Baseball: Owls eager after quiet offseason

In the past two years, two members of the baseball team faced cancer and a third had heart surgery, but now as the 2017 season approaches, FAU has been able to just focus on baseball.

FAU+Head+Baseball+Coach+John+McCormack+%7C+Photo+by+Max+Jackson

Max Jackson

FAU Head Baseball Coach John McCormack | Photo by Max Jackson

Brendan Feeney, Managing Editor

Florida Atlantic baseball has had a quiet number of months leading up to its 2017 season compared to its previous ones, and the team couldn’t be more grateful.

CJ Chatham did make noise in June by becoming the highest drafted Owl in program history, but compared to the nightmares of what some of his teammates, and his coach had to face the previous two offseasons, his dream felt exactly like that — a dream.

Two Septembers ago, just months after losing his father, head coach John McCormack found himself in an operating room as doctors prepared to remove a cancerous tumor in his cheek. A few months after a successful operation, doctors again discovered something which turned out to be a mass, but this time it was in one of McCormack’s players.

Twenty-year-old Kevin Abraham underwent intense chemotherapy to combat his Non-Hodgkin lymphoma. He found out he was cancer free in June while his teammates competed in the regional tournament and will play again this season.

“I got back on the field right when we got back,” Abraham said. “It’s a great feeling just to be able to compete with these guys every single day, day in and day out. It’s a blessing.”

McCormack and Abraham’s discoveries occurred just one offseason following another serious medical issue — one that required the performance of heart surgery on then-player Ricky Santiago. The former third baseman came back from his surgery to become an All-American in 2015.

Amid the offseason distractions, the Owls made it to the No. 12 ranked team in the country and earned a postseason bid in each season. This offseason, they have been able to focus on one thing: playing baseball.

“It’s nice not to have to worry about those type of life-changing situations,” McCormack said. “If someone hurts their arm or it’s a knee or something, it will have an effect on them but not with Ricky’s heart or Kevin’s situation. So it’s nice not to have those things as part of the daily [agenda] … It’s nice to be able to just focus on school and playing baseball.”

The Owls will open their season on Friday, Feb. 17, with a three-game homestand against Monmouth University and will play their first 22 games in the Sunshine State. Of those, only three will be played away from FAU Baseball Stadium, where the Owls won 22 of their 28 games a season ago.

Conference USA coaches tabbed the reigning regular-season champions as the second best team in the conference behind Rice University, according to their preseason poll. Much of that can be attributed to Rice’s returnees — most notably preseason player of the year Ford Proctor and preseason pitcher of the year Glenn Otto — and FAU’s departures.

The Owls lost two starting pitchers — David McKay to the MLB Draft and Brandon Rhodes to graduation — as well as Chatham and the entire outfield.

Lineup

McCormack said he has a number of players capable of stepping up to avoid any drop off, including his senior trio of second baseman Stephen Kerr, first baseman Esteban Puerta and pitcher and designated hitter Sean Labsan, who was named to the preseason all-conference team.

Puerta, who led last year’s team with 10 home runs and 52 RBIs, believes the lineup will take on its own personality and doesn’t foresee any decline from the team that scored the third most runs in Conference USA a season ago.

“I really like [our lineup], I’ve been here for a while so I’ve seen a lot of teams come and go, but I really like our lineup this year,” Puerta said. “I think we have a great makeup, we have fast guys, we have power guys, it’s everything you want.”

With his combination of speed and power, Kerr can check off both boxes, but the former leadoff hitter has to find a balance. After hitting .324 and .307 in his first two seasons, Kerr’s average dropped to .253 in 2016, but he’s raised his home run total from zero in his freshman season, to one as a sophomore, to five last year.

McCormack wants his second baseman to find a happy medium and plans on taking advantage of Kerr’s ability to drive the ball by moving him into the middle of the order.

“Stephen for his whole life, from the time he was four, has led off. He led off in the backyard when he made up his own games, he led off in high school and he led off for us,” McCormack said. “We would like him to be a combination of both … let’s raise the on-base percentage a little bit more and we can come down on the home run swing-and-miss type stuff and meet in the middle.”

Not leading off won’t be Kerr’s only change this season. He will have a new double-play partner for the first time since coming to FAU, as sophomore Tyler Frank will be taking over the reigns from Chatham as the team’s new shortstop.

Frank started 40 of the Owls 58 games in 2016, most as a catcher, and hit .285. He also gained time at shortstop in the NCAA Regionals when an injured hand forced Chatham out of the field.

“It was definitely a great learning experience,” Frank said. “I think coming into this year it was good to kind of get my feet wet and learn the position a little bit on the [Division I] level.”

Unlike Frank, none of the projected outfield starters have ever played on the Division I level.

Senior Jared Shouppe took a medical redshirt last season after transferring from Santa Fe College. The other two, Gary Mattis and Eric Rivera, are both freshmen.

McCormack called his outfield situation “very unique.”

“Throughout the years we haven’t had that happen a bunch, its a new outfield and it’s unique in the fact that two of the proposed starters, Shouppe and Mattis, were both shortstops in high school and junior college respectively,” McCormack said. “So they do have a little bit more of a learning curve, but they’re both really good athletes and they’ve seemed to make the adjustment pretty well.”

Rivera, whom McCormack referred to as a “true outfielder” that plays in a kamikaze-type way, would be the team’s starter in center field if the season opened last Friday, according to the head coach.

Both Rivera and Mattis, as well as fellow freshman catcher Pedro Pages, have already made an impact on some players, including Puerta.

“They’re going to make waves in a very positive way and I’m really excited to see what they can do,” Puerta said.

Pitching Unit

Junior Marc Stewart will join Labsan as the two returning starting pitchers from last year.

Labsan started 10 games and compiled a 5-1 record with an ERA of 1.96. Stewart finished the year 6-0 and was named to the All-Conference USA’s Second Team.

The two veterans will be joined by sophomore Nick Swan, junior Alex House, last year’s National Junior College Pitcher of the Year Jake Miednik and freshman Nick Prather, Indiana’s reigning high school player of the year.

In the back of the bullpen awaits senior Cameron Ragsdale, who earned a spot on Collegiate Baseball’s preseason All-American team after leading Conference USA with 15 saves a year ago.

“[Ragsdale] makes our job easier as starters,” Labsan said. “We only have to go six, seven innings and then we know we can turn it over to the pen and they can shut it down from there.”

The entire pitching staff will look to repeat its success from last year, when its conference-leading ERA led the Owls to their first ever regular season championship and an NCAA regional bid.

However, unlike the past two seasons, FAU will be hoping to move beyond the regional, and also unlike the past two seasons, the team can just play ball.

“It’s nice because we can focus on baseball and get the stuff done that we need to,” Labsan said. “But at the same time, the off-the-field stuff, we still keep track of all our teammates and look over them because there is other stuff that goes on that’s not as big [as the previous two offseasons], but we still look over each other.”

Dates to remember:

Feb. 17: Monmouth at FAU – Opening day

March 1: Miami at FAU – The Owls defeated the No. 1 ranked Hurricanes in their first meeting last season in Miami, but the Hurricanes got the better of the Owls in their second matchup of the year. FAU will travel to Miami on March 22 and April 19.

March 31 – April 2: Rice at FAU – In this year’s preseason poll, Conference USA coaches picked FAU to finish second in the standings, with only Rice ahead of them. FAU received four first-place votes, one short of Rice’s five.

May 24 – 28: Conference USA Tournament – The Owls will look for redemption after losing in the second round a year ago as the top seed.

2016 Conference Standings

  1. FAU (39-18, 21-8 C-USA)
  2. Marshall (34-21, 21-9 C-USA)
  3. Southern Miss* (41-19, 20-10 C-USA)

*Conference USA tournament champion

2016 Stats

Runs Scored:

  1. Southern Miss 419
  2. Louisiana Tech 405
  3. FAU 357

ERA:

  1. FAU 3.24
  2. Rice 3.76
  3. Louisiana Tech 3.77

Fielding Percentage:

     T1. FAU .977

     T1. Southern Miss .977

  1. Old Dominion .973

Brendan Feeney is the managing editor of the University Press. For information regarding this or other stories, email [email protected] or tweet him @feeney42.