With a boatload of capable batsmen and a slew of strong arms, one may wonder what keeps Kent State baseball coach Rick Rembielak concerned in the early days of the 1998 season.
"I'm encouraged by our offense and we have a lot of good arms. But defensively, we need to cut down on our mistakes," said Rembielak, currently in his fifth year at the helm of perennial Mid-American Conference power Kent State. "I think we've outhit every team we've played so far, but we've made more errors than just about every team as well. It's not that we don't know what to do or don't have the ability. It's just execution."
Kent State (4-7), typically solid defensively, has made 27 errors in its first 11 games. Rembielak has been tinkering with his infield lineup, which has led to some of the problems.
"We've been moving people around, but that's going to end," he said. "We're going to put the best people in the right spots and give them reps, because that's what they need to improve."
Senior Brian Smith (.309 in '97) is entrenched at third base and will also serve as the team's No. 2 catcher. Returning starters Cary Zamilski (sophomore, .345) and Jess Bechard (.351, 44 RBIs), a Baseball America second-team Freshman All-American last year, have switched positions this season. Zamilski has been moved from second base to shortstop, and Bechard from first base to second.
"Cary was a great second baseman," said Rembielak. "He's not the ideal shortstop, but he's the best candidate. Jess should be fine at second base, and he's an excellent hitter."
Bechard has smacked four home runs and driven in 14 runs already this season.
Sophomore Ty Carpenter, who has been splitting time at DH with junior Charles Chatman, has been inserted at first base after playing mostly outfield in the past. That opens up the DH spot for Chatman, the Kent State football team's second-leading rusher last year.
"Carpenter and Chatman (switch-hitter) have both been swinging the bat real well," said Rembielak, whose Flashes currently sport a .328 team batting average. "They give us two more good hitters from the left side in the lineup.
"We have a lot of solid hitters on this team, and this lineup gives the best ones a chance to swing the bats regularly. If we can get them to play solid defense, we'll be fine."
Senior Mike Schwamel, a spot starter last year, has taken over in left field and is hitting a team-high .462 on the year. Raul Leoni (.322 last year) returns to start in right field and Sam Crea (.331) is back in centerfield, although redshirt freshman Les Brock is pushing Crea for playing time.
"Sam has struggled early on, while Les is swinging the bat well and deserves a shot," said Rembielak. "He's probably our best outfielder defensively."
Sophomore Alex Marconi, who played 32 games last year, will handle the bulk of the catching duties.
"Alex keeps himself in excellent physical condition," said Rembielak. "He could catch three or four games on weekends during conference play ... we're not sure how we'll handle that yet."
Rembielak has also been forced to do some shuffling with his pitchers.
The Flashes have starters Mike Skeeles (senior lefthander) and Matt Guerrier (sophomore) back on the hill along with returning letterwinners Kory Hartman (junior), Doug Straight (sophomore), Scott Boozer (sophomore) and Geoff Diestel, a sophomore from Kent.
Skeeles, a second-team All-MAC selection a year ago, entered the season as the team's No. 1 starter but has struggled with wildness early on.
"Skeeles hasn't been consistent," said Rembielak. "Guerrier has been our most consistent pitcher so far, so he and Hartman are battling for the No. 1 spot right now. Straight has pitched well out of the bullpen and earned a starting spot, so those are our four starters right now in no particular order."
Senior Drew Roberts, who won seven games for the Flashes in 1996, is still struggling with mechanics problems that have plagued the lefty since he suffered an arm injury two years ago.
"Drew is healthy," said Rembielak. "It's all mental with him right now."
Freshman Dustin Sampson has earned a spot in the bullpen along with Boozer and transfers Shawn Gillespie and Justin Wallace (LH).
Overall Rembielak believes his Flashes, who lost to Ohio in the MAC championship game a year ago, have all the necessary pieces to make what has become an annual run at the MAC championship. Now, he just needs to put those pieces in the right places and hope they produce consistent results.
"Small things will dictate the type of year we have," said Rembielak. "We have people to do the job, but we need them to play consistently well. As a program, we know where we stand ... consistency is the name of the game for us, year in and year out."
Kent State will open MAC play at home on Saturday against Ball State.