02/01/13 — Question marks surround MOC baseball team

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Question marks surround MOC baseball team

By Rudy Coggins
Published in Sports on February 1, 2013 1:47 PM

Replacing a two-time All-American, a base thief and a sure-handed second baseman aren't easy chores for any college baseball coach.

And when high expectations surround your nationally-renowned program each spring, finding that one quality player to fill each spot becomes a bigger challenge.

Mount Olive College, ranked among the top five in two national preseason Division II baseball polls, is confident that it can secure a fourth consecutive Conference Carolinas championship and make a seventh straight appearance in the NCAA tournament -- if the pieces of the puzzle from offseason recruiting fall into place.

The Trojans open their 2013 season Saturday with a doubleheader at in-state rival Lenoir-Rhyne. The teams will play single game Sunday.

"Our number one emphasis was to get some pitchers who could fill some bullpen roles," MOC head coach Carl Lancaster said. "We feel like we've done very well there, we're very pleased as a coaching staff. We're counting our pitchers to carry us right away. I think last year at this time I had some question marks about our offense as well.

"Hitting just doesn't come as quick. It's a timing issue and with the weather like it is, you don't get to see a lot of live pitching (in practice)."

Two all-Carolina Conference performers -- Matt Dillon and Zach Smith -- return. Dillon earned league pitcher-of-the-year honors with a 9-2 record and 2.81 earned run average (ERA) in 2012. Smith won eight games and logged a 2.20 ERA, but has nursed shoulder tendinitis throughout the preseason and won't appear in the rotation this weekend.

Two JUCO transfers, Alex Regan and Chris Orphanos, and sophomore Derek Justice are battling for work in the starting rotation. Lancaster said Orphanos' role is undetermined due to Smith's injury, and added the 200-pound right-hander has great command of his pitches.

Justice threw an eight-inning gem against Erskine in the Conference Carolinas championship game last April. The left-hander fashioned a 4-0 record with one save in 35 innings of work.

Senior right-hander Talton Cherry is back after having Tommy John surgery. The Greenville native tossed 26.3 innings and collected 23 strikeouts in seven mound appearances last season.

"He's ready to go and his velocity is fairly close to where he was last year," Lancaster said. "His secondary stuff is not quite as good, which is typical with that type of surgery. You can tell when he's turning the fingers and putting pressure on the elbow. He was really good out of the pen last year and is someone we're really counting on (this year)."

Lancaster likes the depth that's developing on the pitching staff.

Taylor Carr, a Post University transfer, has shown potential. Local prep standouts Collin DuBose, Garrett Blackburn and Hunter Barnett are expected to eat some innings during JV baseball, and could see some action with the varsity. All have been getting at least an inning apiece during inter-squad play.

"We just want to get them in the saddle and get them comfortable," Lancaster said.

Six all-conference position players return, including All-American Geno Escalante.

The California native enters the 2013 season on a 46-game hitting streak, which is tied for fourth-longest in NCAA Division II history. He led the nation with 98 hits last year and was among the national leaders in batting average (.436) and RBI (70).

Lancaster anticipates Escalante batting third behind returnees Mike Mercurio and Matt Patrone, who could flip-flop at lead-off and the No. 2 slot. Mercurio batted .345 and drove in 56 runs last season. Patrone has re-dedicated himself to baseball and emerged as one of the team's senior leaders, according to Lancaster.

Senior third baseman Jermaine Berry, who drew 17 walks last season, will bat clean-up. Braden Reitano, a good pure hitter, is in the fifth slot. He's followed by Daniel Oliver, who is projected to replace two-time All-American and Major League Baseball draftee Jake Rogers at first base.

The remaining three spots in the lineup will be filled with speed and Lancaster hopes they can compensate for 40 stolen bases recorded by Anthony Calloway a year ago. Will Bynum, who injured his ankle during the holiday break, Bryan Dunlavey, Tyler Farmer and Patrone will share the outfield duties.

"We're going to put three outfielders out there who really run and balls shouldn't hit the ground or we'll be upset," Lancaster said.

The Trojans' offensive mentality as a team will drastically change. The group has adopted a workman-like attitude during practice and understands that scoring runners on third base will be crucial to its success.

Lancaster said the team must execute bunts, hit-and-run plays and avoid mistakes on the basepaths.

"With the personnel we have right now, I don't see us generating the offense that we did last year," Lancaster said. "If all of those guys who didn't play last year can get out of the box and have a little success, I think that will determine how fast things go.

"These boys have grinded pretty good. They've worked hard in the offseason and they certainly want to win. (But) this team is going to be OK. It's going to be a more exciting team to watch."