunts on a much more regular basis.
"You have to find different ways to put pressure on people," Doffek said. "When the ability to hit the ball in the gap or over the fence ends up in the hands of just a few guys in the lineup, you have to find other ways. It's sacrifices, it's hit and runs, it's the little things that really good baseball teams do anyways. It is a different style than we have ever used. I think we got better at it last year as the season progressed. We have worked very hard this offseason to get more proficient there."
Junior Eric Semmelhack tops the list of returners on the mound after posting a 3.44 ERA in 13 starts last season. He suffered numerous tough-luck defeats and got stronger as the season progressed - posting a 2.11 ERA over his final nine starts.
"With Eric, he's the guy that logically would step into the No. 1 role and he is the pitcher that has `been there and done that' more than any," Bigler said. "He is our leading choice for that No. 1 spot to start the season and we are very comfortable with his mentality and maturity on the mound." Junior Jordan Guth also made 13 starts last season, striking out 55 batters in 62.1 innings of work.
"Jordan has every physical trait that you would want in a pitcher and the pitches to match that stature," Bigler said. "He just needs to take that next step mentally and he needs to get himself in a position where he can break through that fourth or fifth inning. If he can do that, he will be a major contributor to the staff."
Mike Schneider made a nice impression as a freshman last season, going 4-2 in 13 games, making eight starts. He fanned 47 in 52.1 innings and allowed an opponent batting average of just .226 - one of the lowest in the Horizon League.
"His challenge is to make sure that he doesn't allow the big inning," Bigler said. "He gave himself no chance a few times with walks and getting into negative counts with hitters. If he can do a better job to dictate the count to the hitter his numbers are going to be even better than they were last year. We expect that from him, we expect him to be a solid weekend starter. He's done a good job to this point, but if we are going to be good, we need him to take that next step."
Junior Cale Tassi had a solid season in 2011, going 4-3 in 17 appearances with a 4.62 ERA, but was moved from bullpen to starting and could never find a consistent role.
"We really feel that Cale has the opportunity to be special for us, we just have to get him into the proper role," Bigler said. "Last year, we put him in positions that made it difficult to succeed. He started, he was in middle relief, he was in late relief and never got a chance to get into a good rhythm due to the fact that we never had him in a consistent role. If we can take care of that, he should really lock down a spot and be a consistent contributor."
"Spurley has had some arm issues and we are looking to get him healthy before we make any decisions," Bigler said. "Gunnar has some pitches that really make sense for a young guy, he just needs to have confidence in himself on the mound and that comes with experience."
Senior Greg Blohowiak looks to close out his career on a high note. Last season, he led the team and was among league leaders with a 2.60 ERA while finishing fourth in the conference with 27 appearances.
"I told Greg that it would be tough to match the numbers from his previous year (1.67 ERA in 2010) and not to worry about the numbers so much but really try to take the next step in leadership on the mound and the ability for us to get to the next guy," Bigler said. "From day one, he was a mature kid and someone you could put in at any point during a game and get some competitive innings. Greg's goal this year is to attack the zone and allow us to use him in different roles which would be invaluable to us."
Finding a consistent closer will also play a key role in the success of the team in 2012. Senior Kaleb Engelke was that guy last season, finishing with five saves and a 2.84 ERA while limiting opponents to a .206 average before getting hurt in early May.
"We've talked to Kaleb about closing and, ultimately, if we can use him as a lefty setup man, that would be the ideal role for him," Bigler said. "That means we need to find someone for the end of the game. If we can't do that, than Kaleb would be in that role and we feel very comfortable with that due to his competitive nature and what he has accomplished. His role will be closer to start the season and we will see how that progresses."
A pair of pitchers are coming off injuries and will look to stay healthy in 2012. Junior Jake Long has been battling the injury bug his entire career at UWM, while Joshua Uhen ended up redshirting his freshman campaign after an elbow injury shut him down.
"Jake Long is coming off of some different injuries and has really had a string of bad luck," Bigler said. "He had a really good fall and we were very encouraged by his progress. If his arm and body stay healthy, he will be a major contributor to what we do. Josh Uhen has a huge ceiling and capability to be a power pitcher. He is coming off a surgery but all indications say he will be ready this year. If that's the case, he will see a major role towards the end of the bullpen."
"Eric King is in the mix for starting some games this year," Bigler said. "Healthwise, he seems to be doing well. We brought him in here to be a weekend starter and we feel he will get to that point and hopefully it will be sooner or later. We have three freshmen lefties that all bring something different. Engle is a command lefty that is working on his pitches. Jake Tuttle is a high-ceiling guy with a plus-breaking ball and when Jaquish throws a lot of strikes, he will be successful."
The Panthers won the league tournament and went to the NCAA Tournament in 2010, so the hunger to get back is there after a 28-28-1 season a year ago. Wright State won the league's regular season and tournament crown again last season and will be the team to beat.
"No doubt, Wright State is the team to beat," Doffek said. "If you just look at their roster, it is full of guys returning with experience and years of success under their belt. UIC has won 10 or 11 of 12 titles and just does everything right - you aren't going to outwork them. They are going to be a good baseball team year-in and year-out. It's going to be a dogfight. The teams that can be consistent on the mound, make the routine plays and get the two-out hits, those are the teams that are going to find a way to win it. Executing those things at an efficient rate is about expectation and mindset. That is what we are striving for daily."