Three Strikes: RPI Darling Kennesaw State Ascends, Eastern Illinois, Matthew Linskey
RPI Darling Kennesaw State Continues Ascent
When Ryan Coe returned to become the head coach at his alma mater Kennesaw State after 12 years as a scout for the Texas Rangers, he knew exactly what kind of team he wanted to have.
“I told (the team) when I first got here that I wanted to be the team that people come in after the weekend and go ‘Golly, that was miserable. That was a difficult team to beat and they’re annoying and they’re always in our face and they play hard, and if you let up for a minute, they’re going to take advantage of it,’ ” Coe said. “That’s the kind of team we’re trying to be.”
With the way the Owls have played this season, their opponents undoubtedly see them as annoying and then some, especially in conference play. They’re 21-10 overall and 10-2 in the ASUN, which puts them three games clear of second-place Liberty in the East Division and two games better than Eastern Kentucky and Central Arkansas from the West Division.
They lost a series on the road to Florida Gulf Coast two weekends ago, but have swept the three other conference series they’ve played against Jacksonville, North Florida and last weekend against Stetson.
Pitching shined against the Hatters, as KSU allowed a total of four runs across three games, the fewest it has allowed in any series this season.
“That was very nice to see,” Coe said. “I think Coach (Matthew) Passauer, our pitching coach, has done an excellent job with these guys and you see them getting better every week and hopefully that trend will continue.”
The way in which Kennesaw State set up its pitching last weekend is interesting and is one of just a couple of ways in which this feels like a uniquely modern program.
Righthander Jack Myers gave the Owls excellent work on Friday, allowing one run in seven innings in an 11-1 victory, but the next two days, they used a piggyback system.
On Saturday, lefthander John Bezdicek got the start and threw five innings, giving up three hits and two runs. He was followed by righthander Smith Pinson, who threw four hitless innings to close out a 3-2 win.
By the end of that game, Bezdicek had thrown 36.2 innings on the season, with Pinson right behind him at 36.1, suggesting that the roles could easily have been reversed if the situation called for it. And because of Pinson’s versatility, his role has shifted at times. He’s had relief appearances as long as 6.2 innings and he’s also started three games.
On Sunday, lefthander Brayden Eidson made his second start of the season and gave up four hits and one run in five innings. Righthander Luke Torbert followed with three innings and closer Jared Rine threw the ninth to finish a 7-1 win.
Both Eidson and Torbert also have examples of the kind of role fluidity we’re talking about. Torbert against FGCU had a relief outing of 5.1 innings, but he also began the season as a weekend starter against Morehead State. Eidson has started games each of the last two weekends, but against UNF, he had a relief appearance of 7.2 innings.
Kennesaw State isn’t the only team to do something like this on the weekends—Virginia Commonwealth has piggybacked pitchers for several years now—but it’s a choice that isn’t all that widespread at the college level.
And to be clear, it’s not necessarily that KSU set out to do things a little bit differently or to be on the leading edge of how to set up a pitching staff. The coaching staff just sees this as the best way to use the arms they have.
“Until we get Greg Maddux in here, that’s kind of what we’re going to have to do,” Coe said. “I’d love to just give Greg the ball on Friday and let him go nine, but it’s definitely an advantage to be able to (piggyback). The starter can give you what he’s got, and then when we see him get in trouble, you can bring in another guy that could be a starter as well and it really shortens the game.”
KSU also comes off as a modern program in the way in which it embraced the transfer portal. Coe and his staff weren’t shy about bringing in transfers, from all different levels of college baseball, no less, to supplement the returning roster and it paid off in a big way.
The team’s top hitter is center fielder Josh Hatcher (.426/.477/.676), a Mississippi State transfer who helped the Bulldogs to a national title last season. Its leading home run hitter, with eight, is third baseman Cash Young (.292/.388/.558), who came from Division II Georgia College and State. Myers (3-1, 3.56) is a transfer from Butler. Bezdicek (3-1, 3.19) arrived at Kennesaw after four seasons at Division II Southwest Minnesota State.
Those four players all have prominent roles on this team, joining veterans like fifth-year senior shortstop Tyler Simon (.323/.374/.484) and Rine (2.84 ERA, 19 IP), a fourth-year junior, and younger players getting their first taste of full-time action, like redshirt freshman first baseman Donovan Cash (.360/.422/.474) and third-year sophomore utility player Zac Corbin (.330/.429/.486).
Getting the team on the same page when you introduce transfers as KSU has done this season can be a tricky thing, but Coe and his assistant coach Derrick Tucker had the built-in advantage of intimate knowledge of these transfers from having scouted them previously, either at their original collegiate stops or as prep players, as was the case with Hatcher.
“We were fortunate that with the guys we brought in we weren’t going in blind,” Coe said. “We actually had a relationship, so we knew what kind of player we were getting, (but) we had a feel for what kind of people they are as well. That’s so important with the transfer portal, trying to get not only the right player, but we’re trying to get the right kind of person that will fit into your program.”
Right now, you also can’t talk about Kennesaw State without addressing its RPI, which currently sits 13 in the country. The Owls’ overall resume is short on marquee wins but is greatly helped by the fact that they haven’t taken on any bad losses yet and have played a lot of games against RPI top 100 teams.
Coe is well aware of what his team is doing in the RPI and how it will affect its postseason chances, and he’s even willing to admit that it influences the way he approaches managing the schedule still in front of it.
“The RPI thing is something that we are very aware of as coaches and the impact it will have on us if we do try to get an at-large bid,” Coe said. “Basically, we want to try to win every game and let it fall where it may be, but there is some strategy involved. If you have two games in the midweek, you go all-in on both, but if you fall behind in one, you kind of back off and try to win the other.”
Having an RPI high enough to get into the postseason is the big-picture goal, but with an RPI that high, you also can’t count out the possibility that KSU could find its way in the hosting discussion if it continues to win games at this kind of clip.
The needs report at BoydsWorld.com, which estimates how many wins a team needs to reach certain RPI thresholds, says that a regular-season win total in the high 30s could place the Owls inside the top 16 in RPI, which would, by definition, force their name into the mix.
It’s unlikely that the Owls could host at Stillwell Stadium, their current campus facility, but the program has the advantage of being located in a baseball hotbed in the Atlanta area and therefore might be able to find another suitable facility if push came to shove.
But regardless of where they end up, at home or on the road as a two or three seed, Coe and his staff have cleverly deployed a well-built roster in year one that will have a shot to make noise come June if they can get to that stage.
Eastern Illinois Working to Put Together Historic Season
Just past the halfway mark, Eastern Illinois is having one heck of a season. The Panthers are 22-8 overall, and at 5-1 in league play with a series sweep of Tennessee-Martin and a series win over Southern Illinois-Edwardsville, they currently lead the OVC.
And by the way, EIU has managed to do all this without playing a single true home game yet. Because maintenance is being done at its home facility, Coaches Stadium, the three “home” games so far have been played in Rantoul, Ill., about an hour away from campus. Last weekend’s home series against SIUE also had to be moved to Edwardsville, so the Panthers played as the home team in a road environment.
The season has already technically been a historic one, as a 16-4 start was EIU’s best 20-game start in the Division I history of the program. At this rate, though, it’s also on pace to be historic in a number of ways at the end of the campaign, too.
EIU should zoom by the high-water mark for wins in the last decade, which was 29 in 2012, and finishing above .500 in OVC play for the first time since 2014 also seems like an imminently reachable milestone.
But if you think bigger than that, the program record for wins, 37 by the 1998 team, is also within reach, even if that’s perhaps more of a stretch goal with the toughest portion of the OVC schedule still ahead.
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If the Panthers are able to challenge that program wins record, it also will likely mean that they’re contending near the top of the conference, which is notable for a program that hasn’t finished higher than fourth in the standings since it last won the regular-season title in 2009.
And if the Panthers find themselves in that position, their frontline pitching will likely have been a big part of that success.
Fifth-year senior lefthander Trevor Nicholson pitched out of the bullpen twice to begin the season before jumping into the weekend rotation, and he’s been dominant this season regardless of role. He has a 1.74 ERA, a 64-to-15 strikeout-to-walk ratio and a .185 opponent batting average in 41.1 innings, and he gets swings and misses by the ton.
All three of his pitches—a fastball that sits in the high 80s and touches the low 90s, a low-80s changeup and a high-70s slider—have whiff rates greater than 40%, which is particularly rare for a fastball and even more rare for a fastball that doesn’t have premium velocity and gets thrown more than 70% of the time, as is the case with Nicholson’s heater.
Fifth-year senior righthander Cameron Doherty (4-3, 3.89) has given Nicholson a solid teammate in the rotation, with that duo giving the team a chance to win each and every series on the schedule, and closer Zane Robbins, a big-bodied righthander who transferred to EIU from Hartford, has struck out 25 in 14.2 innings pitched, and just gave up his first runs of the season in a Tuesday win over Valparaiso.
The offense is hitting .285/.386/.412 as a team, led by fourth-year junior first baseman Ryan Ignoffo (.431/.449/.765), fifth-year senior second baseman Lucas DiLuca, who’s hitting .373 and is 7-for-7 in stolen bases, and Illinois transfer outfielder Nathan Aide, who’s hitting .356 with six home runs, second on the team behind Ignoffo’s seven.
This unit has both quality and depth, but it takes a step back when Ignoffo isn’t in the lineup, and that’s something to watch moving forward, as he hasn’t played since he was removed midway through the series finale against Butler on April 3.
Not only is Ignoffo EIU’s best hitter, but he’s also a versatile defender, having played right field, second base and third base in his time in the program, in addition to first base this year and pitching from time to time in short relief outings, where his big arm plays up.
The biggest tests of the season are still ahead for Eastern Illinois, including a road series against Austin Peay this weekend, but it doesn’t get the other two top teams in the conference, Belmont and Southeast Missouri State, until the final two weekends of the regular season.
And if Eastern Illinois continues to play like it has over the first half of the season, those two series could be two of the most important in recent years for the program as this team looks to make history.
Linskey Represents Bright Spot for Rice
Not a lot has gone exceedingly well for Rice in Jose Cruz Jr.’s first season at the helm. The team is 10-24, has a team slash line of .249/.351/.378 and has a team ERA of 5.89. It has just one series win this season, a road series victory against Marshall in late March.
Most observers agreed that there was still a lot of rebuilding to do in the Rice program and expectations were modest for this season as a result. But few anticipated just how much of a struggle the first half of 2022 was going to be for the Owls.
Righthanded reliever Matthew Linskey, however, has been an unmitigated success story in an otherwise tough season.
In 15.2 innings spread over 14 appearances, he has given up six hits and no runs with six walks and 37 strikeouts, meaning that 37 of the 47 outs he’s recorded this season have come via strikeout. He works with a fastball that averages over 91 mph and touches 95, a pitch that he’s used more than 85% of the time this season.
It will be interesting to see how Linskey is used moving forward. Up until last weekend, his role had been quite narrow, as he threw more than one inning just once in his first 12 appearances. But last weekend against Louisiana Tech, he threw three shutout innings and was just as effective as he had been in one-inning stints. Eight of his nine recorded outs were strikeouts and he allowed just two hits. Perhaps that is the start of Linskey being deployed a bit differently over the second half of the season.
If this truly ends up being a lost season for Rice from a wins and losses standpoint, the key will be to have found some bright spots and building blocks for the 2023 team as the coaching staff works to move the program forward. Count Linskey as one of them.