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The Battalion

The Student News Site of Texas A&M University - College Station

The Battalion

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Analysis: Don’t expect much of a step back from Aggie baseball in 2017

Brigham+Hill+returns+as+the+Aggies+unquestioned+ace+after+going+9-2+with+a+2.51+ERA+in+97+innings+as+a+sophomore+in+2016.
By Lawrence Smelser

Brigham Hill returns as the Aggies’ unquestioned ace after going 9-2 with a 2.51 ERA in 97 innings as a sophomore in 2016.

Most college teams that lose more than half of its starting lineup from the previous season retreat into rebuilding mode for a year or two before becoming contenders again.
But there are those select few that don’t rebuild, they simply reload.
Texas A&M, ranked No. 20 in D1Baseball.com’s preseason ranking, has a prime opportunity entering 2017 to prove to the country it belongs in the latter category. And with the return of a deep, talented pitching staff as well as an influx of new position players ready to step up and fill the shoes of departed lynchpins like Nick Banks, JB Moss, Boomer White and more, there is no reason this Aggie team can’t be as good, if not better, than last year’s Super Regional team.
The old adage is that pitching and defense win championships, and those appear to be strengths for A&M. Brigham Hill returns as the unquestioned ace of the staff, while Turner Larkins, who came on strong down the stretch last season, should thrive being in the weekend rotation for a full season. Mitchell Kilkenny pitched well in 2016 as a freshman and, after impressing scouts last summer with his four-pitch repertoire, will be an excellent Sunday starter for the Ags if head coach Rob Childress decides to go that route. Sophomore Stephen Kolek has also started games in the past and could get a look in the weekend rotation as well.
Being stocked with arms will come in handy at the beginning of the season as some of the young, inexperienced position players adjust to Division I pitching.
“Where we do have experience is on the mound,” said assistant coach Will Bolt. “Those guys have been through the ringer and they may have to pick us up early if we’re not ready to score seven runs a game.”
In the back-end of the bullpen, the Aggies lost righties Mark Ecker and Andrew Vinson from last year’s team, but Childress has plenty of options to replace them. Corbin Martin had an outstanding summer pitching in the Cape Cod League and will begin the season as the closer.
Martin fits perfectly in a reliever role because he will be able to throw his pitches at maximum effort without having to worry about facing the opposing lineup multiple times. With arguably the most electric arsenal on the squad, Martin’s dominance will be critical to the Aggies’ success.
“He’s a guy that can humiliate you at the end of the game,” Childress said. “When he’s gone out in the fall he’s been 90 to 94 [mph] every time out and maybe his stuff plays a tick better out of the bullpen and he’s 94-97 in one- and two-inning stints.
“Whatever role he’s in, he’s going to be important for us.”
Along with Martin, Cason Sherrod and Kolek are both powerful righties who can pitch quality innings whenever called upon. Childress also has something on this year’s team that he didn’t have in 2016: A solid crop of left-handed pitchers. Junior Kaylor Chafin has matured and improved considerably since last season, and freshmen John Doxakis and Kyle Richardson have both impressed during fall and spring practice.
Whether Childress chooses to deploy them as situational lefties or not, having a few capable southpaws at his disposal is a nice luxury to have as the Aggies navigate through some of the potent SEC lineups they will face.
Defensively, the Aggies have a chance to be even better than they were in 2016, when they finished third in the SEC in fielding percentage. With Austin Homan returning as a much-improved defensive shortstop after making 17 errors as a junior, George Janca moving over to third base and freshman Braden Shewmake slated to start the season at second base, A&M has three plus defenders in the infield who have all played shortstop in the past and have terrific range.
The biggest position battle with opening weekend looming resides at catcher, where junior Cole Bedford and freshman Hunter Coleman remain in competition. Bedford has a strong throwing arm and some valuable SEC experience under his belt, and Coleman boasts tremendous hitting upside and solid receiving skills behind the plate. As the quarterback of the defense, whoever wins the job will be critically important to the success of the team.
In the outfield, the Aggies are anchored in center field by Nick Choruby, who assistant coach Justin Seely says is the best defensive outfielder in the conference. Walker Pennington and Blake Kopetsky look like they will begin the season in the corners, both of whom have great speed and should be able to track down plenty of fly balls.
But it’s the offense that is going to make or break the 2017 Aggies. Even with an experienced starting rotation and a deep, talented bullpen, will A&M be able to score enough runs to win games?
To be clear, the Aggies were an incredibly stout offensive club last season and will not hit for as much power this year. However, there are many ways to create runs and this edition of Aggie baseball will feature much more athleticism and has the potential to manufacture enough runs to be successful.
Whereas the 2016 Aggies were a station-to-station offense for the most part, this year they have at least three guys — Choruby, Shewmake and Kopetsky — who can steal at least 20 bases, and others like Homan, Pennington and Janca have the ability to make things happen on the basepaths as well. Whether it’s going first to third on a single, advancing a base on a pitch in the dirt or scoring from first on a double, the speed and aggressiveness of this team is exciting.
The bottom line is that once the calendar flips to June and you’re facing top-caliber pitching in the postseason, extra base hits are at a premium and the teams that are successful can create runs. In other words, the Aggies’ added athleticism could make them an even scarier postseason team than last year.
It will be interesting to see how hitters like Pennington, Joel Davis, Janca and Kopetsky adjust to being counted on to drive in runs in the middle of the order. There’s a difference between being a role player and being an everyday player in a run-producing part of the lineup, most notably how you are attacked by opposing pitchers.
“When you’re not depended on to be a go-to guy, I think at times it’s human nature to not always be as locked in as the guys that are starting,” Bolt said. “They’ve shown their maturity this offseason with their work habits and leadership of the team that they’re ready to take that next step.”
With that said, the Aggies are still a relatively inexperienced team, which means there may be some growing pains along the way. They will have to adjust on the fly and it might take them a few series to get humming and playing at the caliber that has come to be expected from Texas A&M baseball.
“We’re obviously planning on winning every game but we may take some lumps and not play the way we want to early,” Bolt said. “But it’s just learning from that and getting guys acclimated.”
But that youth could actually help the Aggies. Multiple people within the program said one of the reasons the Aggies fell short of Omaha last year was because they wanted to beat TCU so badly that they put unnecessary pressure on themselves, which ultimately did more harm than good.
The 2017 club seems to have a sense of unbridled energy that will allow A&M to go out and play its brand of baseball regardless of the situation or the circumstances.
“We definitely have a motivated team,” Janca said. “No one is giving us much hope but we’ve got young guys that want to be here, we want to play for each other, and it’s not a chore to come up and have a three-hour practice. It’s fun to be around everyone on the team and I think that’s what’s going to make us really good.”
All in all, there is a lot to like about this team. I think their blend of speed and athleticism, defensive prowess and power arms makes the Aggies a legitimate threat in the SEC in 2017. It will probably take some good fortune for them to earn a national seed at season’s end, but hosting a regional in Olsen Field is certainly a reasonable expectation.
And then, if that happens, anything can happen.
Just ask Coastal Carolina.
Heath Clary is a finance sophomore and sports editor for The Battalion.

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  • Austin Homan flips the ball to second for a double play.

  • Walker Pennington hit two home runs in last weekend’s series against LSU, including a game-winning blast in the series finale.

  • Senior shortstop Austin Homan returns as one of the main leaders for an A&M baseball team that enters 2017 with high expectations.

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