By Mike London
SALISBURY — This is a Catawba baseball team without any preseason All-America mashers.
There are no can’t-miss, dominant pitchers. There are no sure draft picks.
The one certain thing is that when the Indians start the season today against Lynn University in Boca Raton, Fla., with a 2:30 p.m. first pitch, they’re going to have another good team. That’s due to a coaching staff, led by Hall of Famer Jim Gantt, and because of players such as Jacob Nester.
Nester was pressed into service as the regular shortstop last season with Jeremy Simpson sidelined, and while no one plays shortstop quite like Simpson, Nester did more than fill in. He batted .323, drew a team-high 40 walks and scored 44 runs in a 54-game season.
With Simpson fully recovered from labrum surgery, he’s going to be the shortstop, so Nester will move around in a utility role. Gantt expects to write his name on the lineup card 50 times.
“I think we’ve got a team without egos, and that’s why I think we’ll be pretty good,” Gantt said. “Nester is going to play. Left field, first base, second base, shortstop, third base. He’s got the arm and the speed to play about anywhere.”
Catawba (30-24, 19-8 in 2018) is once again picked to win the South Atlantic Conference. Catawba won the SAC title by two games over Wingate last season. The last time Catawba didn’t finish first or tied for first was 2012 when the Indians went 23-4 in the SAC, but still finished one game behind Tusculum.
“We’re not afraid of being picked first,” Gantt said. “We’re not running from it.”
Catawba figures to have a familiar face everywhere except center field, and the new center fielder might turn out to be the team’s best player.
Bryce Butler played on a junior college team in Kankakee, Ill, that won a 2017 national championship. He’ll lead off and will change Catawba’s team speed from pretty good to very good.
“He hasn’t been a surprise,” Gantt said. “He’s been what we expected him to be.”
Butler’s addition is important because the team subtracted significant offense with the departure of Luke Setzer, Chance Bowden and Kyle Smith. That trio ranked 1-2-3 on the team in runs scored in 2018. They were key players for four seasons.
Lee Poteat (.273, 25 RBIs) will get a lot of starts in right field. Other guys in the outfield mix along with Poteat, Butler and Nester are redshirt freshmen Henderson Lentz and Zach Brinkley and Robbie Cowie, a strapping, powerful true freshman.
Lentz played basketball for the Indians last season, while he redshirted in baseball. This year he’s redshirting in basketball and competing in baseball. He’ll make a decision after this season as far as which sport to pursue, but baseball probably has the upper hand. Lentz is 6-3 and left-handed. He runs and throws well and is obviously a fine athlete.
“Lentz has really come along,” Gantt said. “And we believe Cowie is a potential player of the year down the road. He’s got the power to hit it out anywhere and he has a lot of arm strength.”
Jackson Raper, a preseason All-SAC pick, provides lefty power at third base. He had nine homers and 47 RBIs and really got hot late in the 2018 season.
Simpson is a difference-maker with his glove at shortstop and should be a solid hitter.
“When his shoulder was hurt, all he could work on was hitting and he got better, and he’s also gotten a lot stronger in the weight room,” Gantt said. “Defensively, it’s like we’ve got Tom Brady out there. He’s our brain. He knows where everyone is supposed to be all the time.”
Joe Butts was really solid as a freshman starter at second base. He batted .345 with four homers and 40 RBIs and should have a great career ahead of him.
With Bowden gone, Hunter Shepherd will get a chance to man first base when he’s not pitching. Shepherd has serious left-handed power potential. He launched three homers in 42 at-bats last season.
When Shepherd pitches, Nester can play first base, with Cowie or Lentz moving into the lineup in the outfield.
Infield depth is provided by Cameron Mills and Mike Manoogian. Dylan Wilkinson, a big lefty hitter, could get some shots at first base or DH.
Cameron Morrison returns behind the plate. He was a workhorse last season and wore down some from starting 50 games. He still hit .250 with 35 RBIs and did a fine job handling the pitching staff. D.J. Laxton, who is part of the preseason All-SAC team as a relief pitcher, will back up Morrison. Lyle Pfingst and Anthony Ponce provide depth.
“We believe we’ve got more pitching depth this season, so we’ll be able to use Laxton as a catcher some,” Gantt said.
Catawba’s DH is also on the preseason All-SAC team. Heath Mitchem began his Catawba career as a pitcher but has transformed into a terrific lefty hitter. He batted .370 with four homers and 29 RBIs. He’s a big guy with developing power and should smack quite a few homers at Newman Park.
Zach Queen, a right-handed hitting senior, could get DH starts against lefties and will get at-bats as a pinch-hitter.
While Catawba’s lineup looks fine, the pitching staff will carry a large percentage of the burden.
It will be a staff that lost three key hurlers — Michael Elwell, Connor Johnson and Clay Young.
Gantt is counting on three local pitchers as his primary starters. All three are juniors as far as baseball eligibility. Shepherd (5-2) and Bryan Ketchie (1-1) are lefties, while Riley Myers (3-6) is a right-hander. All have had good moments and not-so-good moments during their Catawba careers, and Myers had had to overcome health issues. All of them should be ready to take a step forward. All of them had high ERAs last season, but that’s not unusual at Newman Park, where the fences are inviting and the ball flies out. Catawba’s team ERA last season was 6.04.
Opponents out-homered Catawba last season, 83-67. Homers are going to happen, so the priority for the staff is going to be not walking people in front of the homers. Catawba can survive solo homers, but not three-run homers.
“One good thing about those three pitchers is that no one is worried about who the ace is and no one is worried about who’s going to pitch on Fridays,” Gantt said. “No egos. They just want to pitch, and we’ll use them in no particular order. We’ll see what our best matchup is.”
Freshman Bryson Linkous (6-foot-8, 240) and returners Greg Brown and Sawyer Strickland are projected as long relievers and potential mid-week starters.
“A game on a Tuesday against a strong regional team like Mount Olive or UNC Pembroke is every bit as important as a weekend SAC game,” Gantt said. “You’ve got to have quality pitchers to work those games.”
Cowie, a two-way player, will be a key part of the pitching staff. Mills can pitch as well as swing the bat.
Sidearming freshman Trent Montgomery and returners Caleb Link and Pearce Wilhelm will help. Southpaw Abner Diaz can get lefties out in a matchup role.
“Laxton still will be the go-to guy in the bullpen,” Gantt said.
Laxton was tremendous a year ago, going 5-1 with two saves and a 2.93 ERA in 29 appearances. He’s a hurler who will likely embrace a two-inning role. Gantt can use him early in a slugfest or late in a low-scoring contest. He keeps the ball down and allowed only two homers in 46 innings.
The plan is for transfer Peyton Williams, who had seven saves for Pfeiffer a year ago, to get the first shot at being the ninth-inning guy.
Freshmen pitchers Hayden Setzer and Alex Holland will redshirt this season.
“We’ve got a team with versatility and we’ll move guys around in a game more than usual, kind of like the L.A. Dodgers do,” Gantt said. “You might see a guy like Nester or Butts play in the infield and outfield in the same game. You could see some of our pitchers who are fast (Ketchie and Link) used as pinch-runners and defensive replacements in the outfield. “
The most serious challenger to Catawba in the SAC is expected to be Lincoln Memorial. Catawba got eight first-place votes from coaches in the preseason, while LMU got the other three. LMU won the SAC tournament last season and is very talented.
“Our league got better,” Gantt said. “Besides Lincoln Memorial, we know Carson-Newman, Wingate, Newberry and Anderson will be good.”
Catawba has a chance to get off to a quick start with a 12-game homestand from Feb. 6-23, including SAC matchups with Mars Hill and Wingate.
“We believe we’re well ahead of where we were at this time last year when the weather was just awful,” Gantt said. “There have been some wet days, but we’ve usually been able to get on the field. When outfielders are standing in 2 inches of water, it’s 40 degrees and the wind is blowing, and they’re still not complaining, that’s when you know guys are ready to play.”
NOTES: Catawba was only 14-14 away from Newman Park last season but hopes to do better this time. An early four-game road swing through Florida will tell a lot. … Gantt will be assisted by longtime, right-hand man Michael Lowman, young pitching coach Russ Weiker, Ronnie Pugh (the Randolph County Legion coach) and Luke Setzer, a standout player the last four seasons. … Gantt is the winningest coach in SAC history and is 787-408 in 1,195 games. … Catawba is ranked fifth in the Southeast Region preseason poll. … Catawba has 11 former Rowan County American Legion players on the roster, including Myers (Salisbury), Shepherd and Strickland (Homeschool Stallions), Mitchem (Carson), Lentz (North Rowan), Hayden Setzer (East) and Simpson, Poteat, Ketchie, Link and Wilhelm (West). … John Owen (East) and Daniel Durham (West) recently signed for the 2020 season, and Luke Barringer (Carson) signed in the fall.