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Tuesday, March 05, 2013

Mid-major spotlight

Kendall Rogers        

MORE: PG College Top 25 | Freshmen to watch | College recruiting roundup

Though there seems to be an unusual number of injuries early in the college baseball season, programs such as Troy continue to move along in impressive fashion.

Whatever it might be, Troy head coach Bobby Pierce vividly remembers the days in which there weren't so many early season injuries, whether it pertains to an arm, hand, foot, you name it. He calls it a consequence of circumstance, and just something he and his team must get accustomed to.

The Trojans have established themselves as one of the more consistent mid-majors in college baseball. Though they missed the NCAA postseason last year with a 28-30 overall record, this program made a statement two seasons ago with a 43-19 overall record. This season, though, the Trojans, at least right now, look like they're on the road to restoring order. That's of course assuming they can get through the rest of the season without incurring more serious injuries.

Logan Pierce is having an expected good offensive campaign. (Troy)

Troy raised some eyebrows around the country over the weekend when it took two of three from Southern Mississippi at home. The Trojans earned a win over Texas Tech two weekends ago, but the series triumph over the Golden Eagles certainly was the bigger statement.

That feat was accomplished with a depleted lineup.

"We've gotten off to an OK start. We've got a couple of starters out of the lineup right now, and that's also the case with a lot of teams around the country," Pierce said. "We've been able to rotate some guys in there, but we're still looking to fill some holes before they get back. All in all, it's been okay, and we've gotten some good performances."

As the Trojans press forward, they do so without two-hole hitter and outfielder Ali Knowles and fellow outfielder David Hall is very limited with a nagging foot injury. Knowles broke his ring finger the fourth game of the season diving for a line drive, while Hall, who broke his foot during fall workouts, reaggravated that injury last week when he lunged toward first base. Knowles is considered a table-setter for the Trojans, while Hall is someone who could really help the team power-wise."

Despite those key injuries, the Trojans still have found a way to have a productive offensive campaign thus far. For instance, this club finished last season with a .273 batting average, obviously still getting adjusted to the new bats, while this year's club is hitting .322 through the first three weeks.

Shortstop Tyler Vaughn and third baseman Logan Pierce, to no surprise, have stepped up so far this season, with Vaughn hitting .395 with five RBIs and Pierce hitting .386 with a home run and 10 RBIs. But junior college transfer and two-way player Trae Santos is also garnering significant attention from Pierce and his coaching staff.

Santos certainly could be more consistent at the plate with just a .286 batting average, but also consider that he has smacked two homers and knocked in an impressive 18 runs.

"His approach has been a little inconsistent, but that's normal from a guy who is here for his first season. He's a very dangerous hitter for us," Pierce said. "Those guys like Santos at the top of our lineup, we really believe in what they're doing so far this season. We've got some pretty good hitters in this lineup, and we feel like we're a spot or so away as a whole from having a complete lineup."

The Trojans have some interesting prospects to watch offensively as the season progresses. Highly touted sophomore outfielder Jo-El Bennett continues to struggle, so much that he only has 11 at bats so far this season. However, the same can't be said for another heralded prospect in junior outfielder Danny Collins.

Collins, ranked as one of the top prospects in the Sun Belt for this year's draft class, is hitting at a torrid pace so far this season. The talented outfielder batted .318 with 12 homers and 52 RBIs last season, but also finished the '12 campaign with an average .388 on-base percentage. He has developed more consistency so far this spring, hitting an impressive .526 with four doubles, two triples, four homers and 20 RBIs. And his OBP? Yeah, it's sitting at a ridiculously impressive .612 through 11 games.

Collins established himself as an elite power hitter last season, but this year, it's clear he's worked hard on becoming more patient at the plate, consequently finding better pitches to hit.

"He's just a natural hitter. You talk about the techniques of hitting, and he just hits all the marks. His balance is good and he has bat speed that produces power. He also has great vision and all the qualities that all the great hitters have," he continued. "He worked it, and he's really competitive. Add all those things together and he has a chance to do big things every time he steps to the plate."

While the offense is in great shape following the USM series, there are at least some reserves about the pitching staff.

The Trojans enjoyed the services of talented starting pitcher Tyler Ray the past few seasons. But Ray is now gone, and they're looking to hand the torch to someone else.

Junior right-handed pitcher Will Starling is serving as the staff ace right now (starting Fridays), and was in a groove before allowing 10 runs in four innings of work against USM last weekend. It's worth noting Starling has a rough 8.25 ERA in 12 innings of work, with 13 runs allowed. Meanwhile, the rest of the rotation includes junior right-hander Tanner Hicks and junior left-hander Shane McCain. The two pitchers have earned-run averages of 3.86 and 4.50, respectively.

"I'm not concerned about the pitching staff at this point. I've seen all of them throw better than they're currently throwing, so that's what I'm thinking," Pierce said. "I feel better about our overall pitching depth for the first time in a while. As for our starting pitchers, they're all guys with fastballs in the upper 80s along with a four-pitch mix. They're pretty much all pitchability guys, where they just do a good job of locating and mixing pitches.

"I don't think we need to have an overly dominant staff with the offense we have," Pierce continued. "But our biggest problem right now is inducing too many walks, and hitting batters. We really need to clean that up a bit."

As with most teams right now, Troy certainly has some question marks. But with a strong offense and a pitching staff with plenty of potential, an NCAA postseason appearance is the goal for Pierce's club.

That's assuming they can stay healthy … something that hasn't been easy to accomplish so far.

Mid-Major hot board

Appalachian State: Billy Jones' Mountaineers continue to impress. They're coming off a 3-1 week that included a midweek win over High Point and a weekend series win over Davidson. Keep an eye on leading hitter Alex Leach, who's hitting .432 with two homers and 13 RBIs.

Louisiana-Lafayette: It's safe to say Tony Robichaux has his program headed the right direction this spring. The Ragin' Cajuns are 11-1 after going 4-1 last week. Keep an eye on leading hitter Michael Strentz, who's hitting .395 with six doubles, two homers and 14 RBIs.

Mercer: The Bears continue to be in the mix as a possible ranked club after yet another solid week. They defeated Florida A&M twice in midweek before sweeping Miami (Ohio) over the weekend. Chesny Young and Nick Backlund continue to impress at the plate.

Virginia Commonwealth: The Rams might be getting overshadowed a bit by the impressive play of Virginia and Virginia Tech in-state, but we're taking notice. They're 8-0 after sweeping the weekend with wins over Pittsburgh, The Citadel and UNC Asheville.

Arkansas-Little Rock: Speaking of Trojans, here's another team to keep an eye on this spring. The Trojans are 8-3 overall after going 3-1 last week with two wins over Iowa and a win over Western Illinois.

Belmont: The Bruins made a statement a couple of weekends ago with a series win over Georgia. They continue to play at a high level going 4-1 last week with a series win over Illinois State, along with a pair of midweek wins over Western Kentucky. BU starting pitcher Chase Brookshire is one to watch this spring. In three starts, he has a 1.00 ERA in 18 innings. He also has struck out 19, walking two.

Cal State Bakersfield: To no surprise, really, Bill Kernen's club is off to a nice start this season. The Roadrunners are 8-3 and are coming off a 4-0 week that included a midweek win over Fresno State. Starting pitcher Jonathan Montoya, who's back from an injury this season, is excelling with a 1.80 ERA in 15 innings.

Campbell: The Camels are yet another program in their region off to a hot start this spring. CU is sitting at 10-1 overall, going 4-0 last week with a midweek win over Duke and weekend series sweep over Lafayette.

Central Arkansas: The Bears are off to a surprising 11-1 start this season, going 5-0 last week with a single win over Wichita State.

College of Charleston: The Cougars might not have a phenomenal record so far this season, but they'll compete for the Southern Conference crown. C of C is coming off an impressive home series win over a much improved South Alabama club.

Liberty: The Flames started the season with an impressive showing against South Carolina opening weekend, and have played well since then, too. LU is 9-2 overall, going 5-0 last week with a win over East Carolina nestled in there.

UNLV: Perhaps this is the year Tim Chambers gets thing going in Sin City. The Rebels are 9-3 overall, 4-0 last week with wins over Bradley, Hawaii and Loyola Marymount.

Texas-San Antonio: The Roadrunners are off to a great start this season, sitting 9-3 overall and going 4-0 last week. Keep an eye on UTSA leading hitter Daniel Rockett, who's hitting .553 with seven doubles, a triple, three homers and 15 RBIs.

Furman: The Paladins have a solid club so far this season. FU played a tough midweek bout against South Carolina before hitting the road and winning its first Southern Conference series over a very solid Elon club.

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