By Jim Rueda
MANKATO — Outside of actually winning the Division II College World Series, there really isn’t anything the Minnesota State baseball team can do to top last season.
In 2013 the Mavericks went 42-9, won the Northern Sun regular season title, captured the NSIC tournament, won the region tournament and advanced all the way to the College World Series championship game before losing to Tampa 8-2. It was undeniably the best season in program history, during which numerous individual and team records were set.
Even though the 2014 Mavericks have a strong nucleus back from last year’s squad, logic says MSU will probably take a step backward this season. But starting shortstop Todd Standish doesn’t want to hear about logic.
“The talent is here,” he said. “We only lost 2 or 3 guys so we have veterans at just about every position. There’s no reason we can’t do what we did last year.”
If the Mavericks were to duplicate their 2013 effort, Standish would likely be a big part of it. After playing part time at short as a sophomore, Standish won the job outright last season and is penciled into the same spot heading into this season.
“As a fielder last year I think I did pretty well,” Standish said. “But I want to get better as a hitter. If I could contribute a little more offensively I think that would help us.”
For the record, Standish batted .281 with 25 RBIs and six stolen bases last season. His biggest hit came in the region tournament when he ended a 14-inning game by driving in Mike Eckhart from third base with a bunt single.
MSU head coach Matt Magers would like to get more offensive production from all of his players but says Standish’s major role is to provide solid defense.
“He did a great job fielding his position last year,” Magers said. “He made some key plays in big situations. We’ve been the best fielding team in the nation the last two years and he’s one of the reasons why.”
Almost all good defensive teams have quality pitching and the Mavericks are no different. Pitcher Jason Hoppe (8-1, 1.26 ERA) is back to anchor the staff after throwing an NCAA record ..... consecutive shutout innings last season. He will be joined by veterans T.J. Larson (6-0, 3.63) and Bryce Bellin (3-1, 3.79).
Josh Matheson (1-0, 2.55), a spot-starter a year ago, is expected to join the regular rotation as well. Tyler Ockuly (2-3, 4.72), who missed much of last season due to arm problems, is back and will also get some starts.
Transfer Taylor Nawrocki is expected to fill a similar role to Ockuly. Chris Williams is the heir apparent to long-time closer Mahlon Zimmerman who graduated.
The infield has veterans at every spot except second base. Nolan Johnson (.359, 39 RBIs) is the catcher, Stetson Olson (.298, 9 HRs, 38 RBIs) plays first, Standish is at short and Connor McCallum (.354, 35 RBIs) plays third. Red-shirt freshman Eric Peterson is expected to take over at second.
The outfield will consist of Taylor Branstad (.274) in left, Parker Sullivan (.318, 8 SBs) in center and a platoon of Max Walletich and transfer Kevin Kramer from St. Cloud Tech in right. Mike Andries (.222, 9 2Bs) is the designated hitter and back-up catcher.
“That’s the way we’re going to start the year,” Magers said. “If some of the younger guys can impress in the early going we’ll have some tough decisions to make. But that’s a good problem to have.”
The Mavericks open their season Saturday with a doubleheader at Arkansas Monticello. The forecast calls for wind and temperatures in the 40s.
“That’s going to seem like summer to us considering the winter we’ve having,” Standish said. “We can’t wait to get going.”