College baseball is here, and Appalachian State opens a three-game series at Gardner-Webb on Friday to kick off the 2020 season.
Coach Kermit Smith and his staff are now in their fourth season together, and they saw a step forward last season. The Mountaineers went 22-31, winning 13 conference games and appearing in the Sun Belt Conference tournament for the first time since the school joined the league.
They look to be trending upward, too: In App State’s first 45 Sun Belt games under Smith, they won only nine. In their last 45, they’ve won 21.
“We really like where we are,” Smith said. “Obviously there’s things that we need to continue to improve on, but we’ve got a good base.”
With many guys back, both in the batter’s box and on the mound, here are five reasons why Appalachian might be ready to turn a corner:
Average and power in the bats
App State returns its top three hitters from 2019: second basemen Luke Drumheller (.337 batting average), as well as outfielders Tyler Leek (.323) and Kendall McGowan (.305).
McGowan came on strong late in the season, hitting .323 in the Sun Belt while smashing seven home runs in his final 11 games. He also tore through the Coastal Plain League, earning first-team recognition in the summer league for college players.
Leek led the team in OPS (on-base percentage plus slugging) to go along with a team-high 32 runs.
“When you start looking at the lineup, you see a lot of familiar names, and I think that’s a really positive thing,” Smith said. “One thing that I’ve prided myself and our staff on is just the ability to develop players and people.
“I think what you’ll see is you’ve seen a consistency in guys in our program getting better, and I think that’s what you’ll continue to see.”
The arms are looking strong, too
The Mountaineers will see some quality pitching in 2020 with the return of Tyler Tuthill and Jason Cornatzer, among others.
“I think it’s the best starting point that we’ve had since I’ve been here,” Smith said. “I hope that I say that at this time every year.”
Tuthill eventually became the Mountaineers’ No. 1 starter for weekend series, going 6-7 in 14 starting appearances. The 6-foot-3 pitcher will also get help from two transfers in Quinton Martinez and Shane Roberts. The junior and sophomore, respectively, both come to Boone from Florida.
Who’s emerging in the bullpen?
Smith’s philosophy, throughout his career, on the bullpen has been simple: keep it strong and full of reliable arms.
He feels confident about this year’s chances too, even with the departure of Kaleb Bowman, who became the Mountaineers go-to closer option.
“We’ve always looked for three guys that we feel like can kind of compete in any situation,” Smith said. “I don’t know if we’ve ever really named a closer . . . We’ve always had three guys kind of going into each game we feel pretty confident with.”
Smith pinpointed Andrew Papp and Jack Hartman, both seniors, as well as freshman Noah Hall as those guys this year. Papp threw 45 strikes to 14 walks in just over 42 innings. Hartman allowed no earned runs during his 12 game appearances last season.
What the players are saying
“Have fun. I think last year, being a transfer, I transferred in not knowing what Division I was like. Never seen a pitch. Never been to Lafayette and heard the crowd of 5,000 people. And so I found myself really stressed, wanting to make the play, sometimes overdoing it, sometimes overdoing it hitting, swinging at pitches I probably shouldn’t be. So just have fun and relax.” - First baseman Robbie Young, on dealing with the pressures of college baseball.
“Preparation. I mean, that makes it easier. People talk about the greatest competitors -- Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, Peyton Manning -- they talk about making the practice harder than in the game. And we do a great job of that. It’s hard to compare it to like when you go to Lafayette or play UNC or whoever it might be, that real competition, but we get as close as we can get. We make it as hard as we can to practice so in the game, it’s a little bit easier.” - Relief pitcher Jack Hartman, on the work it takes to make a team successful.
Two to watch
Last season, two freshmen made significant impacts for the Mountaineers. They were Drumheller and Tuthill.
Both sophomores will be looked to again as they become stalwarts to the App State program. Drumheller hit .337 while starting in 50 of the 51 games he played.
Drumheller and earned preseason all-Sun Belt team nods, along with Papp, to follow a debut season where he was named a freshman All-American by Collegiate Baseball News.