By Allen Moff | Staff Writer
First-year coach Jeff Duncan has seen his Kent State baseball team at its best and worst during the first five weeks of the 2014 season.
The best featured a 7-3 start, and included a 14-5 victory over national power Arizona, along with a pair of wins over solid programs from Winthrop and Middle Tennessee State.
The worst has come mostly in the past two weekends, when the Golden Flashes dropped three games at Liberty and lost 8-0 to 5-14 Appalachian State.
As Kent State prepares for the start of the Mid-American Conference season today, Duncan is confident that he'll see more of his team at the top of its game as the '14 campaign unfolds.
"I like this team, I think we've just gotta be a little more consistent," said Duncan. "Once we get that consistency, and once I figure out this lineup and this offense, by the end of the year, we'll be where we need to be."
The Flashes (9-8) enjoyed a solid start to the season offensively, averaging 6.4 runs over those first 10 games. But they managed just five runs in three losses at Liberty, and produced just two total tallies in their final two games last weekend.
"I think our offense will get better as the season goes on, because we do have a lot of guys who are unproven," said Duncan. "You look at our lineup, you've got (senior) T.J. Sutton in right field who has played quite a bit along with (junior centerfielder) Alex Miklos and maybe (junior shortstop) Sawyer Polen, although Polen's a junior and still learning some things as well. Other than that, no one has extensive experience."
One player that has been a model of consistency at the plate is sophomore designated hitter Zarley Zalewski, who is batting .431 with 13 runs batted in.
"Zarley's always been a guy who has hit. Wherever he's gone, wherever he's been, he's been a hitter," said Duncan. "He just has a knack to find the barrel, an excellent hitter with a good approach. It's hard to find guys who have a knack to hit in any situation, and he's one of those guys."
Duncan has tinkered with his lineup throughout the early portion of the season, and will make a few adjustments for the MAC opener on Friday against Toledo.
"I'm gonna move (senior left fielder) Jon Wilson up," said Duncan. "He's been doing a good job in left field and in the eight hole, and he brings a speed option to us. I'm gonna move him up to the one hole, Miklos will move up to the two hole (from No. 3), and we'll put (sophomore third baseman) Justin Wagler in the three. Zalewski's gonna stay at No. 4, (senior first baseman) Cody Koch will stay at five with T.J. Sutton sixth and (junior catcher) Tommy Monnot seventh. Then I'll put Sawyer Polen eighth and (freshman second baseman) Zach Beckner ninth.
"That's for Friday, then we'll go from there."
One key area of the team that seems to have been solidified over the past two weeks is starting pitching.
Highly regarded freshman lefty Eric Lauer has lived up to the hype and then some, posting a 4-1 record with a 2.49 ERA and a team-high 18 strikeouts in his first 251⁄3 innings as a collegian. He has earned the right to start Friday night series openers for Kent State.
"He's been really good," said Duncan. "We're looking for him to continue that."
Junior left-hander Brian Clark (1-4, 6.75), of Stow, made the switch from reliever to starter this season and was roughed up early on, but has allowed just three earned runs in 112⁄3 innings during his last two outings. He is the No. 2 starter, followed by sophomore right-hander Nick Jensen-Clagg (0-1, 6.14).
"That's what we're hoping our rotation will be the rest of the way," said Duncan. "There's some youth with Jensen-Clagg and Lauer, which is good moving forward as we continue to grow."
Eric Dorsch (1.93 ERA, 3 saves), a 6-foot-8, 270-pound right-handed fireballer, will serve as the team's closer.
"Dorsch is gonna be in our back end, and from there it's gonna be situational (with the bullpen)," said Duncan. "We like our depth in the bullpen."
Perhaps Duncan's biggest concern heading into the MAC season is defense, which has been shaky at times - particularly over the past two weeks.
"We just need to be more consistent with our actions and our effort, making sure that we solidify things defensively so we're in every ballgame and have a chance to win," he said. "I think we just need to get a little more experience and as the season goes on continue to stay positive and get better, and we'll see where it takes us."
The Flashes will host Toledo (6-10) this weekend, with Friday's doubleheader starting at 2:30 p.m. followed by a 1 p.m. matchup on Saturday.
TOday's Probable Lineup
1. Jon Wilson, LF (.293)
2. Alex Miklos, SS (.323, 7 doubles, 7 stolen bases)
3. Justin Wagler, 3B (.326)
4. Zarley Zalewski, DH (.431, 13 RBI)
5. Cody Koch, 1B (.302, 9 RBI)
6. T.J. Sutton, RF (.258)
7. Tommy Monnot, C (.212, 7 RBI)
8. Sawyer Polen, SS (.185, 6 stolen bases)
9. Zach Beckner, 2B (.244)
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