Baseball

2012 LMU Baseball Season Preview

The Lions will begin the 2012 season this Friday at 1 p.m. against UNLV.

The Lions will begin the 2012 season this Friday at 1 p.m. against UNLV.

Feb. 12, 2012

LOS ANGELES, Calif. -

Head Coach Jason Gill recorded his second 30-win season in three years at the helm of the LMU baseball program last year, but his goal of a West Coast Conference Championship and LMU's first postseason berth since 2000 is still on the list of things to do as he enters his fourth season. With a handful of players that have been around since year one, and a Top-25 recruiting class, LMU looks poised to improve further on last year's third-place finish and make a run for the WCC crown in 2012.

2011 SEASON
LMU won four of its last five games of the season to finish the year with a 30-25 overall record and an 11-10 mark in the West Coast Conference - good for a share of third in the WCC. The 30-win season marked the second in three years under Gill. Furthermore, the .545 winning percentage was the best for LMU since going 32-22-1 (.591) in 2004. LMU's strength proved to be on the mound, as the team posted a program-best 3.25 ERA, led by a pair of 2011 MLB draft picks in Jason Wheeler and Alex Gillingham. While the dynamic starting duo combined for 14 wins and seven complete games, Gill was equally impressed with the efforts of the bullpen. "You always want front-line starting pitching, but every Major League team talks about their bullpen when it is crunch time. The discussion is whether they can hold the seventh, hold the eight and get to the closer. Obviously Gillingham and Wheeler did great things, but the bullpen did outstanding and truly carried us." Over the course of the 2011 season, the pen combined for a 2.41 ERA and an 8-6 record over 145.2 innings of work.

 

 

Gillingham and Matt Koch highlighted LMU's five baseball All-West Coast Conference selections last year, claiming first team honors. Lion juniors in 2012 Aaron Griffin and Matt Lowenstein, along with former Lion Joe Vierra, were named to the honorable mention team. The honors were the first of their careers for Gillingham, Griffin, Koch and Vierra. Lowenstein garnered WCC Freshman of the Year accolades in 2010 en route to an honorable mention selection that same year.

LMU saw four players selected in the 2011 MLB Draft, but only three of the four elected to forfeit their final year of eligibility to enter the professional ranks. The Minnesota Twins took a pair of Lion players on June 7 as part of the second day of the 2011 Draft. The Twins selected left-hander Wheeler with the 268th overall pick in the eighth round before the Colorado Rockies made righty Gillingham their 11th-round pick with the 348th overall spot. After the two Lion hurlers went in the draft, the Twins decided to take their battery mate, Koch, with the 388th overall pick in the 12th round. Last year's draft marked the first time since 2005 that the Lions had three players selected in the first 12 rounds. Current senior Ryan Hawthorne became the fourth Lion player selected in the 2011 Major League Baseball Draft on June 8, chosen by the Seattle Mariners with the 963rd overall pick in the 32nd round, but elected to return to LMU for his final campaign.

ANOTHER FORMER TITAN ON STAFF
After bringing in an entirely new coaching staff in 2011, Gill made one more change to his staff in 2012, luring long-time professional pitching coach Danny Ricabal to LMU to replace Ted Silva. Ricabal, who spent the last six years serving as a pitching coach at various levels in the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim organization, was teammates with Gill at Cal State Fullerton in 1994. Ricabal most recently guided the Inland Empire 66ers to the wild card round of the 2011 Class-A Advanced Southern Division playoffs. Including the 2011 playoff berth, Ricabal went to the postseason in five of the six years coaching in professional baseball. "We are lucky to be able to add an experienced pitching coach the caliber of Danny Ricabal to the organization," Gill said. "Danny has a proven track record of success as a pitching coach from Division I to professional baseball, and he has worked with some of the best pitchers in the game at all different levels of play. As a collegiate athlete, Danny pitched in Omaha and knows what it takes to get there. He has coached at the Division I level and has a clear understanding of how to get his pitchers to reach their full potential. There are few coaches in the college ranks that have the experience of pitching in Omaha, coaching Division I and coaching in professional baseball. He is the total package, and the LMU baseball program made big strides in our quest to be champions with the addition of Ricabal."

THE NEWCOMERS
The LMU baseball team recorded a Top-25 recruiting class according to Baseball America's annual evaluation of NCAA Division I baseball classes. The Lions came in at No. 23, marking the first Top-25 class under Gill. The class had previously been listed in the "Other Top Recruiting Classes" section of Collegiate Baseball's annual poll.

"We are extremely pleased that we have been recognized as having a Top-25 recruiting class in the nation," Gill said. "I have seen my fair-share of quality recruiting classes in my coaching career, and this one is right up there toward the top of the list. Our Recruiting Coordinator, Bryant Ward, has done an exceptional job of compiling a group of players who we feel will make an immediate impact for us. This recognition further solidifies that the future is bright for the LMU baseball program."

Although the 2011-12 class truly includes 13 players, only 12 were considered when the list was prepared because standout recruit Trevor Megill (RHP/INF - Bixby Charter School) graduated from high school early to attend LMU. Of the 12 players originally in the class, four are junior college transfers and eight are freshmen. Cullen Mahoney (South Mountain CC), Joey Boney (Cypress College), Scott Harkin (Diablo Valley College) and Justin Grijalva (Citrus College) all have experience playing at the collegiate level. Mahoney won the batting title in the Northwoods League with a .347 average, 33 runs scored, seven doubles, five triples, four home runs and 29 RBI playing for the Thunder Bay Border Cats alongside teammate and senior-leader Alex Guthrie last summer.

In addition to the junior college transfers, the class also boasts a pair of 2011 Major League draft picks in freshmen Sean Buckle (LHP/OF - Long Beach Wilson HS) and Kyle Raubinger (INF - Arroyo Grande HS). Raubinger was taken by the Baltimore Orioles in the 28th round, while Buckle was selected by the New York Mets in the 49th round. In addition to Buckle and Raubinger, Colin Welmon (RHP/OF - Foothill HS), who is considered by many to be the most talented of all the players in the class, is another freshman that will be relied upon to play right away.

Of the 13 players set to join the Lions this season, only one is a dedicated pitcher. Grijalva is slated to be used solely as a left-hander, but Brandon Horth (LHP/OF - Woodbridge HS), Megill, Buckle, and Welmon could all see time as two-way players this year and in the future for the Lions. Offensively, LMU loaded up on left-handed hitting, as eight of the 12 position players in the recruiting class take their at bats from that side. In addition, David Edwards (INF - Foothill HS) is a switch-hitter, adding yet another left-handed bat to the mix against right-handed pitchers.

When asked about the class, Gill said, "I mean no disrespect, but when I first got here, it wasn't a team that I would recruit in terms of a roster. This is the first year that I've had a team that was built how I would like to build a roster, and it contains pieces that I feel make up a championship-caliber team. You will see that we brought in three legitimate shortstops, and we were able to bring in some left-handed bats that we may have been lacking in previous years. The four junior college guys bring some toughness and experience into the program. They have traveled on bad buses and stayed in bad motels, and with that experience comes a sense of toughness and balance."

THE PITCHERS
Despite losing 215 innings from Gillingham and Wheeler at the front end of the rotation, LMU returns 186.1 of the 490.2 innings (38 percent) from last year. The back end of the bullpen also returns virtually in its entirety, as LMU loses just one reliever with 20 or more innings from last year in Chris Eusebio. According to Gill, "the stability of the bullpen will be a key to success this year." Gill went on to say, "our program will definitely miss the starting pitchers from last year, and Eusebio, who was a bullpen hero for the last four years here. With that said, we think we have the pieces to fill those voids. All-in-all, we are deeper and healthier than we have been in the past, and our mentality is better than it ever has been on the mound this year."

The void left by Eusebio, who led LMU in appearances in each of his first two years, was partially filled last year when lefty Matt Florer, who returns for his junior year, led the Lions in appearances (26) and relief innings (33.2). Florer pitched to a 2.41 ERA and a 3-1 record last year while striking out 18 hitters. He surrendered just 10 runs (nine earned) while holding opponents to a .264 average against.

While Ryan Hawthorne seemed to be a shoo-in for closer after posting 10 saves last year, he has some company when it comes to closing games in 2012. Sophomore Bret Dahlson is also in line to get time trying to close the door late in ballgames after pitching just 2.1 innings last year. While Dahlson is fairly green on the pitching side at the Division I level, Hawthorne is one of 45 players that have been named to the initial watch list for the eighth annual National Collegiate Baseball Writers Association Stopper of the Year Award, which is given to the top relief pitcher in NCAA Division I baseball. The left-hander is the lone representative of the West Coast Conference on the list. Hawthorne enters the 2012 season ranked tied for fourth in LMU's All-Time Record Book for career saves with 10. His 10 saves in 2011 were good enough to place tied for second in LMU's Single Season Record Book. Overall last year, the native of Granada Hills, Calif. posted a 2.31 ERA over 22 appearances and 23.1 innings of work while holding opponents to a .195 batting average against. The product of Crespi Carmelite High School averaged 1.03 strikeouts per inning, punching-out 24 batters, while not allowing an earned run over his last 10.2 innings of work in 2011.

"Both Ryan and Bret understand college baseball and know how big of a deal the bullpen truly is," Gill said. "These players are extremely competitive and they want the ball with the game on the line. I can't say it is a bad thing to have two legitimate closers on my roster, and with one being left-handed and the other right, we could use them in matchups. Although the roles may change based on the day, one will be pitching the eighth and the other should be closing it out in the ninth."

"Aaron Griffin is a huge part of our plans for this year," Gill said. The right-hander is expected to fill a few roles for the Lions this year, seeing time as a starter and a reliever. Griffin is no stranger to that role after making nine starts and 19 total appearances a year ago. When asked about the importance of Griffin, and what he brought to the table last year, Gill said, "Griffin over the last five games of the year was our best pitcher hands down." The El Cajon, Calif. native garnered honorable mention All-WCC honors last year while posting a 7-3 record and a 2.99 ERA with two complete games, one shutout and a save. He tossed 72.1 innings and struck out 47 batters while holding opponents to a .264 batting average against.

One of the biggest wild cards for the Lions this year may be freshmen pitching, as LMU is expected to rely heavily on the arms of first-year players in starting roles in 2012. According to Gill, "we have two freshmen arms in Colin Welmon and Trevor Megill that can match up with anybody else's in the nation. They have the potential to be superstars, but a major hurdle they will have to face is failure. Welmon and Megill have likely never struggled on the mound because they flat out have been better than the majority of hitters they have faced. The question is whether they will be able to get up and bounce back after failure."

Welmon, a member of the Angels Elite Scout Team, is a 2011 graduate of Foothill High School in Santa Ana, Calif. A four-year varsity starter for Head Coach Gary Fishel, he claimed All-Sea View League recognition in each of his four varsity campaigns and was named All-CIF in 2009. During that same year, Welmon also took home an All-County and Cal Hi Sports All-State selection. An All-City and All-Area selection as a senior, he sported a 5-1 record with a 2.27 ERA and 27 strikeouts over 37 innings of work as a junior. As a sophomore, the right-hander posted a 9-2 record with a 1.86 ERA and 62 strikeouts over 69.1 innings on the hill.

Megill, who according to Gill has dominating stuff at any level, is a 2011 graduate of Bixby Charter School, where he graduated a semester early to play baseball at LMU this spring. Before electing to attend Bixby Charter School, he spent one year at Orange Lutheran High School and two years at Marina High School in Huntington Beach, Calif. Megill pitched to a 1.35 ERA and a 7-2 record as a junior, holding opponents to a .180 batting average against over 52 innings. Averaging better than a strikeout per frame, he punched out 61 hitters over the 52 innings of work. A two-year participant in the Area Code Games, Megill also appeared in the 2010 Perfect Game National Games.

"My expectations for Colin and Trevor are the same for any of my players," Gill said. "All I expect is that they come out and play as hard and as smart as they possibly can. I want them both to trust their stuff like they did in high school and to buy into what we are telling them from a coaching perspective."

Outside of Welmon, Megill and Griffin, senior John Lally and junior Sean McIntyre are also competing for starts this year. Lally appeared in 14 games, starting nine, last year. He posted a 2-4 record with a 3.83 ERA over 42.1 innings while striking out 20 hitters. McIntyre was used sparingly on the mound as a sophomore, but truly blossomed during the fall this season en route to a shot at starting this year. The left-hander made eight relief appearances on the hill in 2011, pitching to a 1.46 ERA over 12.1 innings of work. He allowed just three runs (two earned) while striking out seven and limiting hitters to a .250 average against.

THE CATCHERS
After two seasons of playing behind Matt Koch, junior Colton Plaia will get his chance to handle the pitching staff this season as the everyday catcher. According to Gill, "Colton will be one of the best catch-and-throw guys in the country by the end of the year." Known for his work behind the plate defensively, Plaia is comfortable handling the pitching staff and is an excellent receiver with an above-average arm. When Gill was asked about Plaia's ability defensively, he responded "he is as good as I've been around, and you would be hard-pressed to find a better defensive catcher on the West Coast." Plaia finished last year batting .313 with seven runs scored, three doubles, a home run and eight RBI. He appeared in 17 games, starting 14, behind the plate.

LMU's second option at the catcher position is freshman Chris Barnett. According to Gill, "Barnett is in a great position to be behind Colton where he can learn from such a solid backstop and not have to worry about the pressure of having to play every day. With that said, as is often the case with catchers, Plaia will get days off to rest during the season, and Barnett will earn starts throughout the year." Barnett is a 2011 graduate of El Modena High School in Orange, Calif. A four-year varsity letterwinner for Head Coach Josh Kliner, he garnered All-League recognition as a freshman, junior and senior. During his senior year, he batted .380 with 16 runs scored, 13 doubles, and 15 RBI en route to a Team MVP selection.

THE INFIELD
The 2012 LMU roster consists of the deepest infield that Gill has seen in his four years at the helm of the program. At the core of the depth are four shortstops in Shon Roe and newcomers Scott Harkin, Joey Boney and David Edwards. According to Gill, "this year's infield layout could be unconventional and sporadic. We might run one guy out there for a few games, and then move to another based on the matchup or the opponent. All four guys are capable of playing that position well, and we have confidence in all four for their varying strengths. One might be more offensive and have an ability to move to his right better than the others, and another might have a better arm or more range." While only one can play shortstop at a time, all four have been working at other positions, and will likely see time in varying roles. When asked about the possibility of playing the shortstops at other spots, Gill said, "you recruit middle of the diamond guys because they tend to be the most athletic and versatile players on the field. They have the skill set and enough baseball savvy to adjust to a number of different positions."

Roe finished last year batting .279 with 23 runs scored, five doubles, three triples and 26 RBI while starting 52 of LMU's 55 games. He posted 13 multi-hit games and six multi-RBI games while stealing 10 bases in 12 attempts to lead the team in that category. Clutch at the plate, the native of Palmdale, Calif. notched 15 two-out RBI for the season. Harkin was a first team JUCO All-Region and All-American while playing at Diablo Valley College. There, he batted .278 with 27 runs scored, 12 doubles, a triple and three home runs as a sophomore while posting 24 RBI and nine stolen bases that same year. Moreover, he batted .370 with 20 RBI during conference play as a sophomore en route to Conference MVP crown. Another junior college product, Boney hit .319 with 34 runs scored, eight doubles, a triple and a home run as a sophomore at Cypress College. The right-handed hitter collected 23 RBI while walking 16 times and swiping 12 bases en route to an All-Conference selection last year. Edwards is a 2011 graduate of Foothill High School in Santa Ana, Calif. The switch-hitting infielder garnered All-League as a senior after batting .408 with 35 runs scored, 13 doubles, two triples, three home runs and 29 RBI.

Senior team leader Alex Guthrie is inked to start at third base once again this year after starting and playing every out at third last season. Guthrie finished last year batting .240 with 27 runs scored, 13 doubles, a triple and three home runs. The native of Sunnyvale, Calif. also contributed 30 RBI and six multi-RBI games. Freshman Kyle Raubinger is also a player who could eventually see time at third or first base for Gill. "Raubinger is a guy that is going to be a superstar here probably sooner rather than later," Gill said. "He can play the corner infield positions and is a pure hitter." Raubinger is a 2011 graduate of Arroyo Grande High School in Arroyo Grande, Calif. A three-year varsity letterwinner for Head Coach Brad Latchman, Raubinger was named All-Conference in all three varsity campaigns and garnered All-Area recognition after his senior season. An All-CIF selection in each of his final two seasons, he was an All-County Player of the Year and All-Area MVP as a senior. In his final year, Raubinger batted .417 with seven home runs and 28 RBI to the tune of an .890 slugging percentage.

While he is one of four players competing for time at shortstop, Roe is also expected to spend a bit of time playing on the right side of the infield as well. According to Gill, "Roe can play first, short, second, and outfield. Between him and Cullen Mahoney, we have a pair of quality Division I second basemen." Similar to the closer situation, Roe is a right-handed bat and Mahoney a left-handed bat, allowing Gill to fill the second base position based on matchups on a game-by-game basis. As the 2012 season quickly approaches, Mahoney seems to be the frontrunner to see the early reps at second base. Mahoney originally attended Nevada out of high school, but elected to transfer to South Mountain Community College for his sophomore campaign. There, he batted .406 over 170 at bats en route to first team All-Region 1 and first team All-ACCAC honors. The native of Phoenix, Ariz. notched 39 runs scored with 10 doubles and three triples while driving in 24 runs and swiping 13 bags. Most recently, Mahoney spent the summer of 2011 playing for the Thunder Bay Border Cats of the Northwoods League where he was a North Division All-Star after hitting a league-best .347 with 33 runs scored, seven doubles, five triples, four home runs and 29 RBI.

Before heading to the mound to potentially close out a game for LMU, Bret Dahlson is slated to work as the everyday first baseman for LMU this year. According to Gill, "Dahlson is the best defender I have ever coached at that position." As a freshman in 2011, Dahlson hit .246 with 14 runs scored, seven doubles, two home runs and 15 RBI. The JSerra High School product collected seven multi-hit games and three multi-RBI games before injury ended his freshman campaign prematurely. When Dahlson does make the switch from first to the hill, Roe is the frontrunner to take over at the corner spot.

THE OUTFIELD
Junior Matt Lowenstein, who was named honorable mention All-WCC in 2011, will serve as LMU's starting centerfielder when UNLV comes to town to open the 2012 season on February 17. Lowenstein was the most consistent hitter over the course of the year for LMU last season, batting .349 with 32 runs scored, nine doubles, a triple and 21 RBI. He drew a team-best 30 walks and stole nine bases. The left-handed hitter recorded 19 multi-hit games, just three short of the team-high. A native of Chino Hills, Calif., Lowenstein hit safely in 13 straight games last year from March 19 to April 16, and was held hitless just nine times in 50 games played.

With regards to the rest of the outfield, there are great battles still being won, and that will be won throughout the year. Returners Zac Fujimoto and Nick Truhan are locked in tight competition with freshman Tanner Donnels. In addition, shortstop Joey Boney is also practicing in the outfield in preparation for a possible move. According to Gill, Truhan is a frontrunner to start in the outfield after appearing in just 15 games, starting four, as a sophomore last year. In the limited action, Truhan performed well, hitting .529 with five runs scored, a double and three RBI. Overall, he hit safely in each of his last six games played with an at bat, and finished the year hitting .636 against WCC foes.

Fujimoto finished last year batting .262 with 26 runs scored, five doubles, two triples and 14 RBI. A constant in the Lion outfield, he appeared in 51 games, starting 50, in his inaugural campaign. Donnels is a 2011 graduate of Tesoro High School in Rancho Santa Margarita, Calif. He earned a pair of varsity letters playing for Head Coach Rick Brail, batting .314 with 15 runs scored and 10 RBI as a senior. No stranger to LMU and the baseball program, his father, Chris, played baseball at LMU and was part of LMU's 1986 World Series team, while his mother and grandfather also attended LMU. After LMU, Chris Donnels went on to play eight seasons in Major League Baseball.

Another outfielder who has earned a spot in the starting lineup is senior Nick Devian. The native of North Hills, Calif. finished last year batting .246 with five runs scored, a home run and seven RBI while playing in 21 games, starting 16. According to Gill, "Devian is our best hitter right now. He has done a great job of getting himself ready to play this year, and he is slated to be our designated hitter right out of the gate."

THE SCHEDULE
The 2012 LMU baseball schedule is headlined by a three-game series on the road at 2011 College World Series qualifier Texas. The Lions will play 55 games this year, including 27 at home in Page Stadium. LMU will host three non-conference weekend series, while playing three non-conference weekend series on the road. Three of this year's opponents advanced to the postseason a year ago, including WCC Champion San Francisco, Big West powerhouse Cal State Fullerton, and College World Series qualifier Texas.

"Texas is an exciting trip for our players," Gill said. "It is a great opportunity to compete against an elite team and see where we fit in amongst the nation's best. Texas will be as close to an Omaha environment as you will find, and if you are talking about going to the postseason and succeeding in the postseason, you need to bring your team into a postseason environment."

LMU will open the 2012 season with a three-game series against UNLV on February 17. The Lions will then host Cal Poly for four games starting on February 24, concluding a seven-game home stand to begin the 2012 campaign. Seven road games will follow, beginning with a non-conference midweek clash with Cal State Fullerton on February 29. The Lions will then hit the road for back-to-back three-game road series at UC Santa Barbara (March 2-4) and Texas (March 9-11). Indiana will come to town on March 15 to conclude the non-conference home weekend series before LMU travels to Nevada for three games from March 23-25.

Including the game at Fullerton on February 29, LMU will play a home-and-away two-game midweek series with three opponents, splitting games with the Titans, Cal State Northridge, and UC Riverside over the course of the season. The Lions will also play a lone game against USC at Dedeaux Field on April 10, and a single game at San Diego State on May 15. With the use of a midweek game, LMU will also play a home-and-away four-game series against Long Beach State. That series will see the first home game played on Tuesday, April 17 before the final three are played from May 5-7, including road games to bookend the trio.

West Coast Conference play begins on March 30 when Saint Mary's comes to Page Stadium for three games. LMU will vary its start times for WCC weekend series this year, as Friday's game will begin at 3 PM, Saturday at 2 PM, and Sunday at 1 PM. Other conference-foes scheduled to come to LMU for three-game series include defending-WCC Champion San Francisco (April 13-15), Portland (April 20-22), and cross-town rival Pepperdine (May 18-20).

In-conference road series for LMU include the first trip to Provo, Utah to play BYU (April 5-7), and three-game sets at Gonzaga (April 27-29), San Diego (May 11-13), and Santa Clara to end the regular season (May 25-27).

The NCAA postseason will begin with Regional play at selected sites from June 1-4, followed by the Super Regional the following weekend, June 8-11. The College World Series, in its second season at TD Ameritrade Park Omaha, will run Friday, June 15 until Tuesday, June 26 in Omaha, Neb.

When asked about this year's schedule, Gill said, "any schedule on the West Coast will be tough - there are no freebies. Our schedule is a good schedule, but not the toughest schedule in the nation. We will play a number of teams that are very strong like Cal Poly and other Big West schools that might not get the credit they deserve because of the strength of their conference and the level of competition. Schools that go in and play teams like Cal Poly and UC Riverside will find out how good they really can be."

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