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Blue Raider Baseball Gets Underway Sunday

February 16, 2002 · MT Media Relations
One thing is known about Sunday's season opener for the Blue Raider baseball team: sophomore lefty John Williams will get the start on opening day against Austin Peay.

That could be about the only known quantity heading into the 2 PM showdown with the team that most pundits have predicted to win the Ohio Valley Conference and move on to the NCAA Regionals.

"John has earned this start," said head coach Steve Peterson. "He showed last year what he was capable of and has continued to show that same stuff this spring."

Williams, who earned Freshman All-American honors last season, is the most experienced starter in the stable as the 2002 season prepares to dawn. He is a lock to pitch on the weekends this year, but what remains to be answered is who will fill the other two spots in that prestigious rotation.

Another battle seems to be brewing among the pitching staff as well. Once the weekend problem is solved, there are mid-week starting spots to fill along with sorting out the entire bullpen.

"We're not going to figure it out that quickly," said Peterson. "We feel like Adam Larson will fill one of the weekend spots, but that leaves the door open for the third guy. It could be one of several players, so we're going to have to evaluate each performance in game situations and go from there."

Several players are in heated competition for the third spot in the rotation. Senior Jeremy Armstrong, who has exclusively been a reliever during his career at Middle Tennessee, is certainly making a bid for weekend duty. Freshmen Chris Mobley, Chase Swing, and Danny Borne have also been mentioned as possibilities for the job depending on their development.

The bullpen is another matter entirely. The staff is battling to determine who will fill the roles left open by attrition. Gone from last year's squad are closer Kevin Davis and left-handed specialist Steve Kline. If Armstrong moves into a starting role as is anticipated, then the relief corp will have to be built from the ground up.

Seniors Jason Kuhn and Kyle Sparkman are the only two remaining relievers with much game experience, putting them at the head of the list for Peterson.

Once the pitching staff is sorted out, Peterson will have to deal with a youth movement surrounding his position players. Only starting shortstop Jason Howarth remains from the 2001 infield, meaning new players will be plentiful around the horn this season.

Junior college transfer Chad Cooper should be the starter at second base, but the remaining spots have yet to be determined. Look for junior Doug Kunicki, who sat out last season with a back injury, to be Sunday's starter at first base. Third base is currently a toss-up between freshmen Nate Jaggers and Brett Carroll.

"We're still undecided at third," said Peterson. "One thing is certain, though. The person that doesn't start on Sunday is not excluded from the job for the rest of the year. Those guys will determine that in the way that they play."

Peterson also said that his decision has not been clear-cut from the outset of practice.

"It's been kind of hot and cold for all of the new guys," Peterson said. "Overall I've been very pleased with them. We'll just have to see how people handle it when its real."

Sophomore Derek Phillips will anchor the final infield spot. Phillips will be behind the plate against Austin Peay, but he didn't come into the season as the starting receiver. That job was thought to be sophomore Troy Harp's, but a broken wrist over the Christmas holiday has Harp shelved for an undetermined amount of time.

One young player that should find his way into the lineup is freshman Josh Archer. Archer has displayed big pop in his bat during spring practice and, Peterson said, could figure in at DH or as a catcher. Archer also could work in at first base if his development continues at that position.

The only steady area for Peterson is the outfield. All three starters from last year's squad return, and should provide a sizeable amount of the team's offensive production.

Left field will be the home of junior Justin Sims, the team's top returning hitter. His .377 average ranked second only to Josh Renick's .420 clip a year ago, while his home runs and RBIs topped the squad. Sims was a First Team All-Sun Belt selection a year ago and is expected to provide the same numbers against this season.

Sophomore Chuck Akers, who hovered around the .300 mark during his freshman campaign, will hold down center field. His speed makes him a stolen base threat and a possible top-of-the-order hitter. Right field is the domain of senior Marshall Nisbett. Nisbett hit .346 a year ago in the second spot in the order, a place he is likely to occupy again this season.

All told, Peterson is happy with his squad despite the question marks.

"It's this way every year. You have to find guys that are ready to play. Its not always going to be the same guys every year. We're going to put a quality product on the field and give our fans something to root about."

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