KENT: The Scott Stricklin era is over for Kent State baseball. Gone is the man most credited with putting KSU on the national map in the past decade.
Jeff Duncan is now tasked with continuing a winning program with a high pedigree and equally lofty expectations. But he knows that the same thing that’s driven KSU baseball for much of the past decade is the thing that could make or break the Golden Flashes in 2014: pitching.
And in KSU’s case, young arms might be thrust into the spotlight.
Despite Stricklin’s departure, Kent State was selected as the Mid-American Conference favorite to win the regular-season and tournament titles, as voted on by the 12 MAC coaches. College Sports Madness also announced Duncan as its Preseason MAC Coach of the Year, the type of praise Stricklin routinely garnered.
Kent State lost its top three starting pitchers from last season — Tyler Skulina, Taylor Williams and Casey Wilson. That leaves its weekend rotation in flux.
As of now, according to Duncan, lefty Brian Clark will be Friday’s starter. Clark was a closer last year (eight saves, 1.93 ERA) but Duncan likes how he competes and thinks he has the repertoire (fastball, change-up, breaking ball) to secure a starting job. Saturday’s game will belong to right-hander Nick Jensen-Clagg, who, with seven starts last season, is the most experienced of the bunch, though he normally pitched in the less-crucial weekday games. He struggled at times last year, going 2-4 with a 4.89 ERA. The Sunday slot is the spot to watch, and where two highly-touted freshman could emerge.
The first is right-hander Andy Ravel, who College Sports Madness picked as its Freshman of the Year this week. Ravel was selected in the 21st round of the MLB Draft by the Arizona Diamondbacks in June but chose to come to KSU. The second is left-hander Eric Lauer, who Baseball America named as its No. 14 freshman in the country. He was drafted last June as well, in the 17th round by the Toronto Blue Jays.
They’ll have to beat out senior left-hander Michael Clark, who Duncan says has the necessary stuff on the mound and only lacks experience. But Ravel and Lauer most likely won’t be absent from the big weekend series for long, whether the Sunday starting job is earned or Clark or Jensen-Clagg struggle.
“The first thing is we would like to stabilize our starting rotation,” Duncan said. “This is the first time in a long time where we haven’t had the returners with a lot of experience. We don’t have experience but our guys are very talented, so we’re hoping it gets solidified throughout the year.”
The lineup and position players are pretty much set, according to Duncan, led by shortstop Sawyer Polen and center fielder Alex Miklos, who were both named to the All-MAC second team by College Sports Madness. Last season, Polen hit .321 and drove in 21 runs and Miklos hit .330 with five home runs, including several during a crucial stretch at the end of the regular season.
Duncan says KSU will have an aggressive style when batting, taking advantage of any opportunities that might present itself. But in the early going, and against a tough early season road schedule that starts with Arizona, which two years ago won the national title, it all rests on a weekend starting rotation that has a combined seven starts of experience to date.
“I know what type of program I was going into and I knew what type of expectations were here,” Duncan said. “[Pitching coach Mike] Birkbeck has had a lot of success and Kent State baseball has been known for pitching for a long time. ... Coach Stricklin and his staff did a great job and I’m looking to continue it, not only maintain, but continue to grow [the program].”
Ryan Lewis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read the high school blog at http://www.ohio.com/preps. Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/RyanLewisABJ and on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/sports.abj.