NORFOLK, Va. – There was a time not too long ago where Norfolk State baseball head coach Claudell Clark could only hope to have a pitching staff of a healthy and reliable seven or eight arms to endure the rigors of a 50-game collegiate season.
While NSU hasn’t lacked for quality pitching over the years, it has sometimes lacked in quantity. Untimely injuries and other player losses have often left the Spartans just shy of a full complement of effective pitchers to help the team attain its goal of a MEAC title.
This year, the Spartans’ roster is stocked with quality pitchers – 14 arms in all, to be exact, including 10 returners from a staff that flourished down the stretch of the 2014 campaign. That experience and depth on the mound will combine with a new-look lineup as the Spartans open the 2015 season this Friday.
The Spartans’ top three pitchers from last year all return and should form the basis of a strong weekend rotation: junior lefthander Matt Outman, sophomore lefthander Devin Hemmerich and senior righty Stephen Butt. Outman tied for second in the MEAC in wins last year and ranked sixth in ERA, going 8-2 with a 2.96 ERA.
Hemmerich spent most of his time coming out of the bullpen as a freshman last year, earning All-MEAC second-team honors as a reliever in addition to Louisville Slugger Freshman All-American accolades. He went 5-3 with five saves and a 2.49 ERA, which ranked fourth in the conference. Both Hemmerich and Outman threw nine-inning complete games during the MEAC Tournament.
Butt forced his way into the starting rotation after the first month of the year and led the team with 59 strikeouts. He logged a 3-3 record and a 4.82 ERA while ranking third in the MEAC in strikeouts.
“Our pitchers really gained a lot of confidence pitching in and winning some key games late in the year last season,” Clark said. “When you going into a weekend with three solid starters, it boosts the whole team’s confidence.”
The abundance of arms doesn’t stop there. Senior righty Jeff Di Fulgo and junior righty Cooper Jones return as two of the team’s top relief pitchers. Both appeared in 21 games out of the bullpen last year and both logged 32 innings. Jones fanned 27 while Di Fulgo had 19 punchouts.
Senior righties Josh Vales, Corey Haynes and Troy Applin and sophomore righties Matt Boone and Jonathan Mauricio will also factor into. Vales gained experience starting and relieving last year, with the highlight coming in a 12-strikeout victory over Florida A&M in a MEAC Tournament elimination game. Vales will push Butt for the third weekend starting spot, but can also serve as a long reliever out of the bullpen.
Haynes also contributed last year as a starter and reliever, going 0-1 with one save in 11 appearances. Applin is entering his third season with the Spartans and has proved to be an effective reliever during his career. Boone (five appearances, 5.0 innings) and Mauricio (seven appearances, 7.2 innings) showed promise in their limited duty as freshmen a year ago.
The pitching staff will be bolstered by four newcomers, one junior college transfer and three freshmen. NSU added Robbie Hiser from the JC ranks out of Lenoir Community College in North Carolina. The hard-throwing righty will challenge for the closer’s role in addition to the starting third baseman’s job.
Another player who figures to see time in the field and on the mound is freshman Alex Mauricio, the younger brother of Jonathan Mauricio. Another hard-throwing rookie, Mauricio is penciled in as the starting second baseman and could also pitch in late-game situations.
Lane Ward and Michael Parmentier also impressed coaches during the fall season and preseason workouts. Both were accomplished high school pitchers in the Commonwealth of Virginia, Ward and King George High and Parmentier at Nansemond River. Coaches could use them out of the bullpen or possibly in a mid-week starting role.
It all adds up to what could be the deepest staff of Clark’s 11-year tenure.
“When an opposing team gets off the bus and knows they’ve got to face a quality starting staff and bullpen for a whole weekend, that’s half the battle,” Clark said.
The Spartans’ lineup isn’t as experienced as the pitching staff. Only three regular starters return from what was a senior-laden lineup in 2014. Five .280+ hitters from last year’s lineup are gone, including middle-of-the-order mainstays Cody Ellis (.349), Ross Cardwell (.331), Cameron Day (.321) and Zach Markel (.286).
Despite that, Clark said this year’s roster but features good defenders, some potential pop in the middle and plenty of speed. Two of the team’s returning positions players made the preseason All-MEAC second team, shortstop Justin Lee and junior center fielder Andre’ Moore. Lee led the MEAC with 20 steals last year, while Moore hit .308 and swiped 18 bases. They figure to bat 1-2 in NSU lineup.
“Justin is an inspirational and defensive leader for our team. He is like a coach on the field,” Clark said. “Andre’ just keeps getting better. I’m excited to see him show that on the field this year.”
NSU’s other returning starter is senior catcher Omar Hotusing. He made his mark on defense last year, committing just five errors and throwing out 14 would-be base stealers. He will be pushed for time by two newcomers, freshman Ismael Herrera and sophomore transfer Ben Delgado.
Besides Lee, the Spartans will likely have new starters at the other three infield positions. Hiser is the favorite to man third base. In addition to his pitching prowess, he also hit five home runs in junior college last year. Like Hiser, Alex Mauricio will also see double duty as he was an accomplished high school middle infielder. He will be the opening day second baseman.
A number of players could see time at first base. Redshirt senior Ian Horne, who had just six at-bats last season, is the frontrunner. He will also give the Spartans a strong left-handed bat in the middle of the batting order.
James Madison graduate transfer Ryan Kilmon should also figure into the middle of the order. The 6-4, 205-pound Kilmon, who last played at JMU in 2012, can play first, third or DH and has power-hitting ability.
Two left-handed hitters, junior Kyle Vaas and redshirt sophomore Robert Depp, add depth to the first base position. Vaas drove in 30 runs in his first two seasons and can play first or third. Depp sat out last season due to an injury, but hit .321 in reserve duty as a freshman in 2013.
Redshirt sophomore walk-on newcomer Roger Hall will vy for time at both second and third bases, particular when Mauricio and Hiser are used in pitching duty. Junior college transfer Aaron Endres will also push for a spot.
The corner outfield spots flanking Moore could see a number of different players contribute. Freshmen Tony Leite and Syeed Mahdi, junior college transfer Angel Rosario and senior Mikey Bruno could all get a starting-day nod. Leite is an athletic 6-0, 185 product of Hampton’s Kecoughtan High. Mahdi emerged as a power threat during the team’s fall competition season, while Rosario is a fast, left-handed hitting transfer.
Bruno is the one senior outfielder on the roster. One of the team’s top defensive outfielders, Bruno can play any outfield position and is a polished hitter and baserunner.
“I think we will be much improved defensively this year and have tons of speed,” Clark said. “We think that will enable us to put pressure on our opponents, not just with stealing bases, but taking extra bases on hits or outs.”
NSU’s 46-game regular-season schedule starts Friday at North Carolina Central. The Spartans’ non-conference slate also features games against Richmond, Virginia Tech and VCU. NSU also has non-conference home weekend series against Navy and Ohio in addition to hosting the second annual Spartan Classic, featuring Fairleigh Dickinson, Lehigh and Iona.
Clark feels like the non-conference schedule will prepare the Spartans for their 24-game slate against the MEAC North, where the Spartans were picked to finish second behind Delaware State.
Said Clark: “We’re excited about the roster and schedule we have, and think we have as good a shot as anyone to be the team left standing after the MEAC Tournament.”