Spring brings eternal hope for the boys of summer or in the case of the University of Akron men’s baseball team, the boys of early summer.
While pitchers, catchers and position players recently began reporting to spring training in Florida and Arizona in Major League Baseball, college teams have been practicing for weeks.
The Zips have expectations for a successful season despite going 15-37 last year (10-16 in the Mid-American Conference) and missing the MAC’s season-ending tournament again.
Coach Rick Rembielak, in his third season running the program, isn’t necessarily feeling any pressure to make a leap forward, but there’s another word that creeps into a conversation with him.
“I don’t know if we have to [make a big jump]. I expect it. I really do,” he said before his team ripped heavily into its practice regimen on Tuesday. “I think I feel very good with the progress that we’ve made, the depth that we’ve created, but if there is any indication now in how fall practice has gone and the workouts now, we’re doing much better.”
They’re going to have to do better with the bats and from the pitcher’s mound. Their numbers in each area speak for themselves.
The team batted .245 last season and .253 against MAC opponents. They lacked power, hitting just 12 home runs, 74 doubles and eight triples.
The Zips don’t possess that one top hitter who bats .400 to .450, Rembielak said.
“Someone could emerge, but I don’t know if we have that yet,” he said. “We have a couple of possibilities, but time will tell once we start playing.”
Who they do have is outfielder Devin Ahart, who batted .295 last season and bounced around from the leadoff spot to the middle of the lineup to provide some offensive punch. His skills are suited to the middle of the lineup in college, but in the pros he’s the classic leadoff guy and Rembielak sounds as if that’s where he’d prefer him to hit. Ahart is flexible on the issue.
“It doesn’t matter to me either way,” he said after finishing batting practice. “If I was batting in the nine-hole, that would be fine for me as long as I can help my team in that situation.”
But he admits that the three-spot offered him some opportunities.
“I hate to say it. I liked it. It gave me a chance to be patient,” he said. “I took my one-hole mentality to the three-hole and I actually had a chance to drive in runs, try to produce and help the team out.”
Rembielak said that Ahart provides the team that electricity it needs.
“He’s dangerous because of his swing, because of his speed and he is that spark plug. And he’s that base-stealing type of guy,” he said. “That’s why I think he’s really suited to lead off, but for us he’s our best hitter, swinger, skills. So right now, he’s going to be middle of the order.”
Like an emerging power hitter, a dominating pitcher would help out a staff with an ERA of 5.00 as well, but Rembielak said that he’s gotten more comfortable with this year’s staff. That includes last year’s Friday-Saturday starters JT Brubaker and John Valek III. This weekend in the team’s opener against Winthrop in Rock Hill, S.C., Jon Pusateri, a native of Randolph, will be in the mix.
“We had some options,” Rembielak said of this year’s pitching competition. “It was a tougher decision this year to go with [last year’s weekend starters] because there was so much competition. The performances out of a few other candidates were really good.”
Through the nonconference schedule, Rembielak intends to give everyone a shot to show what they can do. Pusateri, who had a 2-8 record with an 8.24 ERA, heads into this weekend’s opening in the rotation with a clearer focus.
He expects to be significantly better this season after returning to the roster last year after an injury.
“There’s quite a bit of pressure just because we haven’t done it,” Pusateri said. “This is my fourth year and we haven’t made the MAC Tournament. In my mind, we have to make it this year. We need to. We’re a mature team. We’re good. We’re going to be a lot better than last year.”
His attitude permeates the Zips and for a lot of teams, that mentality can translate into wins.
“Everybody’s taking care of their business,” Ahart said. “On the field, we can joke around a little bit and still understand what we need to do in order to change this program.”
His coach agreed.
“This year you can see the difference. They’re older, but they’re better,” Rembielak said, “just a little bit more mature. We’re experienced and you can tell in the performances so far.”
George M. Thomas can be reached at email@example.com. Read the Zips blog at http://www.ohio.com/zips. Follow him on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/GeorgeThomasABJ and on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/sports.abj.