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College of Charleston head coach Monte Lee had high hopes when he took over the program in 2009 after a lengthy stint on Ray Tanner’s coaching staff at South Carolina.
There was both some good and bad when he took charge. Lee noticed the Cougars had an elite offense capable of competing against anyone on the national stage. However, there were some concerns about the pitching staff, and they lingered for several seasons there after.
“We’ve had some really talented teams during my time here, but in a way, we were a lot more offensive, and we weren’t so pitching and defense oriented,” Lee said. “In today’s game if you go out there and throw strikes and don’t give people extra outs, chances are good you’ll be successful. You’ll at least be in a lot of games.
“Our offense has been solid so far this season,” he continued. “But everything has started with the pitching staff and its ability to go out there and throw strikes. On top of that, this is the most stable defensive club I’ve had since I arrived.”
The Cougars have a rather intriguing pitching staff this spring. Charleston finished the 2013 campaign with a 4.20 earned-run average, and had a pair of talented starting pitchers in Jake Zokan and Matt Pegler. Both Zokan and Pegler are gone, but the Cougars found a way to be much better even without the duo. This year’s club has a 3.04 ERA with a young, but talented, weekend rotation leading the way.
Imposing freshman righthanded pitcher Bailey Ober is the most intriguing arm of the bunch. Ober is a tall 6-foot-8, 218-pounder, who has shown pinpoint command in four appearances and three starts. Ober has a 1.00 ERA in 27 innings, and also has 26 strikeouts as opposed to zero walks. Stuff-wise, Ober will sit 87-89 with his fastball, touching 90, but his stuff plays up because of his size. Ober also has a good changeup, along with a breaking ball that’s sharper than it was in high school. Ober threw his curveball in the upper-60s in high school, but that pitch is now thrown at 72-75 mph.
“Ober has been our guy. He really commands the strike zone well and doesn’t miss his spots,” Lee said. “He spots his fastball well and his changeup is very good. The breaking ball, over time, has become a much better pitch, too.”
Ober is joined in the weekend rotation by two more younger players -- sophomore righthanded pitchers Tayor Clarke and Nathan Helvey. Clarke joined the program after Towson University threatened to cut baseball, a move that ultimately was reversed. Meanwhile, Helvey is a second-year player who earned his wings last season by starting 10 games and tallying a 3.12 ERA in 52 innings. Both have been good at times this season, with Clarke shining bright with a 2.00 ERA in 27 innings, along with 21 strikeouts and eight walks, while Helvey has a 5.84 ERA in 24 2/3 innings, along with 22 strikeouts and nine walks.
From a stuff standpoint, Clarke is a rather intriguing arm to watch. He sits 88-92, and will bump a 93 with his fastball, while he mainly pitches in the 88-91 range. He also possesses a good slider and changeup, and has good feel for the strike zone. Meanwhile, Helvey is 88-90, touching 91, and also possesses a slider and changeup, with the changeup being his best secondary offering.
"Clarke is an over the top righty who just pounds the strike zone with pretty good stuff," Lee said. "Then there's Helvey, who isn't necessarily overpowering (like our other guys), but who does a good job of throwing strikes."
Charleston also has a good bullpen with junior righthander Chase Henry leading the way, while senior righty Michael Hanzlik is having a good year. Meanwhile, the Cougars hope to soon get back Eric Bauer (2.25), who has a wrist injury, while talented freshman righty Hayden McCutcheon is expected to have an MRI soon because of a bicep issue, and there's not timetable for his return at this point.
Henry has a fantastic 0.46 ERA in 19 2/3 innings with 23 strikeouts and three walks, and has good overall stuff with a fastball 88-92 with good sink, and a good changeup. Hanzlik attacks from a sidearm angle, and though he doesn't have blow-away stuff, he's a hard-nosed personality who attacks the zone.
"Henry was a three-sport guy out of high school, and he's just really athletic," Lee said. "Hanzlik is a big-time competitor and just does a great job of closing games for us by attacking the zone."
While the pitching staff is the primary reason Charleston has a chance to shine not only the rest of the regular season, but perhaps also in the NCAA postseason, the offense, as usual, has some key cogs with Blake Butler (.354) leading the way. The offense also is paced by hard-hitting Carl Wise (.323/1/20) and Brandon Murray, who while he has a .270 batting average, leads the team with four homers. As with Murray, shortstop Gunnar Heidt (.265/2/14) is someone to watch the rest of the spring.
It's been a lengthy process for Lee and the Cougars to get everything on the same page, but barring surprise, this program seems to have turned the corner.
TEN MORE MID-MAJORS TO WATCH
William & Mary (14-5): The Tribe could be a force to be reckoned with the rest of the season. They captured a very solid series win over Campbell last weekend, and have one of the nation's better offensive lineups with Michael Katz leading the way. Katz is hitting .360 with nine homers and 35 RBIs, while leading hitter Nick Thompson has a .417 average, four homers and 15 RBIs.
Texas State (13-7): Sure, the Bobcats have dropped midweek bouts to Texas and Rice in the past week, but they're still a very good mid-major to watch moving forward. The Bobcats have an excellent ace pitcher in junior righthander Austen Williams, who has a 2.87 ERA in 31 1/3 innings, while reliever Cory Geisler has appeared in nine games and has a 1.47 ERA in 18 1/3 innings.
Southeast Missouri State (13-6): Though the Redhawks suffered a tough 11-8 setback to Saint Louis in midweek action, this is still a very intriguing club with a good overall record. The Redhawks are hitting .319 as a club and have an interesting leading hitter in Derek Gibson, who's hitting .465 with 23 RBIs and a .481 on-base percentage.
New Mexico (13-7): It shouldn't come as a surprise, but Ray Birmingham's Lobos are beginning to figure things out. The Lobos swept Fresno State last weekend, and captured a very nice midweek victory over surging Kansas, 6-3. UNM typically is known for its offensive prowess, but the Lobos have an excellent starting pitching duo in Colton Thomson and Josh Walker. Thomson has a 2.17 ERA in 29 innings, while Walker has a 3.41 ERA in 37 innings.
Massachusetts-Lowell (8-2): Though the Riverhawks haven't been tested by premier competition just yet, the newest members to Division I have shined thus far with an 8-2 overall record. UML has one to watch in talented pitcher Mike Calzetta, who has a 1.04 ERA in 17 1/3 innings, along with 15 strikeouts and no walks.
Mercer (16-6): The Bears have dealt with some injuries so far this spring, but still have a very good club more than capable of reaching the NCAA postseason. In addition to being one of the better defenders in the Atlantic Sun, Michael Massi is having a strong year at the plate, hitting .373 with two homers and 14 RBIs.
Indiana State (14-3): Though the Sycamores dropped a tough contest to Illinois in midweek action, this is still a very surprising club with coach Mitch Hannahs leading the way. The Sycamores have an interesting arm to watch in lefthander David Stagg, who has started five games and has a 1.85 ERA in 34 innings, along with 34 strikeouts and 11 walks.
Illinois State (11-5): The Redbirds were expected to compete for the Missouri Valley crown going into the season, so it's no surprise they're sitting pretty with an 11-5 overall record. ISU has a pair of elite starting pitchers in Dan Savas (1.12) and Dylan Craig (1.74), while Paul Dejong leads the offense with a .426 average, three homers and 12 RBIs.
Elon (13-7): The Phoenix made a legitimate statement last weekend by taking two of three from red-hot Georgia Southern. There are several aspects of this club to like, but how about veteran righty Lucas Bakker? The Australia native has a 1.27 ERA in 35 1/3 innings, along with 31 strikeouts and eight walks, and shined against GSU last weekend.
Tennessee Tech (17-4): TTU was the preseason favorite to win the Ohio Valley Conference crown, and it's now easier than ever to see why. TTU has a really good one in versatile senior Brandon Thomasson, who's hitting .366 with nine doubles, two triples, six homers and 26 walks, while Daniel Miles is hitting .420 with five homers and 22 RBIs.