Baseball to rely on experience in 2020

Carson Herbert, Sports Reporter

Back in October at the winter and spring media day, baseball head coach Rob Bishop said he thought the baseball program is “one of the best-kept secrets on campus.” 

As one might guess, baseball and other outdoor spring sports don’t always mix well together in South Dakota and the Jacks are an example of that claim with playing just six games at Erv Huether Field in each of the last two seasons.

While fans have not had many opportunities to see the team, SDSU opens its 2020 campaign with high expectations after a second-place finish in the league standings a season ago and being tabbed third in the 2020 Summit League preseason poll.

The Jacks return plenty of experience with seven all-conference members, including two freshmen All-Americans. 

However, senior right-handed pitcher Tyler Olmstead will miss this season due to hip surgery. Olmstead established himself as one of SDSU’s best starters and has a career record of 8-7 with a 3.64 earned run average and 173 strikeouts. 

“Most of the time with pitchers it’s an arm injury, but it wasn’t in his case,” Bishop said regarding Olmstead’s injury. “It’s one of those things where the next guy up is going to have to step up and be pretty good.”

Returning to provide experience on the mound in Olmstead’s absence, are sophomore right-hander Nic McCay and southpaw Brady Stover, who was drafted by the Washington Nationals in the 31st round of the 2019 Major League Baseball Draft, but opted to come back for his senior season. 

Stover appeared in just nine games last season due to an injury but has proven to be an impactful arm. The senior struck out 13.09 batters per nine innings in 2018, threw five shutout innings and struck out nine in the 2019 season opener against the University of Tennessee Martin. 

McCay was named a freshman All-American by Collegiate Baseball last season after going 6-1 with a 4.08 ERA and 83 strikeouts.

“My expectations are consistency, his expectations are a lot higher than that,” Bishop said. “Nic’s gained 15 pounds and has really come a long way physically, so he’s just better in every way, shape and form as far as being prepared for the season. He’s a high-level arm in our league, so he’s a guy that everyone has to deal with that plays us.”

Out of the bullpen, junior left-hander Bret Barnett was one of the best stories for the Jacks in 2019. Barnett won five games, saved seven and struck out 47 batters in 34 1/3 innings. 

Junior infielder Gus Steiger returns after starting all 50 games in 2019 while recording a team-best 73 hits and 43 runs batted in. 

“Gus is a stabilizer on defense and on offense,” Bishop said. “It would be hard to say what side of the ball he’s better on. Being our shortstop and being that anchor to that defense is really important, but what he brings offensively in the on base (percentage), power, stealing. He scores lots of runs, he drives lots of runs in, so he’ll be a big piece of our lineup.”

Power threat Josh Falk will provide some pop to the lineup after hitting eight home runs and slugging .446 in 2019. 

A first-year Jackrabbit who worked his way into the lineup last season was senior Braeden Brown. Brown, who played his first two seasons at Southeastern Community College in Iowa, was one of the most consistent hitters, finishing with a .282 average. 

Rounding out the infield are sophomores Luke Ira and Drew Beazley, who showed stretches of dominance in their debut seasons. Ira had an eight-game hitting streak in the middle of last season and ranked second on the team with 15 multi-hit games. Beazley ended the season reaching base safely in 21 consecutive games and also made appearances on the mound.

A few of the holes left by last year’s graduating class are the corner outfield spots. Senior outfielder Landon Badger will patrol center field, where he has started 84 games in the past two seasons.

“You can go down the line,” Steiger said. “I think that’s what our strength will be this year is that we are going to have a really deep lineup. Some guys won’t have a great series here and there, but I think there will be guys who break out every weekend.”

The Jacks have talent, but the biggest question for this experienced team is if they can get over the hump of defending champion Omaha and long-time league favorite Oral Roberts. Against Omaha, the Jacks went 2-4, and despite winning the regular season series against ORU, the Jacks fell twice to the Golden Eagles in the Summit League Baseball Championship. 

“I think just stay within ourselves,” McCay said on what the key is in topping those two teams. “Three completely different teams, three really talented teams. It’s going to help us just staying within ourselves and playing our own game instead of trying to match them, because when you start to match them, that’s when you start to play bad.”

Almost a month of nonconference play will pass before the Jacks will see any Summit League action. Highlights include playing the Minnesota Gophers at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis, Minnesota twice, traveling to the United States Air Force Academy in Colorado for a three-game series, and a pair of games on the road against Kansas State. 

“If we can get off to a good start, even against some of those really tough opponents that we got scheduled nonconference, it will be huge once we get into conference play because coach always says, we want to be playing well right now, but our goal is to get first in the conference and to be playing our best baseball once conference hits,” he said.

The season will open with a three-game series against Dallas Baptist in Dallas, Feb. 14-16.

“I fully expect early with some different guys going out on the mound and some unexpected guys going out on the mound, we’re going to get tested from an adversity standpoint,” Bishop said. “Our schedule is really difficult and really high level teams that we are playing early, but that’s how we take that next step. Just do our best playing a great schedule and go out and compete.”

So, what is it going to take for this program to no longer be a secret? 

“Our guys that have just been really good need to step up and be really good again,” Bishop said. “We need to win a regular season and host the tournament in Brookings or in Sioux Falls in order to get more on the radar in the region.”