Army Baseball Preview: Part I

Army kicks off their 2010 baseball season on February 19th against Dayton in North Carolina. The 2009 Army baseball made us proud and the 2010 squad is expected to be even better. This is the first segment of a five part series previewing the 2010 Army baseball team.

With one out in the ninth and a four run lead, it looked like Army was going to take number one national seed Texas to the regional championship game the next day. Army's most successful postseason ever, ended fractions of an hour later as Texas plated a 14 – 10 win and went on to be runner up to National Champion LSU at the College World Series.

That game, and the regional contests leading up to it, beating both Texas State and Boston College, showcased a Black Knight team that proved it could play with the big boys. Unlike the successful teams of the past that demonstrated the signs of a program on the rise, this one was not dominated by upperclassmen. The team that put up 10 runs on the nations #1 pitching staff was young, comprised of a nucleus of sophomores that are now big stage tested and ready to take care of some unfinished business.

Lost to graduation were team Captains J.P. Polchinski (3b) and Andy Ernesto (CF) along with RF Kyle Fleming, relief pitcher Tyler Anderegg and super sub infielder Tony Capozzi. That's 624 at bats, 16 HR's, 116 RBI's, 8 Wins and 49 innings on the mound that is now serving our country as 2LT's. At a cursory glance, it might look like a big hole to fill, until you realize that the 3 lost starters were 6th, 7th and 8th in offensive production. The mound loss of Anderegg as the #1 reliever may be the hardest hole to fill, but the Black Knights return all 4 starters in their rotation and look to actually be deeper in the bullpen.

Offensively, Army finished the season #26 in the nation in batting avg. at .329. This is in spite of starting the first month and half of the season ranked #151 and batting over .040 points lower at .294. When they finally dialed it up, it was showtime at the dish. Bombs, doubles, triples, and clutch hits up and down the lineup made Army a nightmare for opposing staffs.

The Early Season

Slow starts have been the trademark of Army teams of the last decade, without a single team entering conference play with a record over .500. The experience and confidence of this teams core may well break with that tradition however. Opening weekend (2/19-2/21) at the ACC's Wake Forest (22-30 103 RPI), will pit the Knights against two very good teams. They'll play a pair vs. WF and face off vs. Dayton (34-19 100 RPI) in a one game match. Wake Forest has a new coaching staff led by Tom Walters who produced winners at New Orleans. The Demon Deacons have talent and good coaches and will be a stiff test right out of the gate. The Flyers are a perennially good team and this year should be no exception.

The second weekend finds Army with a short trip south, facing off against UMBC (9-36, 291) in Baltimore the last weekend in February. Although anything can happen, this is exactly the kind of team that the Knights need to dominate. If cooperative weather allows for all three games, anything less than a sweep would be considered a severe disappointment for this crew.

Week three finds Army traveling back to the Tar Heel state to take on UNC Greensboro (20-29 191) for a trifecta. Last years UNCG team hit at a less than stellar .272 clip. Although pitchers are usually ahead of hitters early in the season, southern teams have many more good reps at pre season hitting than northern teams negating the pitchers advantage. In spite of this, Army's quality staff should be able to keep UNCG at bay. If our bats show up, this should be another consecutive good weekend for Black Knight baseball.

That brings us into the annual spring break Florida trip to Tampa and 7 games in 9 days. The Knights open up Saturday, March 13, with a split doubleheader vs. Long Island (10-39, 294) and Akron (18-33, 231). Sunday Army faces off against the Ivy Leagues Yale (13-24, 272). With an off day Monday, Army will get its first stiff test since opening weekend facing a very good Eastern Illinois (33-14, 69). EIU finished last season #2 in the country in batting at a whopping .362. They do it with more than their sticks though, as The Panthers boast several very good arms including fireballing Mike Recchia.

Off days on Wed/Thur bring a doubleheader face off vs. Bradley (17-31, 257). Although a down year last year, Bradley usually fields a team of very good pitchers and they do play in the highly competitive Missouri Valley.

Winding up the Florida trip in style, the tilt against Ohio State (42-18, 34) looks to be the stiffest test of the regular season. Last year the teams played a pair of 7 inning contests in which The Buckeyes prevailed 3-1 and 8-4. This years OSU team comes in nationally ranked at 16 with one of the country's top pitchers in Alex Wimmers, pre season all American catcher Dan Burkhart, and an offense that many claim is the best the Big 10 has fielded in many moons. This could be a statement game for Army. Should they come into the game with only a loss or two, the rest of the college baseball world will be watching closely to see if Army is picking up where it left off in Austin last year.

Look for the coaches to bookend the top three starters in Florida by starting them on the first weekend of the trip and again at the end of the trip. Smart money will be looking for Coach Sottolano to save his hottest arm to face the Buckeyes. Most likely, the tip off to that games starter will be the previous Sunday starter vs. Yale. With Army being only the second day of OSU's Florida spring break trip, it will probably depend on the records of both Army and Eastern Illinois, as to who sees Wimmers. OSU faces EIU the day before the contest vs. Army. If one of the teams has a markedly better record, that's who'll face OSU's shutdown righty. Two Florida notes of worth…last season Wimmers started out with an ERA in the 1.3 range until fading late in the season…Army is no stranger to facing ranked opponents in Florida. Last years club dominated 12th ranked Illinois all game until letting them tie it up in top of the ninth, only to win in dramatic fashion on JP Polchinski's walk off homer in the bottom of the 9th.

Start me up

Based on last years RPI, Army plays one of the softest schedules in the country. The goal for these Knights should be to chalk up Army's first 40 win regular season. In order to do that though, they'll have to buck history in the early season and come out of the gate fast.

Can they do it? Without a doubt. Will they do it? I believe they will. Without drinking any of the baseball Kool-Aid, look at the differences in mentality and maturity from just a year ago. Last year, they were sophomores coming off a frustrating freshman season where they won the regular season league crown only to bow out to the #4 seed in the PL playoffs. This year, as upperclassmen, they know they're talented and should enter the season with a completely different mindset about who they are and what they should achieve. Let's not forget that bitter taste that Texas left them with. By all accords, they haven't and the work they've been doing in the off-season has been mighty.

On the pitching end, both Porter and Henshaw started last season on the shelf recovering from previous season injuries. This year, both the hard throwers will be in mix from jump street and have a full pre season of workup. If pitching really does have the advantage early in the season, Army's advantage could be insurmountable.

The key will be the hitting. If they hit well, they'll win. The problem comes in with outdoor reps. Hitting outdoors against a natural background is a world of difference from the indoor cages of West Point. Wake Forest and UNCG will have definite big advantages in this category over the first three weeks.

If Army finds it stroke early, they will rock and rock hard. Look for the swagger exhibited last season, right out of the gate. If they have it, if they mash it, if they locate…turn the page because we'll be rewriting early season Army baseball history.

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