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VOL. 132 | NO. 30 | Friday, February 10, 2017

Memphis Baseball Team Opens vs. UT and Ready for Rebound Season

By Don Wade

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The extended forecast is promising, sunny with high temperatures in the 60s. University of Memphis baseball coach Daron Schoenrock not only is hoping the forecast for opening weekend at FedExPark vs. the University of Tennessee holds, but that clear skies and warming temps are signs of things to come this season.

Outfielder Chris Carrier, left, and second baseman Brandon Grudzielanek will be two counted-on hitters in the middle of the University of Memphis Tigers’ lineup this season.  

(Daily News/Andrew J. Breig)

Relying on a pitching staff last year that was so young that it might have been fitted with baby booties instead of metal spikes, the Tigers struggled to a 22-39 record. And that team’s All-American closer, Nolan Blackwood, is gone after going to the Oakland A’s in the 14th round of the Major League Baseball Draft. Also gone: fellow junior and outfielder Darien Tubbs, taken in the 16th round by the Los Angeles Dodgers.

“We had some ups and downs,” said senior second baseman Brandon Grudzielanek, who is a nephew of 15-year big-league infielder Mark Grudzielanek. “Toward the end of the year we started coming on strong, kinda got more mature. The youth of the pitching and the hitters showed (early), but I like how it ended. We got our minds going the right direction, we were more confident going into games, and that led to more success.”

Indeed, the Tigers got hot in the American Athletic Conference Tournament and fell just short of playing on championship Sunday. That late flourish has led to optimism that, well, brighter days lie just ahead.

“We can take a huge jump this season,” said senior outfielder Chris Carrier, an AAC Preseason All-Conference selection.

“We were using a freshman to try and get out of a jam that a freshman created,” Schoenrock said of what was a too familiar pitching pattern last year. “And that’s tough at this level. As we got into tournament play, the experience factor made a huge difference. We had two guys that made starts in that tournament to (help the team advance). Drew Crosby and Jonathan Bowlan showed glimpses of brilliance and have picked up right where they left off after they didn’t pitch that way during the (regular) season.”

Crosby, a junior left-hander, and Bowlan, a sophomore right-hander, are being counted on to contribute more. Crosby is ticketed to start the second game of the UT series, which is Feb. 17-19. Two junior right-handers in Colton Hathcock and Connor Alexander also figure to be in the rotation. Alexander is slated to start the third game vs. the Vols, but Schoenrock was not sure if he would use Hathcock as the first-game starter opening weekend or pitch him out of the bullpen to leave open the possibility of pitching him Friday and Sunday.

“Figure out how we get the ball in Hathcock’s hands when the game is on the line,” Schoenrock said.

Hathcock, who had a .394 ERA last season and held opposing hitters to a .251 batting average, says the struggles the young pitchers had were familiar; he went through it, too.

“I was that way as a freshman, trying to throw as hard as I could,” said Hathcock, whose four-seam fastball ranges from 90-94 mph. “But that doesn’t work at this level. Guys like to hit the fastball, they jump on it.”

Schoenrock says Grudzielanek, who hit .292 last season, probably will hit third or fourth in the order and that Carrier (.282 with 25 extra-base hits last year) also will hit in the middle of the lineup. With Tubbs and his 22 stolen bases gone, the top of the lineup will be different. Senior third baseman Zach Schritenthal, a left-handed hitter, will open at leadoff.

“He’s not a burner,” Schoenrock said, “but a very mature guy in the batter’s box and that’s what I want at the top of the order.”

Just two seasons ago, the AAC placed four teams in the NCAA Regionals. The league was young last year and only got two bids. But D1Baseball.com is projecting four of the eight baseball members earn bids this season: East Carolina (preseason No. 6 nationally), Houston, Tulane and Connecticut.

Meantime, Baseball America tabbed Crosby as the 17th best pro prospect in the AAC.

“It’s got the respect of professional baseball,” Schoenrock said of the league. “This is our best sport in the conference, the one that has a chance to have more teams compete at a national level.”

It starts Friday, Feb. 17, with Tennessee on campus to play a weekend series for the first time since 1981. In anticipation of big crowds, extra portable seating will be set up down the leftfield line. Season tickets are $65 and include 32 games at FedExPark, plus games vs. Ole Miss and Mississippi State at AutoZone Park.

Schoenrock expects a packed house opening weekend and says it is a prime opportunity to make an impression on fans, adding, “It’s our job to bring them back.”

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