It's difficult to attain the perfect pitch. Country, soul, rock and roll, it's not easy.
In 2012, the Ashland University pitching staff didn't always find a perfect pitch, but the Eagle hurlers were close enough that they were one of the best staffs in the GLIAC. The two ringleaders from last season return and friends and foes sing their praises. What the 2013 Eagles are looking for is a way to get the bats on track so everything is in harmony.
A year ago the Eagles were 27-25, 19-17 in the GLIAC. AU is picked third in this year's GLIAC preseason poll. Ashland opens the season this coming weekend – against Wisconsin-Parkside, Southern Indiana and Missouri-St. Louis – at Southern Indiana.
Here's a look at the Eagles as they enter the season.
Senior right-handers Zach Botjer (Deshler, Ohio/Sinclair C.C.) and Brad Thomas (Orrville, Ohio) give the Eagles as fine a one-two combination as the GLIAC has to offer. Botjer was a first team all-conference choice last year when he went 8-5 with a 2.48 ERA and three saves. Botjer provides quality and quantity innings. A year ago he pitched in 20 games, made 10 starts and threw 83.1 innings. Opponents hit .225 against him.
Thomas was 7-4 with a 2.17 ERA in 78.2 innings. He's pitched in key postseason games in his career. His arsenal is top notch and so is his poise.
"They're coming off strong seasons," said AU head coach John Schaly. "They have another year of experience. They'll be the leaders of the staff. Both are hard workers and we think both can have a big year."
Schaly and pitching coach Drew Patton are excited about the return of senior righty Eric Vaughan (Delta, Ohio/Owens C.C.). He missed all of last season due to injury. In 2011, Vaughan was 5-3 with a 3.45 ERA.
"Everything looks good," reported Schaly. "We think he can be the pitcher he was two years ago."
The Eagles have five candidates to fill out the rotation. That list includes righties Jake Baldwin (Madison Heights, Mich./Lamphere), Vince Frate (North Royalton, Ohio), Sam Shafer (Bloomville, Ohio/Ohio State), Ricky Krieger (New Philadelphia, Ohio) and Jon Thacker (Bellbrook, Ohio/Sinclair C.C), plus lefty Cole Hudson (Dresden, Ohio/Zanesville). Hudson is a junior, Baldwin, Frate and Thacker are sophomores and Shafer and Krieger are freshmen.
Hudson was 2-1 in 14 games last season. He started two games. Frate and Baldwin saw limited action – Frate pitched 3.1 innings before being sidelined by injury and Baldwin pitched nine innings.
"Jake's got a really good breaking ball," said Schaly. "He's got great potential, great stuff. We think he's ready to make a breakthrough. Vince will come right at you. If Cole can put it together on a daily basis he'll be a big addition to our staff."
In the bullpen, the prime candidates for the crucial innings are junior Shane Wagner (Volant, Pa./Mercyhurst Northeast) and senior Matt Gundlach (Monroeville, Ohio). Both are right-handers. This is Wagner's first year on campus. He will also play in the outfield. Gundlach is the starting second baseman.
Several other pitchers are looking for a way to force themselves into the picture. That group includes junior righty David Devine (Massillon, Ohio/Massillon Jackson), freshman right-hander Alex Smith (Piqua, Ohio/Lehman Catholic), freshman right-hander Brandon Holt (Ravenna, Ohio) and sophomore right-hander Zach Wolfe (Williamsport, Ohio/Westfall).
Senior John Broll (Mississauga, Ont./Genesee C.C.) was one of the most pleasant surprises on last year's team. He hit .319 and drove in 29 runs. Broll also played well defensively. He was an honorable mention all-conference honoree.
"John's a left-handed hitter with some power," noted Schaly. "He's very solid defensively."
"In junior college he was the region's Gold Glove," Schaly said. "He's very good defensively and will put the ball in play offensively."
The Eagles have altered their look here from last year and the coaching staff believes this unit could be as strong defensively as any infield AU has put on the field the last several years.
Junior Wade Kaido (Zanesville, Ohio) is coming off a season where he hit a team-high .348 with a homer and 22 RBI. He was named honorable mention All-GLIAC. He's penciled in as the starting third baseman.
"He's very steady," Schaly said. "He understands the game. He's a guy you can count on day in and day out."
At the other corner of the infield, the Eagles will station junior Tyler Gray (Plain City, Ohio/Jonathan Alder). Gray hit .282 last season with a team-high 32 RBI.
"He's a middle-of-the-order hitter," said Schaly.
At shortstop, the Eagles will turn to sophomore Austin Walts (Amherst, Ohio/Amherst Steele). Walts played in 46 games a year ago (40 starts) and hit .278.
"Austin's an excellent defensive shortstop," said Schaly. "He's one of the best defensive shortstops we've ever had. He's really improved offensively. He'll put the ball in play."
At second base, the Eagles will employ Gundlach and sophomore Stephen James (Westlake, Ohio). Gundlach started at shortstop a year ago before bowing out with an injury. He was limited to 11 games.
"Matt probably has the strongest arm of any second baseman in the country," said Schaly. "His speed and range make us a great infield.
"Stephen has the potential to be a great hitter," continued Schaly. "He's very steady defensively."
Freshmen Mike Lewandowski (Hudson, Ohio), Mackenize Hampshire (Delphos, Ohio/Elida) and sophomore Tyler Pollock (Grand Junction, Colo./Glendale C.C.) are youngsters fighting for playing time. Lewandowski and Hampshire are corner infielders and Pollock is a shortstop.
Four players figure to see the bulk of the playing time here. That quartet includes senior Austin Erb (Mechanicsville, Va./Hanover) and junior Alex Sortwell (San Mateo, Calif./Canada College) in left field, Wagner in center field and freshman Nick Edwards (Mason, Ohio/Archbishop Moeller) in right field.
Erb was primarily an infielder a year ago. He was second on the team in batting average (.331) and tied for second in RBI (29). Erb's the only one in this group who was at Ashland last season.
"We think this will be the key group in our offensive production," said Schaly. "Alex, Shane and Nick can all run and throw. They give us a very good defensive outfield. They can make things happen on the bases. All three have power potential."
Sophomore Tyler Bires (Lorain, Ohio/Amherst Steele) and freshmen Luke Burch (Millersburg, Ohio/Berlin Hiland) and Kody Ross (Danville, Ky./Boyle County) are three young players who will be watched closely by the coaching staff.
Schaly is 574-276-1 with the Eagles. This is his 16th season at Ashland. In 25 years as a collegiate head coach, he is 937-494-1. Under Schaly, AU has reached the postseason 11 times and advanced to the World Series four times.
The Eagles will be in Florida for their spring trip, Mar. 8-17. That trip includes games against Great Lakes Valley Conference (GLVC) entrants Missouri-St. Louis, Illinois-Springfield and Saint Joseph's. AU's last game in Florida is against the defending NCAA Division II national champion, West Chester.