Freshman catcher Paden Vendrely takes throws in the dirt from redshirt Tyler Rutherford during Tuesday’s Greyhound baseball practice. (Freedom Newspapers: Kevin Wilson)
By Dave Wagner: CNJ sports writer
PORTALES — Last spring, a doubleheader loss at fifth-ranked Abilene Christian on the final day of the season prevented Eastern New Mexico University’s baseball team from posting the program’s first winning record since 2000.
Gone off that squad are five seniors, all of whom received Lone Star Conference South Division postseason recognition.
Still, coach Phil Clabaugh enters his 15th season at the school with veterans in a number of positions, including catcher and all three outfield spots.
“We’ve got a group of kids that have quite a bit of experience,” Clabaugh said as the Hounds (26-27, 10-10 South in 2004) prepare to open the season with a four-game series this weekend against Sul Ross State at Alpine, Texas.
The Hounds were picked fifth in the six-team South in preseason, but senior right fielder Justin Gee of Clovis said he’s used to that.
“Every year I’ve been here we’ve been picked fourth, fifth or sixth,” Gee said. “It’s just going to be up to us to change that. We lost five good seniors, but we’ve got some good guys coming back.”
ENMU will likely start an all-senior outfield that includes Gilbert Alvarado (.247) in left, Ryan French (.281) in center and Gee (.302) in right field.
“That’s probably the strength of our team defensively,” Clabaugh said. “Our outfield played well defensively last year; they just didn’t hit very well. But they all had very good (fall seasons), and they’ve played well since we’ve returned.”
Clabaugh said Gee, a three-year regular in the outfield, will be counted on for a big year.
“This is the year that Justin Gee needs to have an all-conference year for us,” Clabaugh said. “When he allows himself to be a ‘wristy’ hitter, then he’s pretty good.
“Gilbert has made himself into a good player. He’s just got to cut it loose a little at the plate.”
Gee’s role should also increase this year. For one thing, the Hounds have him penciled in as the cleanup hitter, and for another he may see a little spot duty on the mound.
“It’ll be something new, but wherever coach wants to put me is fine,” Gee said. “I’m pretty confident with (hitting fourth); I hit their all fall, and the guys in front of me did a good job of getting on for me.”
Pushing for time in the outfield will be junior college transfer Tim Crafton and Portales grad Seth Clabaugh, the coach’s son who redshirted in football his first year at Angelo State. The younger Clabaugh, a lefty, is also penciled in as the team’s No. 4 starter on the mound.
ENMU has experienced catchers in seniors Brian Green (.263) and Tyler Brown (.370), also giving them a right-left combination at the plate. But Green, who missed almost the entire 2004 season with an injury, is currently sidelined by a knee injury and could be out about three weeks.
On the infield, where ENMU led the LSC in double plays (53) a year ago, sophomore Derrick Kennedy (.346) is ticketed for third after seeing time at both third and designated hitter last year while junior Mike McDuffie, who played third as a freshman and a utility role last year, will open at second base.
Matt Hinojosa, who saw time at third in 2004 but did not play last season, will move in for the graduated Josh Kuchta at shortstop. Kuchta, a Clovis High grad, is serving as a student assistant under Clabaugh this spring while completing his degree.
Other candidates in the middle infield are senior Micah Bernhardt (.268) at second base and redshirt freshman Steven Lopez-Barela at shortstop. “Our middle has actually been a little better than I anticipated,” Clabaugh said.
Matt Roemer, a 6-foot-5 junior from Minneapolis who transferred from a Minnesota junior college, is slated to play first and may also see some time on the mound. Backing him up at first is 6-4 freshman Casey Bigham of New Deal, Texas, and 6-3, 290-pound junior college transfer Kelton Hayes.
The Hounds have a solid 1-2 punch on the mound in senior right-hander Kelly Crain (6-8, 6.31) and senior lefthander David Swinconos (5-3, 6.79).
Other mound help should come from redshirt sophomore Keith Baldarez, sophomore transfer Charlie Ward and freshman Evan Orsak, all righties, along with Roemer and Gee.
“I’ve got nine arms I’m not afraid to run out there, but only two of them have seen the mound in the LSC,” Clabaugh said.