CONWAY — Coastal Carolina baseball coach Gary Gilmore has at least figured out an opening day starting lineup, but beyond putting names on paper, well, he’s admittedly as uncertain as anyone when it comes to forecasting how this revamped Chanticleers roster will look.
The 11 NCAA tournament appearances in the last 12 years and the six-straight Big South Conference championships suggest the Chants will figure it out like they always do, but they no doubt face a different kind of challenge this year. That initial starting lineup contains five players who have never competed in a Coastal uniform, returns a combined total of six home runs from 2012 and leaves a whole lot of questions about how all these new pieces fit together.
Questions the Chants will try to start answering Friday as they open the season against James Madison at Francis Marion’s Sparrow Stadium.
“I think the whole staff, we’re just waiting to see,” Gilmore said. “Like I said, this team is going to have to define itself as either being an exceptionally talented team over time or it’s going to be an exceptionally average team over time. I honestly don’t know. I think the ability is there to be very good, but until we play other people, you just get to a certain point ...”
The Chants, coming off a 42-19 campaign in which they continued their dominance of the Big South in both the regular season and at the conference tournament, have had almost three weeks of official preseason practices to get used to a mostly brand new group of infielders, a reconfigured outfield and a new starting catcher. Gone are the team’s top two hitters from last year and most of that 2012 squad’s already limited power.
And in its place is potential – unproven but intriguing – from a recruiting class that Gilmore hopes will help form the next big core of talent to carry the program toward its long-awaited goal of a College World Series berth.
“I truly believe this is a way more talented team from top to bottom than the team we started out last February with, to be very honest with you,” Gilmore said. “Way more options position player-wise, which I at least think have exceptional ability. More experience on the pitcher’s mound. Way more [bullpen] pieces to manipulate from the sixth inning on. ... We’re excited about the possibilities of what it may be; I just don’t know what it’s going to be like starting out.”
The Chants are playing their home games at TicketReturn.com Field at Pelicans Ballpark this year as they await construction of their new on-campus stadium so the official home opener will come Saturday in the second of three games against James Madison, but the journey begins Friday in Florence.
Junior center fielder Jacob May (.306 average, 43 runs and 27 stolen bases last year) and senior left fielder Alex Buccilli (.313, 11 doubles, three homers and 43 RBIs) are the extent of the team’s proven offensive producers. Senior Ted Blackman, meanwhile, hit a modest .267 last season with just seven extra-base hits and 12 RBIs in 55 games, but he will nonetheless open the spring as the Chants’ cleanup hitter.
“He’s bought into making some changes in his swing and his approach,” Gilmore said of Blackman. “It’s just a much better swing, way more power, but he also takes walks, he forces guys to pitch to him. In all honestly, that’s not where he belongs; there’s just a lack of emergence of anyone that’s proven they can handle [that role]. At least he and Buccilli have got a little bit of savvy and experience about them.”
Sophomore shortstop Brian Pruett also retains his spot in the lineup despite batting .208 with a .270 slugging percentage last year. He’s a slick fielder, though, and defense and pitching are expected to be the foundation of this team.
Pruett will be surrounded by a bunch of new faces as freshman Connor Owings won the first base job, junior college transfer Jake Kane takes over at second base and touted freshman Zach Remillard (a 38th-round draft pick of the Houston Astros last summer) debuts at third base.
Sophomore Will Remillard, Zach’s brother who sat out last season after transferring from Temple, takes the reins behind the plate. Colin Hering, another junior college transfer, will start in right while Buccilli moves to the other corner outfield spot after mostly serving as a designated hitter last year.
“The hardest thing in college baseball is developing offense,” Gilmore said. “It’s the hardest part of the game, so I honestly think that will be the last part of the development of this team. For us to win the first month, we’ve got to pitch like crazy ... and counter that with great defense behind them.”
The Chants do boast plenty of experience on the mound as junior right-hander Tyler Herb (9-2, 2.61 ERA in 2012) and sophomore lefty Ben Smith (2-2, 3.16 in 21 appearances) will top the weekend rotation, followed by intriguing redshirt-freshman righty Tyler Poole (a 38th-round draft pick by the Boston Red Sox in 2011 who missed all of last season due to a knee injury).
Ever-reliable senior submarine-style pitchers Aaron Burke (10-5, 1.58 ERA) and Ryan Connolly (5-2, 2.10) will carry the bullpen while some other newcomers – namely hard-throwing rookie righty Seth Lamando – establish their roles.
“I truly believe this will be a trait of this team that we get better every week,” Gilmore said. “I really believe that. It’s just because there’s so many new pieces that have to get experience. It may take us 30-40 games to get really rolling. ... There will be a rough spot here and there, but there will be a lot of good ones too.”
Contact RYAN YOUNG at 626-0318, or follow him on Twitter at Twitter.com/RyanYoungTSN.