Watching the Akron Zips baseball team play catch and take batting and fielding practice inside the cavernous Stile Athletics Field House seems a bit strange.
But it’s February, it’s Ohio and while Cleveland fans celebrate that the Indians’ pitchers and catchers reported to Arizona on Sunday for spring training, the Zips don’t have the option to practice outside for Friday’s season opener against Georgia Tech in Atlanta.
Coach Rick Rembielak confesses that he’s a bit uneasy because of the indoor environment, primarily because hitting pitchers inside a cage is difficult.
“What we’re trying to do is get the pitchers’ and hitters’ timing coordinated, for [hitters] to see live pitching,” he said during Thursday’s practice.
Other things, such as working on defensive and offensive schemes, are easier to complete inside without actually having to play.
Regardless, Rembielak is determined to get the job done. In his second year as UA’s baseball coach, he brought big hopes with him because of past success at Kent State and Wake Forest. Now that those who were here last season know what to expect, he’s ready to take a step forward.
“The thing that we are trying to instill is the winning attitude,” he said. “There are little things that you have to pay attention to. It’s detail oriented.”
His players realize that now as well.
“We know what is expected of us,” left fielder Tyler Begun said. “We know what he wants and pretty much we execute what he wants. And we know that if we don’t get it done, you’re done. You’re either done for the day or you’re going to be done for a little bit.”
With only two seniors on the roster, Rembielak possesses a youth-laden team that’s willing to learn. However, with youth comes disadvantages, including a possible leadership vacuum.
Rembielak doesn’t subscribe to the belief that wisdom comes with age and class seniority.
“Everybody is accountable for everybody else. It’s not just because you’re a senior that you’re a leader or if you’re a junior. It’s everybody,” he said.
It’s likely the best possible attitude to have given the roster’s composition.
“There are going to be a lot of freshmen that are going to see a lot of action,” he said. “Where it’s helping is in the pitching staff. We needed to get deeper in the pitching staff so a lot of the guys we brought in, they’re going to see action right away and they get thrown in the fire quickly, but we brought them in to play.”
Once the Mid-American Conference season begins, one freshman, J.T. Brubaker, will find a home in the weekend rotation on Sundays for his Division I baptism, Rembielak said. But the all-important Friday slot will belong to redshirt sophomore Jon Pusateri, who was expected to be a factor last year until an arm injury forced him to undergo Tommy John surgery last March.
“It was definitely a different scenario that I’ve never been through before in my life,” he said. “I’ve never been hurt.”
Pusateri has declared himself to be at 100 percent as did his coach. Rembielak said that he has faith that Pusateri possesses the skills to get the job done.
With a handle on his personnel, Rembielak is making changes, trying to get more punch into a team with the lowest batting average (.257) in the conference that also only scored 226 runs on the season.
To do that, Begun, who batted .299 as the team’s leading hitter and drove in 24 runs last year, will make the move to the leadoff spot
“He’s got speed,” Rembielak said of Begun. “There’s a guy right there who’s got some pop in his bat, but we’re looking at a tough out in that spot. We need guys who will be tough as nails getting on base.”
Last year’s leadoff hitter, Devan Ahart, will go to the three spot. And behind him? Rembielak brought in two junior college transfers, first baseman Grant Alvarez, a .280 hitter in two years at Gulf Coast State College in Panama City, Fla., and Matt LaRocca, who plays third base and pitches relief and hit .353 with 37 RBI for Suffolk Community College in New York last year.
“I’m kind of looking forward to guys who are capable of driving the ball, which we needed,” Rembielak said. “We had no punch, no threats last year.”
He and Zips fans will get their first glance Friday at one of the toughest schedules that UA’s baseball team has faced. The schedule features six teams that made the NCAA Tournament last season and will show the Zips what they’re working toward and take the awe out of facing upper echelon squads.
“At the same time, you’re getting ready for MAC season play and shooting for that postseason tournament,” Rembielak said. “I’ve got to believe they’re excited. I’ve got to believe they’re anxious to get down there and play. It’s our job to prepare them for that.”
George M. Thomas can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. 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.