Note: This is the first of a three-part series previewing the 2011 Cumberland baseball season. Today’s entry will preview the pitchers and catchers, while Tuesday’s section will discuss the infield and Wednesday’s third preview will take a look at the Bulldog outfield and schedule.
Cumberland University begins the 2011 season in a different position than every other team in the nation. Why? Because the Bulldogs won their final game of last season, claiming the 2010 Avista-NAIA World Series championship, the school’s second national title, capping a 58-9 campaign.
Head coach Woody Hunt, beginning his 30th season at the helm of the program, returns just three starting position players and only one pitcher who tossed more than 35 innings last season. But the veteran skipper has a host of new players who should put the Bulldogs in position to return to the NAIA World Series in Lewiston, Idaho, for the 12th time in school history.
Cumberland University is ranked No. 1 in the nation in the 2011 NAIA Baseball Coaches' Preseason Top 25 Poll released in November. The defending national champions garnered 16 of the 20 first-place votes and totaled 556 points in the poll of head coaches representing each of the 25 conferences, independents and unaffiliated groups. CU's No. 1 ranking dethrones Lewis-Clark State's seven-poll hold on the top ranking dating to the first 2010 regular-season poll.
Cumberland is ranked No. 1 in the country for the first time since March 30, 2005, and the fourth time overall dating to 1998. The Bulldogs were No. 2 in the 2005 Preseason Poll after claiming the 2004 national title.
PITCHERS AND CATCHERS
Cumberland returns seven pitchers from last year’s 58-9 national championship club, including Preseason All-American hurler Aaron Wilkerson. He posted a 14-1 record with a 2.13 earned-run-average and 125 strikeouts in 101.1 innings last season. The Waco, Texas, native appeared in 17 contests with 15 starts, tossing 11 complete games with three shutouts. He registered 14 straight victories after losing his first start of the year.
Wilkerson was especially dominant in the postseason, tossing a complete game shutout with 11 strikeouts against Bethel University in the TranSouth Championships in Paducah, Ky., and then striking out 17 in another complete game shutout versus Campbellsville University in the NAIA Championships Opening Round in Joliet, Ill.
He recorded a pair of victories in the NAIA World Series, striking out 13 and giving up just one run in eight innings versus Embry-Riddle in the opener for CU. Then in the championship game, Wilkerson tossed eight innings of four-hit ball before running into trouble in the ninth but still escaping, starting a game-ending doubleplay in the Bulldogs 4-3 triumph against Lee University.
“[Wilkerson’s] a very good pitcher who knows what he can do. He has very good command of his pitches and he can use the strike zone as good as anyone I’ve ever seen. He’s just a quality pitcher,” Hunt said. “His change-up is a very nasty pitch. People don’t realize that he’s a 90-plus guy when he’s on. I think he topped out at 93 at the World Series. He’s a guy who can throw hard stuff up in the strike zone and then he can come back and paint that outside corner low and away. He’s really a master at using the strike zone.”
Righthanders Keith Kirby and Matt Vance were also valuable contributors in 2010, combining for a 5-1 record with 44 strikeouts in 65.2 innings of work. Vance picked up four wins in his 13 outings, including a victory over Campbellsville University in which he allowed just one run on seven hits in five innings. He worked two-plus innings in six of his appearances, including 5.1 in relief versus Georgetown College and 4.2 in relief at St. Catharine College.
Kirby solidified a spot on the Bulldog staff with two excellent relief outings during an early-season trip to Oklahoma, giving up one earned run in 4.2 innings at Oklahoma City University and then tossing 6.2 innings at Oklahoma Baptist without allowing an earned run. The Lafayette, Tenn., native also picked up his only win of the year in the TranSouth Championships title game, working 6.2 innings in a start and giving up five runs on 10 hits.
“Kirby was really a surprise for us last year,” Hunt said. “He gave us quality innings. He’s not bothered by pressure and now he has some experience. He has a really good change-up that fools hitters and he’s being more aggressive with his fastball.”
Relievers Matt McFarland and Daniel Kern both tossed 20-plus innings last season, with Kern picking up six saves in 16 appearances.
Cumberland will count on transfers Will Locante and Mike Mandarino in the starting rotation to replace the likes of Shawn Schaefer, Robert Post and Adam Sprague. Locante spent his first two collegiate seasons at the University of Tennessee, leading the Vols in appearances as a sophomore and working in 50 career contests. The lefthander gained valuable experience in SEC contests while at UT. Mandarino is a dual position threat who will also see action at first base after transferring from Brevard Community College.
“We hope Will Locante can fill one of the starting spots,” Hunt said. “Will has a great arm, a pro arm, probably our best arm. We’ll have to get a lot out of him. If he pitches to his potential, then he and Wilkerson can make a good 1-2 punch.”
Freshman Devin Stovall has also made a push and will likely see action, especially early in the season.
“[Devin] has really pitched well. He has a good arm and a really good change-up and he has good makeup that we’re looking for.”
Catcher David Fanshawe returns behind the plate for the Bulldogs while transfer Cory Farris along with Ben Foster and Tommy Crews will serve as backups at catcher. Farris, who played his first two seasons at the University of Kentucky, will likely be one of the starting outfielders for the Bulldogs as well.
Fanshawe batted .342 with 15 doubles, 13 home runs and 49 RBIs while catching more than 90 percent of the innings last season. He was one of the biggest reasons for the Bulldogs great pitching staff in 2010, which posted a 3.76 team ERA, struck out 464 and walked just 150. He threw out 34 percent of potential base stealers and also drove in all four runs in the championship game.
“Fanshawe is just a really good catcher who is very knowledgeable about how to handle pitchers and he can really pick up things during a game,” Hunt said. “That’s what makes him so special behind the plate.
“Plus he’s a pretty good bat for us. He’s a very clutch hitter. In the World Series he got the four RBIs in the championship game, a two-run homer and a two-run single. The home run was really key because both teams were not scoring and it was a pitcher’s duel and then David popped one and that really gave us confidence. We had Wilkerson on the mound and we thought that would be enough. And then [Fanshawe] got the two-run single to add on to that.”
Redshirt junior Ben Foster will see some action as a backup behind the plate, but two others players, Crews and Farris, may also backup Fanshawe. Crews is a versatile infielder who can also play second, short and third, while Farris is slated as a starting outfielder but was drafted as a catcher out of high school.