You'd think Texas A&M baseball coach Rob Childress would still be enjoying his program's breakout 2007 season. A season that resulted in a 48-19 record, a Big 12 Conference Tournament Championship, an NCAA regional championship, and a berth in the NCAA super-regional championships. Think again.
"Last season was a good year, but it wasn't a great year," Childress said. "We played hard and accomplished some things, but our goal around here is to go to Omaha and play for a national championship and that's what we're focused on."
The 2008 Aggies began that quest in September with the start of fall workouts, and it's been a grueling five weeks which is by design. Childress stresses mental and physical toughness, and fall workouts are used to reinforce those principles.
"I've got three goals for fall workouts. First, I want these guys to get tougher. Second, they must learn to play for the team and understand the team concept. Third, I want them to develop baseball skills and learn to play our style of baseball," Childress said. "I think these guys are doing a good job with that and are making good strides, but we're still a work-in-progress."
Coming into the 2008 season, the team must replace the loss of several key members of the 2007 squad. The biggest void will be on the mound, where weekend starters Kyle Nicholson and David Newmann combined for 22 wins and 230 innings pitched between the two. Both are now pitching with Major League Baseball organizations.
"You just can't replace two eleven game winners, but we hope to fill that void with four or five returning pitchers and newcomers," Childress said. "There are some guys showing that they will be in the mix. Kyle Thebeau is starting where he left off last season. Kirkland Rivers is showing he's capable. Shane Minks has blossomed this summer and transfer Carson Middleton is a guy we think we can count on. Freshmen Barret Loux and Brooks Raley aren't pitching like freshmen."
In terms of the closer role, the Aggies were forced into a bullpen by committee after junior closer Jordan Chambless was lost to a season-ending injury after several dominating performances in the first week of the 2007 season. Chambless is still working to get back for his senior season.
"Jordan is making progress and we hope to get him throwing in November, so we hope to have him back," Childress said. "In the fall, we've been working transfer Hank Robertson and sophomore Travis Starling in that closer role. They've done a good job. Travis has only given up two runs throughout the fall so far."
At the plate and in the field, the Aggies were given a pleasant surprise when leading hitter and All-American utility fielder Blake Stouffer turned down a significant signing bonus with the Cincinnati Reds organization to return for his senior season. Stouffer will also see a position change, as he looks to take the second base spot vacated with the graduation of Parker Dalton.
"Blake returning for us is big. He got a taste of post-season play and he has always put his team before himself," Childress said. "He wants to go to Omaha and compete for a championship. We're moving him over to second base and he's coming along and making a lot of progress. We look for him to be a team leader on and off the field."
At shortstop, the Aggies must replace all-Big 12 performer Brandon Hicks, whose combination of speed and power at the top of the line-up set the table for last year's offense. Currently, there's a good battle going on between returners Dane Carter, Brodie Greene, and JUCO transfer Jose Duran from North Central Texas Community College.
"Those guys are battling over there and I call it the ‘prove it to me' position," Childress said. "But I'm very pleased with Duran. He has come in and is hitting .380 and has a good combination of speed and power. He plays hard as well. His defense is consistent."
Returner Brian Ruggiano is making a statement at third base and currently has the inside track on the job while Darby Brown and Luke Anders at first base have been very impressive with the bat so far this fall.
"Brian plays with a chip on his shoulder and he's doing a good job," Childress explained. "Darby Brown is having an incredible fall and leads the team offensively this fall. Luke Anders is a poster boy for hard work and he continues to get better and better."
Behind the plate, A&M must replace both catchers from a year ago with Craig Stinson and Josh Stinson graduating. Kevin Gonzalez and freshman Andrew Nettune are two players vying to be the Aggies' backstop in 2008.
"Kevin has done a solid job and he has a very accurate throw to second base," Childress said. "Andrew Nettune is showing signs that he wants to play. His offense is great, and we're developing his skills behind the plate."
The outfield appears to be in good shape with junior Kyle Colligan returning in centerfield, and Ben Feltner turning down professional money to return for his senior season.
"You can't say enough about Kyle and Ben. They know the program and they were a big part of what we did last year," Childress said. "Feltner puts so much pressure on the other team with his speed and he makes things happen. I'm happy to have those two guys back."
There are several options in right field, with returners Damon Aaron and Brodie Greene back in the hunt for playing time along with two-way freshman Brooks Raley from Uvalde.
"Damon is back and looking solid and we can play Brodie there also," Childress said. "But if I had to fill out a lineup card today, I'd probably put in freshman Brooks Raley. He's a special player and does the things we like to see. He's a good runner, plays excellent defense, and he puts the bat on the ball."
Overall, Coach Childress realizes this team has several things they need to work on before it's ready to open up the season in February, but he feels the squad has made a lot of progress and the potential is there for another strong team in 2008.
"We have a long way to go, but I like what I see so far," Childress said. "The new rules allow for more fall workouts and we've been hard physically and mentally with this group, but they've come through it and I'm pleased with our work this fall."
The fall season concludes with the Fall World Series, where the squad breaks up into two teams and plays a best two out of three at Olsen Field. Game one is Friday evening at 6:00 pm. Game two is Saturday at 11:00 am, and game three is Monday at 6:00 pm if necessary.
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