AZUSA, Calif.-- Heading into the 2013 baseball season the only certainty for Azusa Pacific head coach Paul Svagdis is that nothing is certain. Sure, the Cougars return first-team All-American Matt Kimmel, and bring back two of their top starting pitchers in Michael Finnigan and Zach Hedges.
Outside of that, Azusa Pacific will need to find a way to replace seven starting position players from a lineup that posted a 47-12 record in 2012, and lost two players to the MLB draft. But with that uncertainty comes the welcomed challenge of creating a new identity with a roster chock-full of young talent.
“We’ve been fortunate to replace great players in the past. I love the dynamic of the team, and I love the challenge of creating a new team identity,” said Svagdis. “I’m excited about the opportunity with the younger guys. We’ve experienced it before, and looking back, we didn’t know how we were going to get along. Only time will tell, but I’m excited about how this team will develop.”
And while last year’s team won the program’s 11th Golden State Athletic Conference championship on the strength of its bats, this years team hopes to make a splash in the Pacific West Conference in a different way.
“I feel like our strength is that we’re solid across the board in all three areas of the game. We have the ability to pitch competitively. We have a really athletic outfield, and we will be pretty tough 1-through-9 offensively. It’ll be interesting to see who steps up and how this team takes shape,” said Svagdis.
The team returns 2012 starters Kimmel and Brendan Casey, and welcomes back starting pitchers Hedges and Finnigan. Pitcher Jason Plowman gives the rotation a strong and talented arm after primarily being used out of the pen as a junior, and second baseman Ryan Henley brings a level of experience and leadership to an otherwise green roster. The team returns only two players that logged 100+ at-bats, and only three pitchers that tossed 30+ innings in 2012. How quickly it meshes and adapts in the first season of PacWest play will determine just how good the team becomes.
Azusa Pacific’s outfield returns just one starter from 2012, but looks to be one of the team’s biggest strengths for 2013. Joining returning NAIA All-American centerfielder Kimmel, will be junior Joe Daris and senior Tyler Putjenter.
Kimmel had one of the best all-around years in program history, batting .437 with 60 RBIs. He stole a team-high 11 bases, made numerous highlight reel catches, and four times recorded four or more RBIs in a game. He also mixed in a good amount of power, blasting nine home runs with a .660 slugging percentage and 20 doubles. Needless to say he will be the key to Azusa Pacific’s offense in 2013.
“He is a dynamic type of hitter and has the ability to drive the ball in the gaps. The challenge of returning as a first-team All-American is that other teams know him now,” said Svagdis. “Last year he had the benefit of being surrounded by some great hitters...when you’re surrounded by Jordan Leyland, Brent Warren and Jonathan Erb you’re in a good spot. Now we’re packing other hitters around Kimmel, and the challenge for him is to step to the plate and lead the lineup.”
Fellow outfielders Daris and Putjenter primarily came off the bench in 2012, but were still key contributors to the team’s 47 wins. Daris tied for the team-lead with nine stolen bases. He hit .357 with five RBIs, and helped the Cougars to an 11-4 win over Cal Poly Pomona with two RBIs and a double. Putjenter appeared in 47 games, and batted .324. His glove earned him a consistent spot in left field late in games. The senior also made one of the Cougars’ most important defensive plays of the year when his leaping catch at the wall against Fresno Pacific ended a five-run 8th inning against the Sunbirds on May 2 to help Azusa Pacific advance in the GSAC tournament.
Dominic Biagini will get plenty of chances in his first season with the team. The junior was a a highly coveted recruit out of the College of Dupage (Ill.), where he earned all-conference and All-American honors. Junior Casey Friedrich and freshmen, Cam Bennett, and Mitch Dergazarian will also be relied upon as the season progresses.
The Cougars infield has just one returning starter, 3B Casey, leaving a large vacancy for the team’s youth to vie for. Casey hit .302 with 30 RBIs as a junior, and had 19 games with two or more hits. He notched a game-winning home run against Cal State San Marcos on Feb. 18, and was one of the team’s most consistent all-around players.
Joel Belk will likely get the nod at first base, when he isn’t on the mound, after redshirting in 2012 and posting a productive season of summer ball. Henley will step in at second base in his fourth season with the club, while the shortstop position battle will go down to Daniel Martin and Andrew Carrillo. Freshman Joe Huthsing will open the season behind the dish, and may be spelled by Casey throughout the year.
“I like the makeup of our infield. We’ve been fortunate to have a kid as selfless as Casey. To have the desire to go from a comfortable position to helping the team overcome some adversity at catcher just shows his character. Henley had a great fall and brings senior leadership, and I’m really excited about what he’s done. Belk is a good young hitter with a lot of potential, and Martin and Carrillo will see a lot of time at shortstop. And then we have Hutshing behind the plate, who has one of the strongest arms I’ve seen. It’ll be fun to see it all shake out,” said Svagdis.
Junior Danny Gonzales will see plenty of time in the infield, and brings a solid bat to the lineup. Out of all the returning players he registered the third most hits in 2012 (11). Dusty Sanderson and Richie Brown will also get plenty of opportunities at short stop and first base respectively.
Heading into the season the Cougars’ pitching appeared to be its biggest strength. The team returns All-GSAC lefty Michael Finnigan, and sophomore Zach Hedges after a dominating freshman campaign. The two, who combined to go 14-1 with ERAs just over 3.00, were projected as the 1-2,but offseason injuries will keep each of them out of the rotation for the first few weeks of the year.
Finnigan worked his way from the pen to the team’s top starter in 2012, finishing with a 7-1 record with 52 strikeouts en route to earning all-conference recognition. Hedges was impressive all year long, going undefeated with a 7-0 mark and a 3.30 ERA in 62.2 innings over eight starts. Being without them will definitely hurt the Cougars early on, but Svagdis is hopeful that while they’re out the team’s depth can hold things together.
Right-hander Plowman will help ease the blow, and fill in as Azusa Pacific’s No. 1 starter heading into the spring, with freshman Nate Namanny joining him in his first year with the program. Plowman registered a 2-0 record, and boasted an impressive 6-to-1 strikeout to walk ratio in his junior season, and held opposing offenses scoreless in 11 of his 22 appearances. Namanny, a freshman from Medford, Ore. had a notable prep career, and will be relied upon a lot in his first year of collegiate ball.
“We’ve had some unfortunate things happen, but we have to push through it and persevere. I’m confident in what Jason brings as a pitcher and a leader, and I like what I’ve seen from a lot of our young arms. We’re going to get tested early on and we’ll give a lot of guys opportunities to pitch competitively right now,” said Svagdis. “There are some weeks throughout the year where we’re paying a lot of baseball, and we’ll need to be strong in the pen. And that success from the bullpen can happen when the starters pitch into the late innings, and with the schedule the way it is the bullpen is going to have to be a strength.”
Belk and Matt Winkler will also get starts on the hill for a Cougar staff that will see plenty of arms take the bump. Hunter Brown and Kyle Pine may see increased time, while a large group of freshmen hurlers look to make an impact.
After being the most successful program in GSAC history, the Cougars are moving into the NCAA Division II’s Pacific West Conference. Azusa Pacific, which will be joined by fellow former GSAC opponents Fresno Pacific, California Baptist, and Point Loma, will be one of nine PacWest schools that sponsor baseball. Dixie State (Utah) has won the conference title twice in the last four years, and CBU took home the championship in its first season in the league last year.
All of the Cougars’ home games will be broadcast on Azusa Pacific’s Live Streaming Portal. Each game costs $7.95, and a season pass is available for $99.95. Live stats will also be available at the same location.