Which means McNickle has been making some decisions about how, or more particularly who, to send to the mound this weekend. Following Tuesday's scrimmage, the pitching coach has now set his starting rotation.
"Brooks Dunn will start the first game," McNickle said, confirming all pre-season statements on the subject by Coach Ron Polk. Senior lefthander Dunn (6-3 last season with a 4.50 ERA) finished fall as the consensus pick of the coaches and team to get the ball on Opening Day. The curiosity has been over who would take the hill for the next two games, and those names have been set. "We're going to start Josh Johnson on Saturday, and John Lalor on Sunday," said McNickle.
Johnson is a junior righthander who posted a 5-0 record in 2005 with a 4.03 ERA, starting six games in midweek competition. Lalor, a sophomore righthander, was another week-day regular with a 5-0 record, 3.22 ERA, and six starts. This weekend's scheduled rotation combined last spring for a 16-3 record, which looks impressive.
The pitching coach is more cautious, though. "I'm anxious to see some of the guys throw on a weekend," McNickle said. It's because while all three starters have had some good midweek experiences, all are being asked to raise their games and take on larger responsibility. "Brooks and Josh haven't started a regular SEC game," the coach noted, "Lalor hasn't pitched in a SEC game. And when Dunn and Johnson did toss in league action last spring their combined ERA was around 8.00 with a .300 batting average-against.
Obviously Marist is not a SEC opponent, but what McNickle means is that there is a transition to be made from opening week-night contest to throwing the first pitch of a weekend game. It's an entirely different sort of situation, especially considering that none of this trio has gone through the days of waiting and anticipating their turn that experienced rotation pitchers become used to.
So McNickle is setting reasonable goals for Dunn, Johnson, and Lalor in their 2006 debuts. "The ideal is to get five innings for sure, hopefully six, and piece it together from there."
State coaches have other reasons for being ready to adjust in this first weekend. Assembling a scouting report on Marist hasn't been easy. "We've got some information on them, but it's a new coach so we don't know his style," McNickle said. "They have some guys back, and what we've seen is they're pretty aggressive with the bat early in the count…which I like! And they have a couple of guys that can run."
Where both sides are almost equal is in lack of quality time on the field the last few weeks. "They haven't been outside much," McNickle said of the ‘snowbirding' visitors. "And neither have we!" Though, the Dogs caught a break when Tuesday's rains came later than projected and they were able to scrimmage normally. State can also make use of the new Palmeiro Center today, but not Thursday as the facility will be used for the Dugout Club's annual First Pitch Banquet.
"Marist will try to work out (on the field) tomorrow night," McNickle said. "If not on the field they'll hit in the Grisham Tunnel because we'll be in the Palmeiro Center."
Having set the starters, McNickle is also making plans for relief duties. In fact, "We hope to evaluate nine-to-ten pitchers this weekend," he said. Yet since the first objective is to win the games, the coaches have no intention of using a quick hook any day. The starters need to be tested as much as practical.
"The big thing with any of those starters is command of the strike zone, how efficient are they with their stuff; and how quick do they run out of gas," McNickle said. "That first time out the emotion and the adrenalin is a factor the first few innings, then your conditioning takes over in the fourth-fifth innings." Not that he will ask the starters to show April shape in February, of course. "We've been trying to build arm strength and endurance."
Since no starter will be asked to go the distance, a good portion of the staff should have chances to throw an inning or at least to a batter. Hopefully not in serious pressure, of course, but if so the coaches will make calls to the pen as needed. Though, McNickle adds, throwing in relief this early in the year does not mean that pitchers has been assigned to the bullpen for the season. Far from it.
Take redshirt righthander Chad Crosswhite, for instance. "Right now he's a long-relief guy," McNickle said. Yet Crosswhite is also a viable candidate to earn a rotation job if one of this weekend's starters struggles. Junior righthander Jon Crosby started nine SEC games in 2005 and had the best ERA on the staff; he's certainly in the mix for a weekend job by the time conference season opens. As is southpaw Jesse Carver, and as are others.
Then there are two true freshmen righthanders who, the coaches say, it will only be a matter of time and development before they earn weekend jobs. Given their high school resumes, it's only natural coaches and fans alike want to see how Aaron Weatherford and Matt Lea make the adjustment to college pitching. Will they throw this weekend?
"As quickly as possible," McNickle said. "They will pitch sometime this weekend, it's just a matter of when. Matt threw yesterday in our scrimmage, so he probably won't be available until Sunday. Weatherford just threw an inning so he could be available Friday or Saturday."
McNickle said he wants to pitch through the first two weekends (State hosts Arkansas State March 3-4-5) before picking starters for the first midweek games, which are also at home, on March 7-8. Meanwhile, he's equal-parts anxious and excited about opening weekend. "Pray for me!" he jokes at first, before agreeing that with the rotation not truly established and lots of pitchers competing for new roles in 2006 the scrimmages have been enjoyable.
Intense, even. "I saw some attitude on the mound yesterday that I haven't see for a while."