Shepherd baseball coach Wayne Riser is a ways into his third decade of coaching the Rams. Last year was a miserable time for the coach of more than a few WVIAC championship teams. Shepherd lost more than it won. In fact, the Rams finished in last place in the conference’s Northern Division.
But Riser could have suffered an even larger loss had first baseman/designated hitter Nathan Minnich joined professional baseball’s ranks. Minnich was not only an all-conference player, he was the WVIAC’s Player of the Year.
Minnich drew the attention of not only the West Virginia Conference but also the region and the nation. After hitting .433 with 14 homers and 38 RBIs, he was recognized as the Regional Player of the Year and was one of eight NCAA Division II players in line for National Player of the Year honors.
Minnich was not accorded National Player of the Year recognition, but was an All-America selection for his winter/spring work at Shepherd.
When the June of 2011 Major League draft was held, Minnich was eligible for that event because he had completed his junior year at Shepherd. He was not drafted. When those few days in early June had passed, Riser could count it as one of the few baseball-at-Shepherd things that could make him smile.
Minnich joined the Winchester Royals of the Valley Baseball League. He could have been signed to a professional baseball contract at any time. But he wasn’t.
And now he is back at friendly Fairfax Field for his senior season. You might call him Riser’s “best recruit” for 2012 since he could have been swallowed by professional baseball and gone from Shepherd baseball the same as 2011 starters Brian Collins, Val Arduini, and Derek Gunsell.
Shepherd’s 15-22 season was basically a desert without pitching. A desert receives less than five inches of rain in calendar year . . . and Riser received almost as little from his collective pitching staff last year. The ERA of the 13 pitchers Riser summoned was 6.97. And no fewer than six of those pitchers had earned run averages of over 7.00.
Once Collins broke his leg in early April and Trevor Appleby had an arm injury that forced him to the sidelines for the rest of the season, Shepherd’s pitching staff was headed by then-freshman lefthander Paul Hvozdovic, who finished the year with an 8.06 ERA.
The pitching staff was credited with only three saves in the 15 games that were won.
When the pitching was troubled by ineffective performances, the Shepherd defense was not helping at all. There were 92 errors made in 37 games. And almost all the games were seven-inning affairs. Opponents successfully stole 45 bases in the 52 attempts they made. Shepherd stole only 11 bases in the 19 attempts it tried.
Some of those pitchers were underclassmen. But Jonathan Painter (9.00 ERA), Tristan Beyer (5.64 ERA, 42 hits allowed in 22.1 innings), and Trevor McClain (1-3 record with a 4.37 ERA and 20 runs allowed in 22.2 innings) have not returned.
Other 2011 team members not returning are infielder Aaron Lee, infielder Morgan Lautz, outfielder Dillon Berger, and redshirts Jesse Leszcznski and Jake Williams.
There are several “everyday players” back. Can any of them be productive enough to bat behind Minnich and give him any protection while keeping sensible opponents from giving the 6-foot-3, 250-pound infielder a steady diet of out-of-the-strike-zone pitcher? Or will Minnich be pitched around most of the time and be dealt intentional walks any time his bat could decide a game?
Outfielder Nash Hutter is a senior who batted .323 in 2011 and then played in the Valley Baseball League with Front Royal. Outfielder Michael Lott was visited by early-season injuries in both 2010 mand 2011. Lott had a foot injury and then rammed into the outfield fence at Fairfax Field in the 2011 season’s first game and broke his arm. Lott was a starter even as a freshman in 2010.
Outfielder Aaron Scoville batted. 357 last year as a freshman. Scoville committed 20 errors and fielded only .860 while being used mostly at third base and shortstop.
Appleby could be the most reliable pitcher if he doesn’t return to the injury list again. He had an arm operation. Looking at a pitcher with a 5.84 ERA who yielded 18 hits in his 12.1 innings last year as the possible best a team has says volumes about the 2012 pitching staff.
Infielder Jake Cook was placed at second base for the most part. Cook batted .289 with no homers and had 114 official at-bats. He fielded .907 and had seven errors.
Returning to the wide-open pitching staff will be Andrew Gallant (who started the season opener but pitched to an 8.72 ERA), Justin Byrd (7.13 ERA, 3-4 won-loss record), Sam Beatty (6.75 ERA), and Billy Kelly (5.06 ERA). None of them pitched more than 35.1 innings in 2011.
Derek Buckley is a catcher/pitcher returning with a .250 batting average and a 8.00 ERA. Brandon Coffey is a catcher/pitcher returning with a .231 batting average and 5.06 ERA. Outfielder Dillon Regalia hit .229 and outfielder Nick Impellizzeri finished the 2011 season with four hits in a doubleheader at Fairmont to elevate his average to .269.
Third baseman Travis Sluger proved to be a reliable fielder at third base, but could hit only .200 with his 20 official at-bats.
Riser has never experienced two consecutive seasons of travail. At least he has Minnich to give his batting order some high-average doings and home run punch. But Minnich is not a pitcher . . . and Riser still has holes in his pitching staff that must navigate through weekend doubleheaders once conference play begins in March.