Baseball is a game of chance and the Braves’ have just that as they open their 120th season tonight at Incarnate Word in San Antonio, Texas. Bradley returns many of its core position players from a squad that finished 31-19 last season. The pitching staff has less experience and will need to bring consistency from first pitch.
The weekend rotation of junior left-hander Brooks Gosswein (Friday), junior college transfer right-hander Matt Hamilton (Saturday) and senior left-hander D.J. DePiero (Sunday) have 13 Division I starts combined, and Gosswein has made all of them.
“We gotta go out and be competitive [early in the season],” head coach Elvis Dominguez said. “I’m looking for consistency. We lost a lot on the pitching side last year. We need some guys to really work into roles that they haven’t been used to before. The first weekend is really going to be about trying to find out our identity especially on the mound.”
The Braves only return 32.8 percent of innings pitched from last season. Dominguez said he’s worried about the staff bridging the gap from the starters to the strong pairing of hard-throwing closers in senior Theo Denlinger, who was named to the NCBWA stopper-of-the-year watch list, and junior-college transfer Nick King.
“[The two closers] are a great luxury to have, we just have to get there,” Dominguez said. “Really our concern is the middle guys, you know, not having the [veterans]. You can’t replace those innings right away, but there’s a lot of guys.”
That staff includes freshman left-hander Angel Acevedo, who Dominguez said he’s most confident turning the ball over to. Senior right-handers Ryan Hodgett and Jed Moscott have made strides and will factor into the midweek starter discussion in April, according to Dominguez. In addition, freshman right-hander Taylor Catton has caught the coaching staff’s eye while junior transfer left-hander Troy Hickey is the wildcard as he can be dominant when he’s at his best.
The team’s wildcards are being shored up with two new coaches on the staff: pitching coach Andrew Werner who brings four years of pro ball, including eight major league starts and volunteer assistant Jason Leblebijian who played for seven years, reaching the Triple-A all-star game twice.
“I’ve got two bonafide big leaguers just sitting there,” Dominguez said. “Werner has done a tremendous job with our staff and has really infused them with a lot of energy and obviously has a ton of knowledge that he’s passing on and Leb [being] back is just an added bonus.”
Two Bradley seniors, shortstop Luke Shadid and corner outfielder Dan Bolt, received preseason national recognition in the past two weeks. Shadid was named the 12th best shortstop and Bolt was ranked the 33rd best outfielder nationally by D1Baseball.com. Bolt was also named to the all-MVC team.
Dominguez said that with the nucleus of junior catcher Keaton Rice, sophomore first baseman Connor O’Brien, Shadid, senior third baseman Brendan Dougherty, Bolt and junior outfielder Eli Rawlinson, he knows what to expect. There are many upperclassmen that are considered MLB draft prospects.
“We all have the opportunity to play professional baseball and the best way we can help ourselves reach that goal is to play as a unit and win games,” Dougherty said. “Professional teams like players who win and if we all help each other play to the best of our abilities I think we may just get there.”
“Those guys have been through it and around the block so they know the routine and know what it takes, obviously that’s starting to show and it takes handwork; there’s no shortcuts,” Dominguez said. “We are still taking baby steps with some guys.”
Those steps are likely at the second base position, where there’s a three-man battle between redshirt-junior left-handed hitting Adam Rellihan, right-handed hitting freshmen Peter Hansen and defensive minded Bennett Frazier. Last season the team platooned seniors switch-hitter Christian Dominguez and left-handed hitting Nick McMurray.
“One of those three guys is going to have to solidify that position and that’s what this weekend is for. We will figure it out,” Dominguez said.
Dominguez lost four year starting center fielder Andy Shadid last May as well. However, the outfield is a bit more set. Bolt is penciled in to left field and freshman Ryan Vogel will run down fly balls in center.
“[Vogel has] really stepped in and solidified that position for us,” Dominguez said. “Right field I’m going to go with Eli to start off, but is very close with another freshman by the name of Carson Husmann. If he’s not in the field, he is probably going to be our opening day DH. It’s just nip and tuck.”
Defensive stability will be key for the Braves, as they play Incarnate Word, Tennessee Tech, Kentucky and Mercer early in the season. Dominguez also has his club set to play invitationals against teams from around the country and home-and-home’s with Big-Ten member schools Illinois and Iowa. The MVC slate begins March 27 and is highlighted by visits from Missouri State and Dallas Baptist, the Valley’s top two programs year-in-year-out.
“I’ve always believed to get better you’ve got to play better people and that prepares you for the conference and usually we finish in the top-50 [rankings power index] for a reason,” Dominguez said. “[The MVC season] is going to be another challenge and I just hope we are up for it.”
The Braves open the season in San Antonio at Incarnate Word for a three-game series. First pitch is scheduled for 6:30 tonight.
“We have the talent to play with anybody in the country and we know that,” Dougherty said. “It’s time to put the B shield on and go out and prove it.”