The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

Sports

February 15, 2014

Lions open baseball season today

There’s loads of experience on Missouri Southern’s pitching staff, but new faces dominate the Lions’ batting lineup.

The Lions, under seven-year head coach Bryce Darnell, open the season this weekend with a four-game series against Minnesota-Crookston. Doubleheaders begin at 1 p.m. today and noon Sunday at Joe Becker Stadium.

The Lions went 34-22 last season, placed third in the MIAA standings and won the conference postseason tournament on a ninth-inning walkoff home run by Sam Ryan. The Lions reached the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2001 but lost to Central Region host Minnesota State 1-0 in 14 innings and Central Missouri 7-3.

This year the Lions are picked fourth in the MIAA coaches preseason poll, and they received votes in both the coaches’ and writers’ national preseason polls. They are picked sixth in the writers’ preseason regional poll.

The pitching staff lost ace Brett Abell, but two all-conference performers return. Senior right-hander Ryan Bates was 8-3 with a 3.88 earned run average. He struck out 58 batters and walked 22 in 72 innings. Sophomore left-hander Payton Walker went 6-5 and had a 3.50 ERA with 40 strikeouts and 29 walks in 64 innings.

Senior right-handers David Reese and Drew Noble combined for 20 starts. Noble, in 12 starts, was 7-4 with 4.70 ERA and 45 strikeouts and 26 walks in 76 innings, and Reese fanned 52 and walked only 10 in 68 innings while posting a 4-6 record and 5.27 ERA.

“We need them to pitch well,” said Darnell, who’s assisted by Jason Immekus, Nick Tuck and Dennis Vilela. “We want David Reese to have a season similar to his sophomore year (6-3, 2.64 ERA). We need Payton Walker and Drew to continue to improve and Ryan Bates to pitch like he did basically all last year.”

Stephen Vaughn (2.25 ERA in 11 appearances last year) and Logan Moon, a transfer from Central Arkansas who will be the everyday center fielder, are battling for the closer’s role. The staff also includes returnees Kanon Hoover, Jacob Lux, Josh Engler and Sean Goostree and freshmen Nathan Strobel and Matt Harvey.

Third baseman Tee Helsel and left fielder Zack Steadman, both seniors, are the only returnees in the batting order. Helsel batted .294 last year with five home runs and 34 runs batted in, and Steadman hit .257 and drove in seven runs.

Mitchell Osburn will be the Lions’ catcher. He played in the first three games and had three hits and three RBI before a broken wrist sidelined him for the season. Matt Smith is the backup catcher.

Moon and outfielder Axel Johnson, a transfer from TCU, will bat in the middle of the lineup. Johnson is injured but hopes to play next weekend.

“Those two guys will be big run producers, and Osburn will make a big contribution,” Darnell said.

Dusty Harper and Brett Graham are the candidates at first base, and the middle infield has three guys battling for two spots. Jared Lupo, an all-Jayhawk Conference performer at Pratt Community College, will start along with Austin White or Brandon Weller. David Johnson and Tyler Whiteis are infield reserves.

Joining Steadman, Moon and Johnson in the outfield will be Evan Natick, Robbe Ewing and Beau Phillips.

 “We have some flexibility in the outfield,” Darnell said. “That will help us when we get in a left-right situation, and we can play whoever gives us the hot hand that day.

“We’re different. We’re not as powerful as last year for sure. Last year at times we were pretty rigid in the lineup. We had a lot of left-handed hitters, and some left-handed pitchers were tough on us.

“We’re not as experienced. We had a senior at first, senior at second, senior at shortstop, a senior catching. As we get more experience, I anticipate us to continue to get better. I think we are more athletic than last year.”

After this weekend, the Lions open their 40-game MIAA schedule — 10 four-game weekend series — next Friday at Lincoln. The Lions do not have league games against Missouri Western, Washburn and Pittsburg State.

The Lions and Gorillas, however, have scheduled nine-inning nonconference games on April 2 in Pittsburg and April 15 at Joe Becker Stadium.

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