Updated Thu, Feb 13, 2014 7:52 pm
When the 2013 season began, Ohio coach Rob Smith knew that his first season at the helm wouldn’t be easy, as he was about to begin the rebuild of the Ohio baseball program.
Smith inherited a roster that featured several holes, including the middle of the infield, and a pitching staff about one-third the size of a normal college staff.
When the season concluded last May, the Bobcats finished with a disappointing 14-39 overall record, and a 9-18 record in the Mid-American Conference, which put them in second-to-last place in the conference.
But even with the subpar record, Smith was pleased with the progress his team made in year one.
“We knew there were things that we weren’t going to be able to fix right away,” Smith said, “that were going to take a year or two to get straightened out. But as far as approach, I think those guys did a good job of laying the groundwork for it.”
In 2014, more progress won’t come easy for the Bobcats, as the injury bug took a big bite out of the squad before they even stepped on the field.
When the Bobcats run onto the diamond for the season opener at Western Carolina on Feb. 15, they will be doing so without four of their top five returning offensive players.
Juniors Cody Gaertner (shoulder) and Brice Nikithser (back surgery), along with sophomores Nick Squires (vision problems) and Nate Squires (shoulder) will all miss the 2014 season due to injury. Also, Junior Garrett Black, who was expected to be Ohio’s leadoff hitter and starting second baseman, broke his hand during a recent workout and will be out of action for at least the first month of the season.
“Cody’s probably the toughest loss,” Smith said, “because he was a proven player at this level. He’s proven himself offensively and defensively, and I think he’s arguably the best catcher in the MAC.”
Gaertner, a career .308 hitter, was top-five on the team in almost every offensive category in 2013, including second on the team with a .278 batting average, and third with 24 RBIs. Senior Kyle Dean will attempt to fill the void left by Gaertner as the primary catcher, with freshmen Nick Bredeson and Anthony Winters battling for playing time in a reserve role.
But Ohio will once again be led by offensive prowess of first-baseman Jake Madsen, who has been Ohio’s most consistent hitter during his two years in Athens. The junior is a career .335 hitter and led the Bobcats in every major offensive category last season, including batting average (.326), on-base percentage (.389), RBIs (37), and doubles (18).
However Smith and the rest of the coaching staff are looking for some more experienced players to step up and improve their offensive contributions in the absence of the injured players.
“[Outfielder] Tyler Wells had a tough year last year, but is a player that potentially could break out this year and be successful,” Smith said. “Also, Scott White is a veteran player, who hit roughly .280 in a limited role last year, that could give us some offense.”
On the pitching side, the staff is poised to have a much more successful season, now that they have a full rotation and bullpen. Sophomores Jake Miller and Connor Sitz had rocky freshmen seasons—combining for a 4-13 record and a 5.11 ERA—but now have a full season under their belts and will be counted on to continue to progress as the leaders of the rotation.
Bobcat fans will not be able to see the team in person until March 12, when the Marshall Thundering Herd travel to Athens for the first matchup of the two teams’ season series. Until then, Ohio will play its first 15 games in the south, beginning in North Carolina, and then traveling throughout Georgia and Virginia.
The Bobcats begin conference play with a three-game series against the Central Michigan Chippewas starting on March 21 in Athens, and later feature a 16-game stretch, starting April 9 with the return trip to Marshall, where they play eight consecutive games on the road, followed by eight consecutive games at Bob Wren Stadium.
“These guys are focused and want to be successful,” Smith said. “This team has done everything right to this point, and I’m hoping they are rewarded for it.”