The start of the season can’t come fast enough for the Georgia Southern baseball team.
With the season starting approximately three weeks later than usual — as mandated by the NCAA — the diamond Eagles are anxious to finally compete against players outside of their own teammates. They’ll get that opportunity this weekend when the Atlantic Coast Conference’s Boston College comes to town for a season-opening three-game series. Friday’s opener was rained out.
“At this point, we’re just ready to play somebody else,” ninth-year Eagle coach Rodney Hennon said this week. “After you’ve scrimmaged for three weeks, you’re always ready to see somebody in a different uniform.”
The 2008 Eagles, picked preseason to finish third in the Southern Conference, have plenty of reasons to be optimistic. Georgia Southern returns all but one of its everyday players — including the entire starting infield — and its top two starting pitchers. Hennon hopes his team will benefit, particularly early in the season, from returning the bulk of last year’s 34-28 squad.
“I like this team,” he said. “I like their attitude and their work ethic. We’ve got some experienced guys returning in our lineup, which I think really helps us going in.”
Georgia Southern’s depth begins in the infield where the Eagles welcome back the catcher Griffin Benedict, first baseman Jeremiah Parker, second baseman Jeremy Beckham, shortstop Brian Pierce, third baseman A.J. Wirsberger and designated hitter Kyle Blackburn.
Other returning starters for the Eagles are centerfielder Matt Miller, a junior who will hit leadoff, and outfielder Chris Shehan, who led the team in hitting (.341) and runs scored (59) in 2007. Junior transfer Ty Wright (Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College) is in line to start in the outfield, replacing Mike Economos, GSU’s biggest loss from a year ago.
“It’s comforting going in to know you are going to make a lineup out and it’s not going to be guys going out there and playing for the first time,” Hennon said.
Along with a host of returning starters, versatility is another luxury the Eagles have this season as numerous players are capable of playing different positions. Shehan (outfield/third base), Wirnsberger (third/shortstop/first), Parker (first/catcher) and Blackburn (DH/first) are a few of the adaptable players, giving Hennon plenty of options when tinkering with his lineup.
“Obviously our lineup seems strong,” Benedict said. “But hitting comes and goes, so everybody still needs to have a good approach. On the same page, pitching has really come along in the fall, and we’re looking forward to having a lot of pitchers contribute this year. Certainly defense and our offensive lineup should be some of our strong points.”
As for starting pitching, the Eagles bring back experience in starters Drew Murray and Aaron Eubanks, reliever/mid-week starter Burt Barto and closer Kyle Kamppi.
Murray will get the nod in the season opener, Eubanks will take the mound in game two, and Andy Moye is set to make his first collegiate start in the series finale. Moye, a right-handed redshirt freshman, is coming off of Tommy John surgery and missed all of last season. Redshirt freshman Justin Davis of Metter will also get a shot at starting.
While the offense is proven, the biggest question mark for the Eagles heading into the season will be their bullpen. Outside of Barto and Kamppi, the pen lacks experience, but the coaching staff is encouraged by their talent. GSU has high hopes for true freshman right-hander Trent Franzago of Peach County, who could come on in relief or start.
“I think we have some guys that are going to be very good for us, they just basically need to get their feet wet,” Hennon said. “They’re going to get plenty of opportunities. With the late start date and the season being compacted now, it’s going to give everyone on that pitching staff a chance to go out and log some innings.”
Hennon said the pitchers have responded well to new pitching coach Jason Beverlin, who played college ball with Hennon and hitting coach Mike Tidick. Beverlin’s spent the last 13 years playing professionally. Former Eagles Justin Klinger and Josh Lairsey have also joined the coaching staff as assistants.
As for other players who may emerge this season, Statesboro High grads Jake Ware and Kevin Bowles are pushing for playing time at second base. Eagle fans should also keep an eye on first baseman Will Southwell, outfielder Phillip Porter, infielder David Richardson and junior outfielder Jonathan King, a transfer from Young Harris.
“A consistent approach at the plate and the ability of our starting pitchers to go deep into games is always going to be key,” Benedict said. “With all the games we have, we are going to use a lot of relievers all season long. If we can really minimize how much we use those young arms and have our starters go long into games and keep us in games, our offense should be able to win some.”