About the last thing Kent State baseball fans saw coming on the heels of a stunning run to the 2012 College World Series was a 1-7 start to the 2013 campaign.
Of course, no one thought a freshman named Zarley Zalewski would be batting third in the lineup either.
But such is the current state of the Golden Flashes, who have lost 7-of-8 games and the best hitter in the Mid-American Conference -- senior first baseman George Roberts -- during a bitterly disappointing start to the '13 season.
Of course, there's no reason to panic just yet. Kent State has faced some tough competition thus far, teams from the South and West that have been consistently practicing outdoors while the Flashes have been stuck inside due to our lengthy cold spell. Consider the fact that last year Kent State was 8-10 heading into conference play and wound up just 13-14 in regular season non-league games, yet finished 47-20 when all was said and done.
But while some of the issues that have cropped up thus far are just typical troubles teams from our region encounter early in the season, others are legitimate cause for concern.
Let's take a look at the different areas in which the Flashes have struggled thus far, and decide which ones are truly a cause for alarm:
1. Starting Pitching
The numbers: KSU's four starters are a combined 1-4 with a 7.21 ERA.
Cause for Alarm? Not really.
Kent State's top two starters, juniors Tyler Skulina and Taylor Williams, have been sensational so far. Coach Scott Stricklin called his top two "as good as anybody in the country." While someone out there may have a better one-two, they certainly aren't a member of the MAC.
No. 3 starter Casey Wilson has struggled while converting from a starter to reliever, and the two pitchers Kent State has used as fourth starters so far -- junior Michael Clark and freshman Nick Jensen-Clagg -- failed miserably in their lone starts.
Keep in mind that MAC teams play three-game weekend sets against one another, so those Sunday games often turn into slugfests as teams get deeper into their rotation. The Flashes will eventually find a third starter who is at least as good as anyone else's No. 3 in the MAC, to go along with a 1-2 punch that's heads and shoulders above their MAC competition.
The numbers: 9.43 ERA, 3 blown saves.
Cause for Alarm? Somewhat.
The Flashes have several experienced relievers returning who pitched well last year, so the surprising thing so far is that they're all off to ugly starts. Stricklin moved Wilson out of the bullpen into the starter's role thinking that they could afford to make that move since he had so many proven relievers returning, including sophomores Josh Pierce and Brian Clark along with junior Michael Clark. You have to believe that at least some of these relievers are going to get things straightened out based on their track records, while under the guidance of one of the best pitching coaches in the country in Mike Birkbeck. But if the struggles continue, and a closer does not emerge, look for Wilson to make his way back to the bullpen.
3. Clutch hitting
The numbers: 86 runners left on base in eight games.
Cause for Alarm? Not the lack of clutch hitting.
The concern stems from the loss of Roberts, the reigning MAC Player of the Year and a preseason All-American, who broke the hamate bone in his left wrist during his third at-bat of the season. Roberts underwent successful surgery last Friday and is expected to be back in time for the MAC opener on March 22, but will he be at full strength? Will he be rusty after missing around four weeks of at-bats?
Without Roberts in the middle of the lineup, Stricklin has had to shift his order around considerably -- installing the aforementioned Zalewski in the three hole, followed by sophomore second-year starter Alex Miklos in place of Roberts in the cleanup spot and another freshman, Justin Wagler, at No. 5. Those three hitters combined to strand eight runners in Kent State's last game, a 14-2 loss at San Diego.
In the first lineup of the year Wagler batted ninth, Miklos hit seventh, and Zalewski did not play. That gives you an idea of the impact losing Roberts has on this lineup.
If Roberts returns to full strength, the lineup will become settled and the struggles with runners in scoring position will almost assuredly subside. But if he does not return as soon as expected, or has a tough time finding the groove after returning, the offense suddenly becomes a question mark.
The numbers: .927 fielding percentage, 23 errors and 18 unearned runs in eight games.
Cause for Alarm? Definitely.
Kent State's inability to make routine plays has stunned Stricklin. Seven players have already made errors for a team that made just 68 errors in 67 games last season.
Junior Derek Toadvine, who made 11 errors while playing mostly second base last year, has seven errors already after shifting to shortstop this season. His current fielding percentage is a dismal .806.
Wagler is second on the team with four errors, but he's actually settled in at third base pretty well after making three errors in the opener alone. Sophomores Jeff Revesz and Tommy Monnot seem to be doing a decent job defensively at catcher (0 errors, 4 combined passed balls), although Revesz has just one hit on the season.
The last thing Stricklin told me before his team left on its season-opening trip to North Carolina says it all.
"I think how consistently we are defensively is our key to success," he said. "Last year that was why we were so good, we played clean baseball and didn't make a lot of mistakes defensively. We've got two new guys in key positions at shortstop and catcher, so I think if we can just stay steady there ..."
So far the Flashes have been far from steady.
While difficulties in other areas such as the bullpen seem to have remedies in place, Kent State is relying on unproven performers in crucial positions to play well defensively. Therefore the defensive woes are the most troublesome, and the main area to keep an eye on as the Flashes' brutal early season schedule continues this weekend with a three-game set at No. 4 Louisville.