The Emory University baseball team will kick off its 2012 campaign in early February, as the Eagles will look to build on their 26-17 record and University Athletic Association (UAA) Championship in 2011, and qualify for the NCAA Division III Championships for the first time since 2007.
After graduating the team's top hitter during the 2011 season, outfielder Patrick Riebsame, the Eagles will look to return to the 'small ball' style of play that led to the team's second place finish in Division III in 2007. Hoping to utilize a strong pitching staff, steady defense and an offense attack that features three players who hit over .325 last season, 12th-year head coach Mike Twardoski will aim to guide his squad back into the postseason.
"We need to do all the things we can to be consistent – run the bases well, play very good defense and pitch it well," said Twardoski.
Offensively, the Eagles will try to continue to reach base at a high clip, after setting a program record with 229 walks in 2011, the second-most among all Division III teams, and recording a .414 on base percentage, the fifth-best mark in school history. Meanwhile, Emory's .960 fielding percentage last year ranked as the fourth-best mark in the program's history. As for the pitching staff, the Eagles will look for their group of returners to take a step forward after a team 4.61 ERA last season.
The Eagles have high expectations for their pitching staff, which will include two of the top starters from last year's squad in senior Paul Schwendel and sophomore Ben Hinojosa. Schwendel led all Emory pitchers with 63 strikeouts and 12 starts, while going 5-1 with a 5.88 ERA last season. Hinojosa contributed with a 3-3 record with a 3.30 ERA over a team-high 73.2 innings pitched, holding opponents to a .284 on base percentage.
Emory will also return sophomore southpaw Jason Edwards, who will look to factor into the Eagles rotation in 2012, after making three starts during his freshman campaign. Freshman righty Connor Dillman will look to make an immediate impact as well, along with his fellow newcomers Robert Gross, Dylan Finer, Michael Byman, and Graham Bloomsmith.
In the bullpen, junior Mike Bitanga will look to close games out for his second-straight season for Emory after going 3-3 with a 2.21 ERA and a team-high eight saves in 2011. After making 21 appearances and going 4-3 with a 3.33 ERA in 2011, sophomore Matt McMahon will attempt to comeback from an offseason injury and contribute again for the Eagles. In the meantime, the Eagles look to seniors Ryan Orlovsky (1-0, 4.82 ERA in 2011) and Connor McGuiness (0-1, 10.57 ERA in 2011) to provide solid work and innings out of the bullpen.
"Definitely, on paper [our pitching staff] is our strength this year, because we have innings coming back," said Twardoski. "It looks like we have one of the best pitching staffs, all-in-all, since we've been here, and that's going to be a strength for us this year.
Emory will return its top catcher from last season, sophomore Jared Welch, who started 37 and played in 39 of the Eagles' 43 games last season. Welch, who hit .222 with 25 RBIs during his freshman campaign, will get some relief behind the plate this season, as the Eagles have added sophomore Josh Bokor, a transfer from Ohio State University, and freshman Chris Brown.
"Jared was a big part of last year's team, and really wore down, because we had one catcher," said Twardoski. "He didn't have the numbers that he could have had with a couple of days off. Josh Boker and Chris Brown have come in and stepped and bolstered a good catching staff this year."
The Eagles will have some holes to fill in their infield, with the only returning starter being senior Kevin O'Connor, an all-South Region selection last season. The South Region gold glove second baseman last season, O'Connor will make the move to the other side of the infield, bringing his .329 batting average and 31 RBIs to shortstop.
Senior Jay Page, who hit .293 with 13 RBIs over 34 games played last season, will step into the starting role at first base, and will be backed up by senior newcomer Jonathan Sholar. Second base will be manned by the combination of junior Mark Lindemann (.250 with four RBIs in 12 games off the bench last season) and freshman Ben Hambleton. Sophomore Ryan Toscano will fill the void at third base after appearing in nine games as a pitcher out of the bullpen his freshman year. Freshman Warren Kember will add to the Eagles' depth at the hot corner.
"We don't have a lot of innings coming back in the infield, but as far as work ethic and baseball players, I am very comfortable with our infield this year," said Twardoski.
After earning All-South Region Third Team, All-UAA First Team and UAA Rookie of the Year honors during his freshman year, Brandon Hannon will make the move from right field to center field for the Eagles in 2012. Last year, the left-handed hitter led all Emory players with a .411 batting average, 46 runs scored, a .543 on base percentage, 60 hits and 14 stolen bases. He added a defensive presence as well for the Eagles, registering eight outfield assists.
Junior Daniel Iturrey will take over in left field for Riebsame, following a 2011 campaign when he hit .326 with 23 RBIs and five triples over 35 games, including 27 starts. Freshman Brett Lake is expected to start in right field, with his fellow freshman Wes Peacock providing major contributions as well. Junior Maxim Sankey will look to provide depth and experience for the Eagles' corps of outfielders, while newcomers Brendan McElhaney, Matt Kohn, Stephen Sotiriou and Jordan Selbach will all be competing for playing time.
"The great thing about having a lot of outfielders is that you can go with who's hot," said Twardoski. "With the year that Brandon [Hannon] had, with the year that I think Danny [Iturrey] is going to have, and Brett [Lake], I'd be very comfortable with that starting outfield."
Twardoski returns for his 12th season with Emory, during which he has compiled a 363-165-1 record, leading the Eagles to six NCAA Tournament appearances, seven UAA Championships and six seasons of 30 wins or more. He will be assisted by Bobby Perez, Brian Clark, and former major league pitcher Greg McMichael.
The Eagles will kick off their season with three tournaments, opening the campaign with three games over two days at Berry College in Rome, GA, starting February 10th. The following weekend, Emory will face LaGrange College, Piedmont College and Oglethorpe University at the Southern Classic at Coolray Field, the home of the Atlanta Braves' Triple-A affiliate. After midweek home games against Washington and Lee University (Feb. 21st) and Maryville College (Tenn.) (Feb. 22nd), the Eagles will host the annual Rawlings Southern Classic from February 24th – 26th at Chappell Park.
Emory will look to defend its UAA Championship from March 11th – 18th in Sanford, FL, playing eight games against conference opponents as part of the tournament's new expanded format. Following the UAA Championship, the Eagles will have to become road warriors, playing 12 of their final 17 games away from Chappell Park as they prepare for a push for a berth into the NCAA Tournament.
Despite all of the new faces, Coach Twardoski is hopeful that his Eagles will be able to build chemistry quickly, and with some hard work on the practice field, compete for the NCAA Tournament berth.
"I don't know what is going to happen this year, because whenever you change as many guys in the lineup as we did, it's a very exciting time," said Twardoski. "But, this team is as prepared as any team that I have ever had… That's why I am very proud of them, and very excited for this year."