Touching all bases

Mark Gibson

Pitcher Paul Davis could be getting ready to play minor league ball in the hopes of eventually playing for the historic Boston Red Sox. But he passed on that opportunity to come play for FAU, which began its first-ever title defense on Feb. 18.

Having won the Sun Belt Conference title for the first time in school history, the FAU baseball team heads into the new season with its head held high. The Owls finished the 2010 regular season 33-20 (23-9 Sun Belt), and although the team’s stint in the regional playoffs was cut short, head coach John McCormack expects nothing less than to return to Regionals this season.

“Of course I expect it,” said McCormack. “We have a lot of the same players returning from last season in addition to the depth of new talent, which makes us an even stronger team than last season.”

The team’s confidence and talent is what compelled Davis to come pitch for FAU. Hailing from Pensacola Junior College, Davis’ sophomore season in 2010 saw him go 10-3 with a 3.33 ERA and 88 strikeouts. This caught the attention of the Boston Red Sox, who drafted him in the 29th round of the 2010 Major League Baseball Draft.

Davis didn’t sign.

“He’s always wanted to pitch for FAU,” said pitching coach Jason Jackson. “That says a lot about where we are as a team.”

With a few exceptions, the Owls have the same team returning from last season. The big losses include pitchers Mike Gipson and Ryan Bernal, both of whom were drafted to MLB — Gipson to the New York Yankees and Bernal to the Milwaukee Brewers.

The Owls who are returning this season will be playing with three captains, whom the team voted for. Infielder Raymond Church, outfielder Colby Gratton, and catcher Eddie Cassidy, all seniors, will lead the team.

With a .329 batting average last season, Cassidy was third best behind infielder Dan Scheffler (.371) and outfielder/pitcher Andy Mee (.378). Cassidy was also named to the All-Gainesville Regional team.

Gratton led the team in stolen bases with 12 and finished last season with a .286 batting average, five home runs and 27 runs batted in (RBIs). Gratton was also responsible for hitting the game-winning walk-off home run in game 2 of the three-game series against FIU that sealed the Owls’ conference title in 2010.

Church was one of four Owls to appear in all 61 games last season, along with Mee, Scheffler and shortstop Nick Delguidice. Church finished 2010 with a .392 batting average, 10 home runs and 46 RBIs, and he led the Sun Belt Conference with 45 walks. On day 3 of the Sun Belt Tournament against FIU, Church recorded nine RBIs, which tied an FAU single-game record and broke the Sun Belt Tournament record for most in one game. He was also named to the All-Sun Belt Tournament team and the All-Gainesville Regional team.

“The players look up to all three of those guys,” said McCormack. “Cassidy is impeccable at fighting off injury and is inspirational to all of us. Gratton is very vocal and the pulse of the team. And Church is the quiet steady Eddie. When Church speaks, everyone is quiet and listens.”

Another of the team’s biggest assets is Scheffler, who made a big impact on the Owls’ success last season. He led FAU in most offensive categories, including home runs (15), RBIs (65), runs scored (67), slugging percentage (.696), on-base percentage (.482), and bases (156), and he led the Sun Belt Conference in doubles with 22. He was also a first team All-Sun Belt selection and a first team All-South Central Region selection.

On the mound, junior right-handed pitcher Ryan Garton was statistically the best pitcher behind Gipson. Garton went 7-3 with a 4.87 ERA and he threw 70 strikeouts while only walking 27 batters in 81.1 innings pitched. He also struck out 11 batters in a 12-3 victory over Troy last season, the most in one game by any FAU pitcher during the 2010 season.

Alongside Garton, junior right-handed pitcher Hugh Adams stands as another top pitcher for FAU. Adams, a relief pitcher, finished last year at 6-1 with a 7.09 ERA. He recorded 23 strikeouts and 16 walks in 38.1 innings. His six victories were tied for the most among FAU relievers alongside Bernal. At one point in the season, Adams had six consecutive appearances without giving up an earned run.

“Gipson is a big loss, unfortunately,” said Jackson. “However, pitchers like Garton and Everest are experienced players who can fill Gipson’s shoes.”

Newcomers to the team, their nerves may have settled a little as the Owls play the majority of the first half of their season at home. The team will play in Florida for the first two months of action and won’t make their first road trip until April.

“In college baseball, statistically the home team wins 66 percent of the time,” said McCormack. “We didn’t ask to have our schedule set up this way, but we’ll surely take it.”

Last season, FAU won 68 percent of its home games, going 21-10. On the road, the Owls went 11-10. Including postseason play, the Owls finished with 37 victories, their most since 2005.

With a plethora of returning seniors and the season already underway, FAU will look to build on that number in the hopes of claiming a second consecutive Sun Belt title.