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VOL. 131 | NO. 69 | Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Memphis Baseball Trusting Young Pitchers

By Don Wade

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University of Memphis baseball coach Daron Schoenrock looks at his freshmen pitchers and sees talent and promise, even if at times this season “the moments have been a little big for them.”

But he also sees something else. Or rather, someone else: former Tigers quarterback Paxton Lynch, who had an uneven year as a redshirt freshman. Critics – read: some fans and some media – called for then-head coach Justin Fuente to replace Lynch with a more experienced player in senior Jacob Karam.

Fuente didn’t budge from his commitment to let Lynch grow into the job and that worked out pretty well for all concerned. Schoenrock is taking a similar approach, even with a 10-17 start this season and dropping two of three at home to UCF in the team’s first American Athletic Conference series last weekend.

“Our record isn’t where we want it at all,” Schoenrock said. “Two-thirds of our weekend rotation is new. But if you were to rank the top arm talents on our team, six of the 11 are freshmen.”

And two key pitchers that are not freshmen are young, sophomore weekend starters Colton Hathcock (Brighton, Tenn.) and Connor Alexander (Tipton-Rosemark Academy). Each owns a 2-3 record and they have respectable ERAs with Hathcock at 3.83 and Alexander at 4.10. Senior Matt Ferguson is 3-4 with a 3.72 earned run average.

As for the freshmen, 6-6 right-hander Jonathan Bowlan (Bartlett High) will get the start in the Tigers’ Wednesday, April 6, game vs. Arkansas (19-4, 4-5 in the SEC) at 6:30 p.m. at AutoZone Park. Bowlan has six appearances and two starts on the season and is 1-2 with a 3.00 ERA.

“A future star,” Schoenrock said, adding that the description may fit several of his young hurlers.

Of the other five freshmen, left-hander Hunter Smith has the best numbers in limited work – a 1-0 mark with a 1.80 ERA in 10 innings. Right-hander Alex Hicks (Collierville) has pitched out of the bullpen and right-hander James Muse (Christian Brothers) has been used as both a starter and a reliever. Lefty Cotton Neel has seen action as both a relief pitcher and an outfielder and right-hander Bryan Cruse (Bartlett) has five appearances out of the pen.

The anchor of the Tigers’ bullpen is junior Nolan Blackwood (Southaven), whose 14 saves last year set a program record; he also had an almost invisible 0.52 ERA. Blackwood, a right-hander who throws from a down-under arm slot, threw his fastball 87-88 MPH last season. This year, Schoenrock says, he has been 89-91 and touched 93. But not without a cost.

“He doesn’t have quite the sinker he had before,” Schoenrock said, adding that batters also changed their approach to him. “He’s been hit more (a 7.24 ERA over 11 outings, with four saves). They’re attacking him really early in the count.”

Offensively, Memphis has just one player batting above .300. Senior Jake Little (Franklin, Tenn.) leads the team with a .327 batting average and .400 on-base percentage. He has hit a team-best three home runs and driven in 17 runs.

“Health-wise, he’s the best he’s been,” Schoenrock said, noting a hamstring injury sabotaged Little a year ago. “He’s running well, playing a strong right field. I don’t know where we’d be without him.”

The Tigers’ team batting average is just .257 and they’ve taken fewer walks than their opponents and struck out more. Schoenrock believes the lineup is “capable,” but says the hitters feel pressure trying to carry the load with such a young pitching staff. The result: forcing the issue and chasing pitches out of the strike zone.

“Everybody’s wanting to do it themselves,” Schoenrock said. “Take a walk, trust the next guy.”

In seasons past, the Tigers were pushing to get their record to a place where with a good showing in the postseason conference tournament they might get at-large consideration for the NCAA Tournament. That scenario is already off the table. But the winner of the AAC’s tourney will get an automatic bid to an NCAA Regional.

For the Tigers to have a chance to make a run, the coach knows what it will take: multiple freshmen pitchers making contributions. So he’s sticking with them now.

“What you’re trying to do is grow these young pitchers,” he said. “Pitching depth is what wins tournaments.”

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