Skyhawk Baseball eager to get 2023 campaign started this weekend in Music City

 Skyhawk Baseball eager to get 2023 campaign started this weekend in Music City

The 2023 UT Martin baseball season gets underway this weekend as a talented Skyhawk roster will be put on display for the first time in the four-game series at Belmont this weekend.

Sixth-year head coach Ryan Jenkins presides over a 2023 squad that includes a steady balance of 19 returners and 18 newcomers. The roster features an exact split between 18 position players, 18 pitchers and a two-way player.

“It’s almost a 50/50 split between returners and incoming guys, which is a little bit different for us,” Jenkins said. “It’s been a great mix – the chemistry has been great since Day One and you could see that in the locker room starting really early. The guys have all been behind each other and done a good job coming together as a team and having a common goal.”

One noticeable trait of UT Martin’s 2023 squad that should immediately stand out is the team’s speed. After the Skyhawks swiped 22 bags as a team last spring, that number should shoot up dramatically by season’s end.

“Athletically, this is a faster team than we’ve had here in the past,” Jenkins said. “I don’t know that we’ve ever had three guys that were sub-6.5-second runners on the same roster. We’ll be extremely fast, especially in the outfield.”

That speedy outfield is expected to be filled by returner Will Smith (the only UT Martin player to start in all 45 games in 2022) in left field, junior newcomer Caleb Hobson (.350 batting average with 50 stolen bases in 88 career games at Northwest Mississippi Community College) in centerfield and junior newcomer Zac Rice (all-conference selection who helped Chipola College go 75-15-1 in his two years) in right field.

Smith is the lone two-way player on the roster as the junior from Prattville, Ala. is anticipated to make his debut on the hill in 2023. When Smith is tabbed to pitch, Jenkins envisions freshman Travis Stauter – also a Prattville, Ala. native who was part of a 2022 area championship at the prep level – filling in at the corner outfield spots.

“Will’s role will change a little bit,” Jenkins said. “He’s so important to our offense where we have to make sure he’s in the lineup every day but he’s done so well throwing in scrimmages that he’s going to be used on the mound. Caleb has gotten better every day this spring – I think he’s going to be one of the top-tier guys as far as outfielders go in our league. Zac plays great defensively and swings the bat really well too – he only made one error and was right around a .300 hitter in junior college. Travis is another fast player who as a freshman already has a good body frame at 6-2, 215 pounds. He’s shown a productive power bat during our preseason scrimmages.”

Two more returners have solidified starting positions in 2023 in Blaze Bell (first base) and Jack Culumovic (designated hitter). Bell was an Ohio Valley Conference All-Freshman a year ago, hitting .304 with a .385 on-base percentage while slugging .446 as a rookie in league play. Culumovic boasted a team-best .382 on-base percentage last season and has started in 86 of his 91 career games as a Skyhawk.

“Blaze made some changes with his swing last year and I really look for him to have a big year,” Jenkins said. “He’s a little bit more physical than he was a year ago and he’s just picked up right where he left off. Jack has had a great preseason camp – I want to make sure he’s in the lineup every day. He’s one of our leaders and a captain on this team.”

Mac Danford won the starting third base job after the junior slugger ranked in the top-10 nationally in batting average (.388), slugging percentage (.678), total bases (103) and triples (seven) at Enterprise State Community College in 2022. Nate Self, who started 29 games at the hot corner and hit .275 against OVC opposition a year ago, will also see playing time there this season.

“Mac has given us some stability at third base,” Jenkins said. “He’s a guy that is going to hit in the middle of our lineup and has the potential to drive in a lot of runs. Nate has also been swinging the bat extremely well and played good defense through all of our spring scrimmages.”

The two starting middle infield spots have recently been juggled around due to an unfortunate injury to Andrew Fernandez on the first day of spring practice. The switch-hitter, who was an all-conference honoree who slugged .569 with 46 RBI’s last season at Tallahassee Community College, had claimed the starting role at shortstop but will miss the start of the season while rehabbing. That has left an opportunity for the trio of Alec Beaman (.373 on-base percentage in 42 starts up the middle last season), Hunter McLean (22 starts and team leader in stolen bases in 2022) and newcomer Jonah Wichman (.945 OPS with 42 RBI’s last season at St. Charles Community College) to seize the Opening Day starting jobs at shortstop and second base.

“Andrew’s injury was a tough blow – he’s just a really special college baseball player who is a hard worker and will make a lot of noise on our team once he returns,” Jenkins said. “We’re comfortable moving Alec over to shortstop to start the year and he will join Hunter and Jonah in the open competition for second base. Early on, we’ll probably try to play a lot of matchups with Jonah hitting left-handed and Hunter batting right-handed.”

Jenkins projects three options who will see significant playing time at catcher in Slade Taylor, Cameron Brady and Jackson Cooke. Taylor has likely sewn up the Opening Day starter role after reaching base at a .435 clip last season and throwing out 27 would-be basestealers over a two-year career at Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College. Brady started 21 games behind the dish at UT Martin last spring and provided one of the season’s biggest moments – cranking the eventual game-winning two-run home run in the top of the ninth inning in the March 1 win at Alabama. Cooke comes to the Skyhawks from Edina High School in Minnesota, where he was ranked the fifth-best catcher and 36th overall prospect in the state for his class by Perfect Game.

“Slade is a transfer who has played a lot of college baseball,” Jenkins said. “Cameron will be right there with him – he has some experience in our league. Jackson has done a really good job since he’s been here and he just needs some at-bats – I could even see him playing some at first base at times. I’m looking forward to seeing those guys handle our pitching staff this year.”

Garner Anderson, a Martin product who was the Jackson Sun All-West Tennessee Male Athlete of the Year in 2021-22, will serve as a utility man who will play all across the diamond.

The junior duo of Benny DeTrude (outfielder who has appeared in 37 career games) and Carson Deer (catcher who has played one game) will provide left-handed hitting depth. Chance Merithew, who started 22 games at catcher in 2022, is unfortunately expected to miss his senior season with an injury.

On the pitching side, Jenkins is excited about a weekend starting rotation that includes newcomers Tristan Walton and Jordan Armstrong paired up alongside Preseason All-OVC honoree Eric Steensma.

“Our pitching depth is a big strength of this year’s club,” Jenkins said. “One of the biggest issues that we’ve struggled with in years past is having injuries in the starting rotation spots and solidifying those roles. If we stay healthy, those three are all capable of giving us quality starts every time out and keeping us in the ballgame. That allows us to set up our bullpen nicely for an entire series – especially on Sundays where the games can be a bit more offensive.”

A 6-3, 200-pound lefty, Walton was a workhorse at Lawson State Community College, making 24 starts while striking out 112 batters over 127.2 innings of work the last two seasons. Armstong went 3-1 with a save while striking out 40 batters in 30.1 innings over 14 appearances (six starts) at Auburn in 2022, helping the Tigers advance to the College World Series and win a game for the first time in 25 years. Prior to that, Armstrong went 21-6 over three seasons – including a 2021 All-American season where he went 11-0 with a 1.65 ERA in 12 starts – at Chattahoochee Valley Community College, where he played under current UT Martin assistant Bill White. The program’s first-ever Preseason All-OVC starting pitcher is Steensma, who missed last season with an injury after sporting a 45:14 strikeout-to-walk ratio from 2020-21.

“Tristan is probably one of the better Friday night starters that we’ve had,” Jenkins said. “He’ll have to get accustomed to the step up from junior college to here but he’s able to spin three pitches for strikes and every time he’s gone out there for us, he’s thrown productive innings. Jordan comes to us after pitching in meaningful, high-leverage spots at Auburn last spring. He was one of the top junior college pitching recruits in the country two years ago. We have tried to do everything we can to take it slow with Eric coming back from injury and he’s healthy now – his command has been good and his velocity is coming back. To have someone like him with his OVC experience throwing on Sundays is something we’ve never been able to do before so that’s a real bright spot for us.”

Senior right-hander Seth Petry led the squad with 59.1 innings pitched and filled in admirably as the team’s No. 1 starter after the injury bug hit the rotation in 2022. Petry is in line to get a start during the season-opening series at Belmont and his versatility (22 career starts, 31 career relief appearances) is a big asset moving forward.

“Seth has valuable experience in a lot of different roles and I think he’s constantly going to be fighting to get in that weekend rotation during the season – he has that potential,” Jenkins said. “His role is going to change from week-to-week – he has a lot of value on our staff.”

Midweek starting options include sophomore righty J. Henry Hobson (15 appearances, two starts in 2022) and freshman southpaw Zach Wager (eighth-best left-handed pitching prospect for his class in the state of Indiana by Perfect Game).

“We’re going to keep J. Henry and Zack on a starters’ routine and really push their pitch counts,” Jenkins said. “Those two are guys that we need to develop as potential weekend starters for us down the road. Obviously once we get into conference play, it’s all hands on deck approach so if those guys are pitching really well, they’re going to throw out of the bullpen on the weekends.”

A pair of newcomers in Campbell Cleveland and Colin Millar have emerged as late-inning candidates out of the bullpen. Cleveland is a hard-throwing right-hander who registered five wins in 19 appearances at Tallahassee Community College last season while the lefty Millar collected 11 victories and a pair of saves with 103 strikeouts and a .217 opponent batting average over 96.1 career innings at Spring Hill College.

“Campbell and Colin have both done a really good job for us,” Jenkins said. “We also like having the option with a right-hander and left-hander that you can bring in and play matchups if you need to at the backend of the game.”

Junior righty Tucker Reed, who owned a team-best 45 strikeouts in 15 appearances out of the bullpen a year ago, was electric during fall workouts but is on the mend after dealing with a lingering injury. Baylor Jones (team-high 20 appearances last season, two saves in OVC play) and Trey Ricko (17 appearances, .232 opponent batting average in 2022) each return and will be joined by incoming junior Choyce Diffey (three wins, three saves in his career at Meridian Community College) as primary setup options.

“If Tucker wasn’t in the position he’s in right now, he would have been one of the first guys we called out of the bullpen with a lead,” Jenkins said. “He’s back to throwing but is going to be a little bit behind. Baylor was coming off an injury last season and is finally back to full health. I think we’ll see a lot of Trey early – he’s in great shape and was one of our best bullpen guys last season. Choyce is a newcomer who is going to throw a lot of innings for us this year.”

Eli Martin (seven career relief appearances) and Grant Crihfield (one shutout appearance in 2022) also return from the right side while lefty Warren Lee (10 appearances last year) will likely miss significant time with an injury.

Sophomore Dylan Lapic (left-hander who went 3-1 with a 3.33 ERA and 54 strikeouts over 46 innings at Milwaukee Area Technical College last season), freshman southpaw Brock Arender (former standout Grace Christian Academy product who played at the prestigious IMG Academy last season) and freshman righty Cooper Cochran (imposing 6-7, 225-pounder out of Athens, Ala.) are also set to make their Skyhawk debuts in 2023.

“There’s a lot of excitement in our clubhouse,” Jenkins said. “We play a lot of baseball this year – including six games in the first six days, which is something that we really haven’t done in the past. We also have 25 home games, which are the most that we’ve played since I’ve been here. I want to expose our guys to good competition on a weekly basis, that will make us better and certainly prepare us for conference play. If we can be self-aware as individuals and pull little pieces from every competition and every practice to take small strides to get better as a team each day, I think we’ll be in a position that we’re really happy about at the end of the season.”

(UTM Sports Information)