By: Jeff Roberson
One of those who will have an important say in the proceedings wasn’t here last season. That’s junior college transfer RHP Chad Smith, who will start on the mound Saturday.
“It’s a big honor to be jumping in there right away,” said Smith, who pitched at Wallace State Community College in Alabama the past two seasons. “I’m looking forward to it. I’m really anxious to get out there and give us a chance to win Saturday.”
Smith went 3-1 as a sophomore with a 3.09 ERA in nine appearances, including two starts with 42 strikeouts in 35.0 innings. He pitched in high school at McAdory near Birmingham.
The Southeastern Conference is a different level, but Smith said baseball is a game you can prepare for similarly at whatever level.
“I think you approach it the same way,” he said. “Expectations are really high as they always have been. It just boils down to going out there and competing every time and giving your team a chance.”
Smith, who joins Brady Bramlett and Sean Johnson as the starters this opening weekend, said he would evaluate himself this way.
“I feel like I’m a power pitcher,” he said. “I feel like I can get people out with the fast ball and with a slider as well. Those are my best two pitches. I’m a competitor and I go out there and try to win every pitch. If you win more pitches than the other team, you’re more than likely going to win the game.”
Blackman’s Back and Better
Sophomore Tate Blackman came in with a lot of accolades and expectations last season. It was a tough first year in college.
Now it’s year two, and after a summer of baseball and fall ball in Oxford, Blackman is ready to be the guy at second base.
“I worked on my approach,” he said of his hitting. “Just trying to be more consistent with it. I got back here (in the fall) and my swing was really clicking more. Last year I had a lot of bad at-bats. I really worked on improving that.”
Defensively Blackman struggled a lot of the time last season as well. It wasn’t expected and was something he had never really dealt with. That’s also been an emphasis for improvement.
“In the summer I played third, and I came back here to play second,” he said. “I just want to always be in a good mood and have positive energy. You’re living your dream out here, and you just want to really stay positive.
“I broke my hand (sliding into a base during fall ball in 2014). I got out of shape. So this fall (2015) I really got in shape. I didn’t fail much in high school. This fall I really learned to flush last season. The only way to go now is forward. I’m very excited. We’re a really close team, way moreso than last year. We’ve got a good chemistry with one another.”
Captain Denny ready for finale
Matt Denny is back for more baseball, this his fourth season on the Rebel squad. He’s one of the team’s captains and he’s ready to lead.
“I started planning for this as soon as we lost last season in L.A.,” he said. “Everybody knows this team is talented, but we have a lot of young guys. The older guys are going to have to be leaders.”
Denny’s in the best shape since he’s been here. He’s lost weight and looks like a different person.
“When we left L.A. (after the Regional last year), I was going to lose weight and get in the best shape,” he said. “I went from 233 pounds back then down to like 210 to 212. I feel a lot better. All my running times are better.”
On being a captain, Denny’s hard work and commitment to be the best he can be must have shown since he was chosen.
“It was one main goal,” he said. “I still definitely have a lot of things to work on to be a good leader. And that’s what I want to focus on now. I feel (as a captain) I can open up to the players in ways I couldn’t before.”
Denny has been around the program a long time. He wants his pitching this season to be better than ever, and he’s focused on that.
“I’ve tried not to do many things differently. I’ve just focused on pitching and not tried to overcomplicate things. I feel like I’ve kind of done that in the past. Really just enjoy it, have fun, and see what happens.”
He likes the bullpen with older guys like himself, Wyatt Short, and Will Stokes there, plus several newcomers.
“We had a lot of good arms two years ago when we went to Omaha. Last year we struggled some in that area. This year I know we have some really reliable guys coming out of the bullpen, some of them new, like Dallas Woolfolk, Andrew Lowe and Connor Green. They have a lot of potential. I know they’ll have successful careers here.”