ABILENE, Texas - When the NCAA went in and deadened the bats prior to the 2011 season it had a plan to take baseball back to a more low scoring, pitching and defense kind of game.
Mission accomplished. Scoring is down all over collegiate baseball and it has forced former long-ball teams to change their approach.
Hardin-Simmons, long known for its long ball hitting and high-scoring offenses, had to undergo a major offensive philosophy change and it showed a year ago as the team hit a school-record low .269 with just 14 home runs.
"The day of the 20-14 game are over," said HSU head coach Steve Coleman. "They took all of the pop out of those bats, and honestly it was probably time. Pop flies were routinely becoming home runs and it was all about how many runs you could score. The game is now a lot more pure."
Hardin-Simmons adjusted to the new game on the mound as HSU had two of its three lowest team ERAs in school history over the last two seasons. Making the adjustment to the hitting aspect has taken some time.
"We had those days where the wind blew 35 out of the south and it made Hunter Field just a launching pad, I think we had relied on that too much. Now we have to become a team that situationally hits better and we have to move runners over and a big inning now might be three runs instead of seven or eight."
The Cowboy overall offensive numbers were down last year, but at times executed the small ball game pretty well. HSU set school non-scholarship era records in sacrifice flies with 29 and had 36 sacrifice bunts, which were second all-time.
"One of the things we have addressed in the fall and so far this spring and also in recruiting is we have to put the ball in play more often," said Coleman. "We struck out way too many times last season and if you are playing a smaller ball approach that is a backbreaker."
HSU returns a good offensive nucleus of players from a team that went 20-20 a year ago and qualified for the ASC playoffs for a ninth straight season. The probable opening day lineup will feature seven players from a year ago that played varying roles last season.
Troy Nicholson, who had an elbow injury and will not pitch this year, will play at first base. He hit .261 with three home runs and 18 RBIs in 92 at-bats. He also went 4-5 on the mound and led the team with 64 innings.
Junior second baseman Marcus Uechi is back and had a huge fall camp. Uechi hit .227 a year ago but had 11 doubles, which was third on the team. He is joined up the middle by junior Jon Finney, who has moved over from third to shortstop. Finney is the leading returning hitter from a year ago with a .279 averages.
Third base is the only position that is totally up in the air before the opener. Veterans Eric Zamora and Jordan Dotson along with freshman Brandon Bollinger are battling for the job. Dotson started at the hot corner as a freshman, but has primarily been a relief pitcher the last two years. In fact, all three battling for the third base job will also see time on the mound.
Zamora and Dotson are in a battle for a rotation spot and Bollinger is slated the setup man for Tyler Brunnemann.
Another possibility for the Cowboys is to move everyone to the left. Finney back to third base, Uechi to shortstop and freshman Caleb Jaques would play second base.
Trey Thompson and Colson Craddick are newcomers that could see at-bats at first base and also at designated hitter. Freshman Brandon Walker gives the Cowboys a left-handed bat off the bench as well.
Transfer Zach Patino and veteran Chris Matthews will handle most of the catching duties for the Cowboys. Patino is the more talented offensive player and Matthews is a very good game caller and defensive catcher. Both have strong arms and both will play. Freshman Nathan Gourley could also see time behind the plate.
The outfield will have a veteran look to it. Senior Matt Hanagan, who has battled injuries most of his career, had a big fall and will play in left field. Jason Vause will be the centerfielder to take advantage of his speed. He is one of the fastest players to ever play at Hardin-Simmons. Senior transfer Andrew Bell, who was a starter for most of three seasons at McMurry, will play in right field and will add some pop to the Cowboy offense.
Ryan Reagor and Will Wise are two veteran Cowboys that also could get some at-bats in the outfield. Wise moved to the outfield from catcher this year. Both will also see time on the mound.
‘We think we will be very good defensively, especially up the middle," said Coleman. "We also have more overall team speed than in the past. I think we will be able to manufacture runs pretty well. We think we have some guys that can drive the ball as well."
The good news is the Cowboys have a veteran pitching staff that will be led by a pair of senior standouts.
Righthander James Simmons will move to the rotation after being one of the top bullpen guys in the ASC over the last two years. After a shaky start to last season that saw him allow six runs over his first four innings and seven outings Simmons lost his closer job. He rebounded by allowing only three earned runs over his final 36 innings of work on the year. Seven times he worked over three innings out of the bullpen. He finished 5-2 with a 1.90 ERA.
"James is a tremendous talent and competitor," said Coleman. "We think he will anchor our pitching staff as a starter. We are excited to see what he brings as a starter."
Stewart Person allowed one run or less in four of his last five starts a year ago. The overall numbers were a little inflated by two rough outings but he finished the year 4-3 with a 5.30. He will be in the rotation as well.
"Late in the year Stewart was one of our best guys," said Coleman. "He pitched a lot of important innings and we expect him to be in the rotation."
Zamora, Dotson, sophomore Alex Bradley and freshman Matt Rhodes are all battling for the final rotation spot.
Zamora and Dotson both showed flashes a year ago and Rhodes is an intriguing prospect at 6-5 and 170 pounds. He is a hard thrower that will have to adjust quickly to the college game but has a huge upside.
Senior Parker Robinson, Chas Quisenberry, Reagor, Wise, Paul Simmons and Trey Doebbler are expected to throw out of the bullpen.
"We have plenty of options on the mound," said Coleman. "We have seen flashes from all of them at times. We are looking for a couple of guys that can eat some innings and we want some guys to step up and be consistent so we know what we are getting from outing to outing."
The back end of the game will be reserved for closer Tyler Brunnemann. The hard-throwing righthander that consistently throws in the low 90's is a tough matchup for most Division III hitters. He stuck out 55 batters in 33 innings a year ago and was 3-1 with five saves and a 1.64 ERA.
"Tyler has proven to be one of the best arms we have ever had," said Coleman. "He has a great fastball, but he has worked hard on his other pitches as well and that is what has pushed him to another level. We are confident when we put the ball in his hands that good things are going to happen."
The Cowboys have to be ready to go from day one. Rather than easing into what is an already difficult schedule the Cowboys will open in a season-opening classic in Arizona and then come home and go to Texas-Tyler for three games and to Southwestern.
"Our first eight games are on the road against some very talented teams," said Coleman. "It won't decide our ultimate fate, but as far as regional rankings and being where we want to be in the end it is important to get off to a good start. Having a veteran squad will help with that. Baseball, no matter the type of bat, or the level comes down to the same three things – pitching, defense and timely hitting."
HSU plays 39 of its 40 games against West Region Division III teams, including a three-game set with West region perennial favorite Chapman. HSU has four of its six ASC West series at home this year, including the final series with longtime rival Texas Lutheran and also two-time defending ASC champion Concordia.
Information provded by HSU athletics department.