MARTIN, Tenn. – A common old baseball adage states that you can never have too much pitching. Interim head coach Brad Goss hopes to take advantage of a multitude of talented arms dotted all around the University of Tennessee at Martin program in 2014.
“Without question, our strength is our experience on the mound,” said Goss, who enters his first season as interim coach after spending the last nine seasons on the Skyhawk coaching staff. “We have a lot of older guys that we’re going to expect a lot out of and put a load on them.”
Of the 19 pitchers on the Skyhawk roster, 15 are either juniors, redshirt juniors, seniors or redshirt seniors. As a result, UT Martin boasts one of the deepest pitching staffs in recent memory after setting the school record with 364 strikeouts last season.
Four juniors are expected to make a majority of the starts on the hill in 2014. Goss projects a weekend rotation of left-handers Taylor Cox and Dalton Potts, along with righty Alex Martin. Right-hander Jackson Zarubin is the leading candidate to emerge as the Skyhawks’ midweek starter.
Cox logged a team-high 13 starts last season and has displayed the potential to put away the opposition via the strikeout (66 in 82.2 career innings). Potts posted team-highs in victories (four) and innings pitched (62.2) while ranking ninth in the Ohio Valley Conference in strikeouts per nine innings (7.61) in 2013.
Martin joins the Skyhawks out of nearby Jackson State Community College while Zarubin is coming off a two-year stint at Ohlone College.
“Cox and Potts saw a lot of innings last year and we expect them to be better this year,” Goss said. “Martin is not going to overpower you with his stuff but he’s a competitor who will make his pitches. Zarubin had a really good fall and we expect him to pitch a lot for us this spring.”
With the game on the line in the late innings, Goss expects to turn the ball over to another quartet of seasoned veterans out of the bullpen. That group includes senior righty Chris Ross (three wins, team-high 19 appearances in 2013), junior southpaw Carter Smith (4.40 ERA in 15 appearances last year) in a setup role. Redshirt junior right-hander Stu Jones (3.18 ERA, four saves despite missing the final two months of 2013) and senior righty John Houston (37 strikeouts in 40.1 innings over 18 appearances last year) are amongst the choices at closer.
“Those four are all older guys and are our bullpen core,” Goss said. “Smith and Ross could be candidates to start or relieve but they will start the season in the bullpen – they are interchangeable in their roles. Jones and Houston are both closer-type guys – that will define itself as the season progresses.”
Goss also expects an impact out of senior righty John Skubina (18 appearances in 2013), redshirt junior right-hander Cody Miller (17 career appearances), redshirt junior righty Jacob Gansert (returning from 2013 injury) and sophomore lefty Chris Flores (eight appearances last season).
Projected starting right fielder Taylor Douglas is also a right-handed pitcher and is expected to log some innings out of the bullpen in 2014. Douglas spent the last two seasons playing alongside Martin at Jackson State Community College.
With all that said, one of the most intriguing arms the Skyhawks will possess in 2014 belongs to redshirt senior Alex Boshers. The 6-foot-4 hard-throwing righty is responsible for 63 career appearances and 21 starts – including a pair of promising starts last season before he had Tommy John surgery in early March.
“Alex is going to work back into the mix here soon,” Goss said. “He will be limited at first when he comes back but he will ease his way back into things. It’s going to depend on how his arm responds.”
The freshman trio of Chris Roe, Dillon Symon and Khalil Kendley all made the team this fall and will provide depth as they develop.
For all of the preseason hype about the Skyhawk hurlers, UT Martin will likely trot out a starting lineup with just one player who started over 22 games last season. Infielder Nico Zych, a preseason All-OVC selection by College Sports Madness, is the only returner to have started all 51 games in 2013. He joins Phil Sorensen (97 career starts in three seasons) as the most experienced batters for UT Martin.
Making things even more complicated have been the extremely cold temperatures and icy conditions in Martin. With just four days remaining before the season opener, the Skyhawks have only practiced once on their own field this spring. That has prevented Goss and his coaching staff the chance to mix and match lineups in the preseason.
“There are a lot of unknowns about our offense but the key is going to be finding the right mix with all of our guys,” Goss said. “We are probably going to play a lot of guys early trying to find that right mix. Especially since we haven’t been outside much – but everybody else has been that way too.”
The favorite to start at catcher is junior Mikey Nantze, who is a transfer out of Sierra College. Defensive standout Drew Erie (12 games started in 2013) is penciled in as the backup while Luis Paublini (22 starts last year) will be the third-string catcher while also seeing action at designated hitter and left field.
Sorensen is expected to man first base while Cox may see time there when he isn’t on the mound. Sorensen battled injuries in 2013 but has tallied 61 RBI’s in 111 career games while Cox hit a team-high .310 in 58 at-bats while filling in as starter at first base late last season.
Newcomers Isaac Carrel (a 6-foot-3, 215-pound product of McCook Community College) and Ben Upton (a 6-foot-1, 195-pound prospect out of Kingwood, Texas) are also projected to play some first base for UT Martin in 2014.
Just as he did at the beginning of the 2013 season, Zych will likely start the season at second base but may slide over to third base soon thereafter. Zych hit .283 and was a perfect 7-for-7 in the stolen base department last season.
Freshman Andrew Massey – Zych’s former high school teammate at St. Rita of Cascia – has established himself as a plus-defender and is pushing for a starting spot at second base.
Jake Deason retains the starting role at shortstop that he earned midway through the 2012 season. Deason was primed for a big performance in 2013 before missing the entire year with a left thumb injury he suffered during the preseason.
Talented incoming freshman Max Balter – a 6-0, 175-pound native of Davie, Fla. – is slated to serve as the backup at shortstop for the Skyhawks.
Third base will be occupied by a combination of Zych, senior newcomer Zack Malone and freshman Nick Molina.
“Zych can play anywhere on the infield so he will fit in wherever there’s a need,” Goss said. “Malone is a big, strong kid and I think he will produce enough offensively to stay in the lineup. Molina is going to be a good player – he handles the bat well and has good hands in the field.”
The Skyhawk outfield took a hit when redshirt senior Brent Morris (a career .319 hitter with 76 starts in two years at UT Martin) suffered an offseason leg injury. Goss says Morris has not been ruled out for the season but will not return until May at the earliest.
In left field, redshirt freshman Kenny King will look to solidify a starting spot. The Orland Park, Ill. native showed signs of pop in 15 games last season before an injury forced him to miss significant time.
Paublini, Carrel and freshman Chase Young (who will play all three outfield spots) provide depth insurance in left field.
“We are trying to find ways to get King and Paublini in the lineup,” Goss said. “They could both be dangerous guys in our league. Young had a really good fall for us and we need to figure out how to get him in the lineup too. Carrel’s bat is going to get him in the lineup at some point as well.”
Fletcher Johnson is projected to take on a pair of big roles for UT Martin this spring. The 5-9 rookie speedster is slotted to start in center field while batting leadoff for the Skyhawks.
“Johnson is a typical leadoff type of hitter,” Goss said. “He can spray the ball around the field and bunt. Those were some big holes we needed to fill.”
As stated earlier, Douglas is expected to start in right field while also serving as a pitcher for UT Martin. Goss likes the intangibles that the two-way player brings to the table.
“Douglas has a good arm from right field and he can possibly be our 3-hole hitter,” Goss said. “He’s a smart baseball player and we feel he can contribute in both ways for us.”
Paublini and Young are the early favorites to see the majority of time at designated hitter. Both provide Goss with several different options when making out the lineup card.
“It will probably take a few games to get the feel of the lineup,” Goss said. “One of the lineups might be suited for a type of offense where we are having to manufacture runs and another lineup may be where we are belting some doubles. It’s just not defined yet.”
If Goss can find the right blend between his 18 returners and 17 newcomers, the Skyhawks seem destined to return to the OVC Tournament in nearby Jackson, Tenn. for the first time since 2011.