FLORENCE, SC – Despite the non-spring-like weather in the Pee Dee region this week, the nationally ranked Francis Marion University baseball will open its 2010 season, albeit on a different day than originally thought.
The Patriots were to open their campaign on Tuesday (Feb. 2) at Barton College, but that contest has been postponed until Feb. 18 in Wilson, N.C. FMU’s next game was to have been on Friday at Erskine College, but because of rain in the forecast for that day, the game has been moved up to Thursday at 2 p.m. in Due West. Francis Marion will then play host to Erskine on Saturday at 2 p.m. in the Patriots’ home opener.
Francis Marion returns 23 of 32 players from last year’s 38-15-1 squad that finished second during the Peach Belt Conference regular season, won the conference tournament, and advanced to the NCAA Southeast Regional. The win total was the second-highest in program history.
This season, the Patriots are ranked eighth, 12th, and 13th in three preseason national polls and were picked a close second in the preseason PBC coaches’ poll.
Among the returnees for tenth-year FMU head coach Art Inabinet are 12 of 15 pitchers from last season’s staff. These include senior right-handed starter Erik Sommerville (5-3 record, 1 save, 5.27 earned run average in 2009), senior righty relievers Brandon Forshee (5-2, 4 saves, 2.08 ERA) and Josh Biggers (2-0, 2 saves, 1.88 ERA), and senior lefty starters Josh Edgin (4-2, 4.04 ERA) and Jeremiah Meiners (6-2, 4.15 ERA). Both Forshee and Meiners were All-Region selections a year ago, while Edgin was drafted by the Atlanta Braves last summer, but chose to return to FMU for his senior year. Forshee ranked second nationally last year in fewest hits allowed per nine innings (5.44) and 19th in earned run average.
According to Inabinet, Edgin is the probable starter for Thursday’s first game.
Senior right-hander Zane Petty, who missed last season with an injury, also returns.
Six position starters return as does the designated hitter. These include All-Region shortstop Barrett Kleinknecht (.372, 9 home runs, 64 runs batted in for 2009) and All-Conference designated hitter Jacob Wallace (.332, 3 HRs, 47 RBIs). The Patriots return their entire starting outfield – Tyler Boyd (.287), Martin Gordon (.394, .470 on-base percentage), and Alex Lee (.347, 3 HRs, 37 RBIs) – as well as the right side of the infield with junior first baseman Preston Shuey (.317, 7 HRs, 51 RBIs) and Biggers, who ended the year starting at second base. Gordon played for South Africa in last year’s World Baseball Classic.
Kleinknecht also made 15 appearances on the mound and registered a 1-3 record with a team-leading six saves and a 3.41 ERA. The West Florence High School product was listed among both the batting and pitching national leaders for 2009: 46th in saves (6) and 34th in hits (89), 45th in runs batted in (64), 67th in total bases (136), and was the 56th toughest batter to strikeout (15 Ks in 264 plate appearances).
Four of the returning position players had double-digit game hitting streaks in 2009: Gordon, Boyd, Wallace, and Kleinknecht.
“I think we are ready to play,” said Inabinet. “Early in the preseason, the pitchers were ahead of the batters, but as we get ready to start, the hitters have made strives. We have more depth than in the past at all positions, especially in the bullpen.
“On the mound, we have four senior starters – two righties and two lefties – a first for me. This group possesses experience and the ability to pitch. They also have a variety of strengths so opponents won’t see the same stuff in a multi-game series. Many of our arms are also interchangeable and can start, go long relief, or short relief. In addition to the returnees in the bullpen, junior right-handers Patrick Mincey (transfer from Spartanburg Methodist College) and Tyler Cappelmann (USC Sumter) can also close. This could be the best bullpen FMU has seen in a long time.”
Cappelmann is also expected to start at third base, giving the Patriots three players in the starting infield that were former shortstops at the collegiate level (Kleinknecht, Biggers, and Cappelmann).
Inabinet added, “Senior outfielder Josh Smith (.246) has played well this spring and will push the three returnees for playing time. Wallace will likely move behind the plate to replace departed All-Region backstop Jared Barkdoll. He blocks the ball well and does a good job of handling the pitchers.”
Newcomer Logan Bland, who hit .205 at Western Carolina University in 2009, will also do some catching and will hit in the designated hitter position. Senior left-handed bat Taylor Norfleet (.237) will also hit in the DH spot.
At the plate, Inabinet lamented the loss of 79 RBIs from Barkdoll and All-Region third baseman Keon Graves. “We do return some power bats, but will look to Lee, Boyd, and Wallace for more contributions. These three all have the ability to drive in runs, hit above .300, and make up for the loss of Barkdoll and Graves.
“We don’t have as much team speed as in past years, but the first three batters in our order (Gordon, Lee, Kleinknecht) all run well.”
“Defensively, I like the line-up we can put on the field. We should be solid in that aspect as well.”
As a team in 2009, the Patriots ranked 18th nationally in sacrifice bunts (47), 28th in hits (628), 29th in fielding percentage (.965), 37th in double plays turned (45), 39th in both batting average (.333) and walks (222), 40th in fewest hits allowed per nine innings (9.39), 42nd in team ERA (4.34), 49th in runs scored (410) and 51st in scoring (7.6 runs per game).
Other newcomers who may make an immediate impact could be junior infielder Brooks Arnette, a Lake View native and a transfer from Lander University, and freshman right-handed pitcher Don Sandifer from Bamberg Ehrhardt High School.
The Patriots’ 2010 schedule includes 50 games, highlighted by 27 home contests. FMU was 22-7 at home last season and is 152-47-1 in its last 200 home games at “The Cliff” – Clifford Cormell Field. Six opponents that appear on the 2010 FMU schedule are ranked in one preseason poll.
The 2010 PBC baseball season, with newcomers Montevallo and Flagler, will divide into east and west divisions, with Francis Marion competing in the East Division. The 2010 Peach Belt Tournament is set for May 8-9 in Aiken and Augusta.
Twenty-seven of the 39 Patriot roster members are South Carolina natives.