After finishing last in the 2012 regular season Missouri Valley Conference standings (28-30, 6-14 in MVC), the Jays swept through the conference tournament with four wins as the No. 8 seed, giving the club their second consecutive MVC tournament title and an automatic bid to the NCAA Regionals. The Jays look to use their late season success to push them into a fast start to the 2013 campaign.
The Jays are ranked seventh in the preseason MVC rankings.
Head coach Ed Servais says he doesn’t spend too much time worrying about the preseason rankings, but it is brought up during some of their workouts.
“We sometimes use (the preseason ranking) to give the guys some motivation,” Servais said.
The Jays return five position-player starters from last season’s MVC Tournament Championship team.
“I’m looking for all five of those guys to be improved over last year,”Servais said. “They have to take it up a step in order for us to be a better offensive team.”
The Jays hit only .251 as a team from the plate and scored 267 runs (4.6 per game) last season. Junior outfielder Brad McKewon is the only returner that hit over .250 last season (.256). Junior centerfielder Mike Gerber returns after hitting a team-high four home runs and driving in 36 runs a season ago. Senior outfielder Brennan Murphy, senior shortstop Alex Staehely, and sophomore second baseman Jake Peter also return for the Jays.
Redshirt freshman Reagan Fowler is expected to start at first base while junior-college transfer Federico Castagnini will be featured at third.
Servais says he is looking for both to make impacts this season for his club.
“I look for us to be a better club offensively this year,” Servais said. “We struggled at times last year generating some runs.”
On the bump, the Jays return only one pitcher with any career starts. Senior right-hander Nick Musec had six starts for the Jays last season. Senior reliever Mark Winkelman will be the leader in the bullpen. Winkelman led the Jays with 37 appearances, posting a 2.57 earned run average in 49 innings pitched a year ago.
“Our pitching staff has a lot of young guys,” Servais said. “Seven of our top 12 pitchers are freshmen and I like the potential of those freshman. They’re unproven players at this point, but I like a lot of things about them.”
Defensively the Jays were one the best in the country last year, finishing the season with only 50 errors in 58 games. Staehely, Peter and Gerber lead the Jays up the middle of the diamond.
Four players are fighting for time at the catching position.
The Jays seventh place ranking puts them second to last in the conference, but Servais said he believes that the entire conference is going to be deep this season.
“I’ve been here 16 years and I think it’s as good as it’s ever been from top to bottom,” Servais said. “We’ve had maybe one or two teams in our league that have been better at the top, but when you talk about all eight teams and what they’re capable of doing, the parity in it is phenomenal.”
“I’m looking forward to seeing how these young players evolve,”Servais said. “It’s a good group to work with. They are very coachable. At this point we still need to learn how to practice at the pace that we like to practice, but it’s a good group of guys and I’m very interested to see how it all comes out.
“I’m not sure when it’s going to happen, but they have some capabilities of being a solid team this year. The question is how quickly do those young players figure it out?”
The Jays open up the season this weekend in Dallas, Tex. for a three-game series against Dallas Baptist University. First pitch of the spring campaign is at 6:30 p.m. on Friday.