After taking home the school’s first Big East regular-season title in 2014, the Creighton baseball team looks to repeat its success in 2015 and has a new and bigger goal: the highly- coveted Big East Tournament Championship.
Earlier this month, the Bluejays received conference recognition with two players picking up preseason honors. Junior Matt Warren was named the Big East preseason co-pitcher of the year, while junior first baseman Reagan Fowler took home preseason player of the year honors. Both players were also Louisville Slugger Preseason All-Americans.
Fowler started every game for the Bluejays in 2014, leading the team with a .362 batting average. His 16 doubles, nine stolen bases and 26 walks (tie) also led the team. He sported a .997 fielding percentage and made only two errors while being involved in 557 putouts.
On the rubber, Warren emerged as the team’s top starter after opening the season in the bullpen. He still finished the year 10-1 in 12 starts and posted a 2.03 ERA while recording a team-leading 84.1 innings and 45 strikeouts.
The Jays were tabbed second in the Big East preseason poll, just one vote behind St. John’s.
In 2014, the Jays boasted the best fielding percentage and second best ERA in the Big East. The team finished No. 4 in the conference in batting average, sporting a .264.
“We feel pretty good on the mound. We feel pretty good defensively. Now it’s going to come down to who can give us some offense,” Servais said.
The offense will look to maintain its success despite multiple departures at the top of the lineup. Infielder Jake Peter and outfielder Mike Gerber were both selected in the MLB draft, while outfielder Brad McKewon graduated. Fowler expressed confidence that his teammates would be able to make up for the losses.
Among those expected to fill the gaps are junior infielder Ryan Fitzgerald, junior outfielder Brett Murray and sophomore infielder Nicky Lopez. All three played a significant role last season.
Fitzgerald started all 50 games in 2014 and finished the season on a strong note. He finished the year batting .240 with 19 RBIs and 31 runs. His 26 walks were tied with Fowler for best on the team.
Murray finished the year batting .236. Playing in 48 games, he notched 20 RBIs and 17 runs. His three triples were tied for team best, and he also drew 24 walks. He also did not make an error while contributing 61 putouts.
Lopez also played in 48 games for the Bluejays. In his first year, he hit .276 with 18 RBIs, 24 runs and 24 walks. He also stole seven bases in nine attempts.
Newcomer and sophomore outfielder Kevin Connolly is also expected to contribute. The Omaha native hit .411 at Seward Community College last season. He had 30 extra-base hits and led the team in steals with 11.
According to Servais, Connolly is one of the fastest players he has coached.
The pitching staff suffered fewer losses in the offseason, with Bryan Sova being selected in the MLB draft. Sova led the team in saves and finished his senior season 6-1 with a 2.09 ERA.
“All I can hope is that all of our pitchers continue to work as they are now because I’m thinking this can be a very special year,” Warren said.
On top of Warren, the pitching staff is anchored by a group of experienced juniors. Nick Highberger, John Oltman, Will Bamesberger, Tommy Strunc and Taylor Elman will look to bolster a highly competent staff. Highberger, Oltman, and Bamesberger combined to go 6-2 in more than 75 innings of relief in 2014.
Elman led the Bluejays with 17 starts in 2014, and his 40 strikeouts trailed only Warren for the team lead. Strunc struggled out of the gate after earning the preseason pitcher of the year award, but Servais is confident that he will be ready for 2015.
Groth posted a 4.13 ERA through eight appearances before an elbow injury cut his season short. He is using his redshirt option for the 2015 season and will not participate.
Senior Mark Lukowski is the most experienced pitcher in a Bluejay uniform and posted a 2-0 record with a 3.06 ERA in 2014.
“We’re excited about the pitching depth, but that doesn’t guarantee that these pitchers will be better because they’re a year older; they need to understand that,” Servais said.
Additionally, graduate transfer Jack Rogalla looks poised to make an immediate impact. Rogalla played his last three seasons at Binghamton. Last season, he compiled a 3.77 ERA in 14 starts. He also led the Bearcats with 63 strikeouts and ranked second on the team in innings pitched (86).
Servais noted that the starting rotation may change from week to week because the team has about seven different pitchers fighting for one of the top three spots.
Creighton’s first season in the Big East ended on a sour note as the Jays walked off the field as the conference runner-up after Xavier blanked them 5-0 in the championship game.
“I don’t want us to totally forget that,” Servais said. “We walked off the field, and we didn’t quite finish what we set out to do. The disappointment in the dugout, the locker room after that game is one I’ll never forget. It keeps me motivated; it keeps me going; and I know the players that were involved with that game are going to use it as well.”
The Jays will hope to get a boost towards the title with home-field advantage this season as the 2015 Big East Conference Tournament will be played at TD Ameritrade Park.
“There’s no second chances; once we get there we have to come through this time,” Fowler said.
Creighton will head to California to take on CSU Bakersfield in its season opener on Friday. The Bluejays will play nine road games before their home opener against Minnesota on March 6. The quest for a Big East Championship begins on April 2 as the team will head to Washington, D.C. to take on the Georgetown Hoyas.