SEASON PREVIEW: The Pieces are in Place
LMU returns a core group of players in 2013 in search of a West Coast Conference Championship.
Feb. 11, 2013
LOS ANGELES, Calif. -
The LMU baseball program recorded its second consecutive third-place finish in the West Coast Conference last year, but is still searching for a ticket to its first postseason since 2000 as the 2013 season opens on February 15. The Lions, led by fifth-year head coach Jason Gill, are expected to rely heavily on returners at core positions, welcoming back preseason All-Conference selections in seniors Colton Plaia and Matt Lowenstein to catcher and centerfield, respectively. Fellow preseason selections, sophomore right-handers Colin Welmon and Trevor Megill, also return for the Lions after stellar freshman campaigns and are expected to once again anchor what should be a strong weekend rotation.
Including the four preseason All-Conference selections, LMU returns 20 lettermen from a team that went 27-27 last year. Of those 20, seven are position players who served as starters a year ago, and three are starting pitchers. Gill and his staff also brought in 11 newcomers, including six junior college transfers and five freshmen, to add depth and compete for starts in 2013.
"This is the first year since I've been coaching here that we have our best players coming back," Gill said. "In previous years our best players have either been seniors or have elected to start professional careers. We are very fortunate to have Colton and Matt back in our lineup and playing every day in the middle of the field for us."
In addition to the preseason All-WCC selection, Plaia has been named to the 2013 College Baseball Daily's Top-100 Players list and the 2013 College Sports Madness preseason second team All-Conference after finishing last year as a first team All-WCC selection. Plaia was then drafted by the Baltimore Orioles in the 33rd round of the 2012 draft, but elected to return to LMU for his senior season after playing for the USA Collegiate National Team last summer. Last year, he batted .326 with a team-best six homers and 38 RBI, collecting 28 runs scored and eight doubles while slugging .461. The native of Mission Viejo, Calif. hit .385 with 17 runs scored, four doubles, four homers and 26 RBI in conference play.
Lowenstein is a 2013 College Sports Madness preseason second team All-Conference selection after taking home a first team All-WCC selection last year. A three-time All-WCC selection, including the 2010 WCC Freshman of the Year and a Freshman All-American, Lowenstein hit .293 with a WCC-best 45 walks, team-high 36 runs scored, 10 doubles, 28 RBI and three triples last year. The 45 walks were tied for ninth-most in a single season in LMU history, helping him to reach base at a .430 clip. In conference play alone, Lowenstein batted .381 with 22 runs scored, six doubles, three triples and 26 RBI en route to a .527 on-base percentage against WCC opponents.
When asked about his star right-handers, Gill responded, "both [Colin and Trevor] had successful freshman campaigns and hopefully we help them develop to be even better this year," Gill said. "Both are extremely hard workers and there is a lot of competition between the two of them, but there is also a friendship between both of them that allows them to push each other to get better."
Welmon was named to the WCC All-Freshman Team last year after posting a 7-4 record and a 3.87 ERA in 15 starts serving as LMU's Friday starter. He tossed 95.1 innings, including one complete game, and combined on a pair of shutouts. The native of Tustin, Calif. struck out 66 hitters to only 14 walks for a stellar 4.7 strikeout-to-walk ratio. The right-hander pitched to a 4-3 record in WCC play while notching an impressive WHIP of 1.29 and averaging 1.32 walks per nine innings for the entire 2012 season.
Megill garnered honorable mention All-WCC and All-Freshman team honors in 2012 after posting a 5-8 record and a 3.57 ERA over 15 starts and 90.2 innings of work serving as LMU's Saturday starter. The right-hander led the team in strikeouts with 82 and finished 4-3 with a 3.48 ERA over eight starts and 51.2 innings in conference play. Overall on the year, the native of Huntington Beach, Calif. pitched to a 1.29 WHIP and 8.14 strikeouts per nine innings.
Headed into fall practice, both Welmon and Megill were being considered for two-way duties hitting and pitching, but Gill is quick to point out that their importance and priority will center around their abilities on the mound.
According to Gill, "Colin is a pretty good left-handed bat, but both Welmon and Megill's priorites will be on the mound. Colin will have some chances at the DH position and maybe filling in at first base, but we have had some guys step up offensively lately to ensure that they get time in the starting lineup."
Joining Welmon and Megill in the rotation is veteran senior Aaron Griffin. Griffin has served a number of roles for the Lions in his career, including bullpen ace last year. The right-hander sported a 2.99 ERA over nine starts as a sophomore before being moved into the bullpen last year. In 2012, Griffin pitched to a 3-5 record and a 3.29 ERA, appearing in 32 of LMU's 54 games. The 32 appearances matched the sixth-most for a season in LMU history, and the most since Chris Gray made 33 appearances in 2001. The native of El Cajon, Calif. combined on three shutouts and recorded a save while logging 65.2 innings with 61 strikeouts. A workhorse in conference play, Griffin appeared in 16 of LMU's 24 WCC contests.
"Aaron has been great for us throughout his career," Gill said. "He was National Pitcher of the Week as a sophomore and was the best pitcher on our staff toward the end of his sophomore season. Last year he got pushed into a role based on necessity because he could throw strikes and had an arm that rebounded quickly. Our staff, and coaches within our conference, know that Aaron could be a Friday guy for a lot of pitching staffs across the country, so I don't think people will be shocked at how good Griffin will be in his Sunday starts."
While the midweek starter role is still up for grabs, and may be determined on a week-to-week basis, according to Gill, "junior Patrick McGrath is settling into the Tuesday starter role, but he is battling with sophomore Sean Buckle."
McGrath is a junior college transfer from Southwestern Community College. While playing at Southwestern, McGrath earned first team All-Pacific Coast Conference honors in 2012 and honorable mention honors in 2011. Last year he made 14 appearances and 13 starts, going 5-8 with nine complete games and a 2.79 ERA. The right-hander tossed a team-high 100 innings while striking out 66 hitters (5.94 per game) and strung together seven consecutive complete games from March 13 to April 27. As a freshman, he posted a 2.06 ERA and a 5-2 record over a team-high 24 appearances.
In limited time last year, Buckle went 1-0 with a 4.91 ERA over seven appearances and one start. Overall, the left-hander tossed 11 innings and struck out eight. The native of Long Beach, Calif. was especially stingy with two out, limiting opponents to a 1-for-12 (.083) mark.
LMU's bullpen looks to be one of the strongest since Gill took over the Lion program in 2009. "Junior college transfer Carlos Fuentes, along with lefty Brandon Horth and freshman Michael Silva, will be big parts of our bullpen this year, but you would be doing a disservice if you did not mention senior Matt Florer as a catalyst of our bullpen," Gill said. "Florer is a senior who has logged important innings for us over his career, and his leadership abilities are invaluable when he works alongside our young pitchers." Florer made 18 appearances and five starts for LMU as a junior, recording a 0-1 record and a 6.00 ERA over 39 innings of work. The Mission Viejo, Calif. native struck out 20 hitters overall and made six appearances in West Coast Conference play.
Fuentes was an All-Foothill selection in 2011 and 2012 playing for Chaffey College. Last year the right-hander appeared in 14 games, including making 11 starts, en route to logging a 5-3 record and a 1.38 ERA. Fuentes tossed 85 total innings, including posting a pair of complete games, while striking out 88 hitters. Working primarily as a reliever in 2011, Fuentes compiled a 3-1 record and a 2.57 ERA.
Horth made 12 appearances, including one start, as a freshman last year for the Lions, pitching to a 0-1 record over 9.2 innings of work. The Irvine, Calif. native made two relief appearances in WCC play, tossing 1.2 scoreless innings of work and holding WCC opponents to a .200 average.
Silva, a 2012 graduate of West Ranch High School in Valencia, Calif., was a three-year varsity letterwinner and helped his team to the League Championship in 2012 as a senior. The talented right-hander played in the Southwest Futures All-Star game and guided his Junior Olympic team to the West Championship.
The back-end of the bullpen also returns for the Lions in 2013, as junior Bret Dahlson is expected to return to the closer role. Dahlson is on the National Collegiate Baseball Writers Association Stopper of the Year list after saving 11 games for the Lions in 2012 - the second-most in LMU history for a single season. During his inaugural year on the hill, Dahlson pitched to a 3-3 record with a 2.94 ERA. The native of Yorba Linda, Calif. made 26 relief appearances overall, posting 33.2 innings of work while striking out 30 hitters.
"Bret is a guy who was tremendous for us last year," Gill said. "He saved 11 games for us in his first year as a Division I pitcher and he has great stuff, highlighted by a big league changeup."
The infield positions are completely up for grabs, and while Gill has a lineup in mind for the beginning of the year, players will have the opportunity to earn their way into the lineup throughout the season. With the graduation of Alex Guthrie and Shon Roe from a year ago, it is no surprise that a few players have the chance to earn starts in the infield. Joey Boney and Cullen Mahoney, who received the bulk of the time in the middle infield last year, return to battle with David Edwards and a handful of junior college transfers. Virtually every infielder is working at at least two positions during practice, with nobody definitively inking their name on Gill's lineup card for the entire season.
"We have a lot of interchangeable parts in terms of our infielders, and a lot of the variation has to do with situational matchups," Gill said. "These guys can all play short, second and third, and many can play first based on their size and stature. It would be unfair to say anyone is running away with a position. The guys that do start the year may not be the same starters one month into the season because it is such a tight race. The real positive of the situation is all the guys seem to be pushing each other to get better and aren't sour when they aren't playing every inning at a particular spot."
Boney hit .275 with 24 runs scored, eight doubles, a homer and 14 RBI as a junior shortstop. The native of Anaheim Hills, Calif. appeared in 44 games and made 38 starts for the Lions in his inaugural year, drawing 11 walks and stealing a team-best 13 bases in 15 attempts on the year.
Serving as LMU's everyday second baseman, Mahoney hit .277 with 31 runs scored, eight doubles and three home runs. The left-handed hitter finished the year with 24 RBI, 33 walks and four stolen bases. Perhaps cementing his place in the Lion lineup out of the gates, Mahoney reached base safely in each of the first 32 games of the season.
Edwards hit .203 over 27 games played and 19 starts as a true freshman last year. The switch-hitting infielder collected seven runs scored, two doubles and two RBI while drawing seven walks and stealing a base. A contributor to the Lion rally, Edwards hit .321 (9-for-28) with runners on base and .313 with runners in scoring position.
Kevin Garcia is a utility player who is competing for starts at the corner infield positions. A transfer from San Diego City College, Garcia was a first team All-Pacific Coast Conference selection in 2012 and an honorable mention selection in 2011. As a sophomore, the Calexico, Calif. native hit .326 with 18 runs scored, eight doubles, a homer and 18 RBI. Also a switch hitter, Garcia batted .274 while appearing in 30 of San Diego's 31 games as a freshman. The junior scored 18 runs while collecting six doubles, two triples and 19 RBI in 2011.
Tommy Cheek, who began his collegiate career at WCC-rival San Diego, returns to the conference after a year at Palomar Junior College where he was a first team All-Pacific Coast League honoree. The Escondido, Calif. native batted .314 with 10 doubles, a home run and 16 RBI for Palomar's Pacific Coast Athletic Conference Championship team.
Brice Savage, a first team All-South Coast Conference selection in 2012 playing for El Camino College, is working a great deal at second base for the Lions early this year. The local product from El Segundo, Calif. hit .328 with 10 doubles, four triples, two homers and 29 RBI over 41 games played last season. A right-handed hitter, Savage posted a .504 slugging percentage and scored 32 runs while swiping four bases in five attempts.
Another true utility man on the Lion roster this year will be junior Cole Trezek. The switch hitter is battling for time both in the infield and outfield as Gill and his staff try to get his bat in the lineup. Playing alongside Savage at El Camino College, Trezek was a second team All-South Coast Conference selection in 2012 and honorable mention selection in 2011. As a sophomore, Trezek batted .312 with 24 runs scored, seven doubles, two triples and five home runs over 41 games played. His freshman campaign resulted in a .312 average with 27 runs scored, four doubles, a homer and 16 RBI in 34 games played at El Camino.
Although Trezek may find some time in the outfield, a few other players are also attempting to cement their spot patrolling the space with Lowenstein in 2013. According to Gill, "Zac Fujimoto was in line to be our starting centerfielder during the fall, but he is battling through a few minor injuries which move Lowenstein from left field into center. With that said, when he gets healthy, you should see him out there in centerfield for us."
Fujimoto, an honorable mention All-WCC selection last year, is a speedy left-handed hitter who could serve as a solid table-setter for the Lions this year. The native of Aeia, Hawai'i batted .295 with 15 runs scored, five doubles, two triples and 20 RBI over 42 games played and 35 starts in 2012. A team player, Fujimoto executed 15 sacrifice bunts, second-most in a single season in LMU history. A threat on the bases, Fujimoto stole seven bases in 12 attempts on the year, including four stolen bases in WCC play.
"Tanner Donnels has solidified his spot in right field for us," Gill said. "He is a left-handed hitting outfielder who will surprise some people with how offensive he is."
Donnels, the son of LMU home run king Chris Donnels, batted .246 with nine runs scored, two doubles and a homer over 15 starts and 25 games played as a freshman. The Coto de Caza, Calif. native posted a .273 batting average in West Coast Conference play, helping LMU to finish tied for third in the WCC standings.
LMU unveiled a road-heavy 2013 schedule in November, as the Lions will play only 21 of their 51 games at home in Page Stadium. The slate looks to test the Lions, as LMU will play 13 games against 2012 NCAA Tournament qualifiers, including a pair of three-game road series at Super Regional qualifier Oregon and College World Series participant UCLA. In addition to the six games against Oregon and UCLA, LMU will also play a road series against reigning WCC Champion Pepperdine and a single contest at Cal State Fullerton - both teams that made the tournament a year ago. In fact, LMU's only home contests against teams who qualified for the postseason will come against 2013 WCC-favorite San Diego in a three-game series.
"Expectations regarding wins and losses playing our tough schedule are just going to get in the way," Gill said. "We are just trying to focus on our own team, and we are trying to play hard and do things the Lion way, which hopefully the fan base sees is a team that goes out and plays hard and is tough both physically and mentally. With that said, the coaching staff's intent is to put our team in regional-type environments so our team can experience those butterflies and that adrenaline kick that comes along with playing in a big game. Ultimately when we reach our goals of playing for a WCC Championship and earning a spot in the postseason, we would then have already experienced those feelings and are prepared."
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