The 2018 VMI baseball season begins Friday in Columbia, S.C., when the Keydets open the season against the #19 South Carolina Gamecocks. A series preview will be available Thursday, and a complete discussion of the season is below.
"The SoCon is a good league," said VMI head coach Jonathan Hadra. "Our goal as a staff is to get our guys as prepared for SoCon play as we can. What better way than to play some of the best teams in the country?"
Two highly regarded, ranked teams will be the Keydet opponents in five of VMI's first eight games. After the three game series at South Carolina, the Keydets also play #16 Virginia twice in the first two weeks of the season.
"Our guys are excited about the opportunity in front of them," offered Coach Hadra. "I am excited to see them compete against some of the top players and in two of the best venues in our sport."
Fans will be able to see the Keydets live on a series of devices throughout the year, as 36 of the team's 54 games, including the final 19 of the season, will be video streamed.
Second Team Preseason All-SoCon honoree Peyton Maddox returns as one of the anchors of the Keydet team, just months after being drafted by the San Francisco Giants last June. Maddox was tied for fifth in the league in doubles last season (16), and hit .291 with eight home runs overall.
Maddox's return will continue a startling Keydet stat - since the start of the 2014 season, only 15 of VMI's 213 games (7%) have seen someone besides Maddox or his predecessor, Matt Winn, start behind the plate.
The senior backstop will be backed up by a litany of individuals, headed by Ryan Smoot and freshman Cody Warner.
The Keydet offense, up and down the lineup, is a deep, talented and veteran unit.
"We believe the lineup will certainly be a strength of this team," said Coach Hadra. "The key for this offense to really separate itself from last year is going to be our ability to score runs when we are not hitting baseballs in the gap."
Fifth-year senior Will Malbon is back to lead the outfield defense, one year after exploding onto the scene offensively with a .349 batting average effort that included a .651 slugging percentage and an OPS over 1.000. Malbon did that in just 18 games, however, due to a severe back injury, but applied for and was granted a medical redshirt to return for this fifth season.
Malbon will be flanked in many situations by Collin Fleischer and Matt Pita, two of the top recent offensive performers in Keydet history. Pita was a First Team Preseason All-SoCon honoree after hitting .364 with 18 extra-base hits, including seven home runs, and slugging a robust .583, third on the ballclub. Pita's career slugging percentage (.588) is second among returning players in the league (minimum 250 AB), trailing only Dillon Stewart of UNCG.
Fleischer was selected to the Second Team Preseason All-SoCon squad after going deep 17 times last season, tied for the league lead. Fleischer is six home runs away from setting a new school record, and enters the year with the second-most career home runs in the SoCon, trailing only Austin Edens of Samford.
Fleischer also could see time at his original collegiate position, first base, while senior Matt Dunlevy, who started every game last year and hit .279 in the process, will also be an option for Coach Hadra. Dunlevy will be the lead option at designated hitter.
Reserves in the outfield include sophomores Jordan Ebersole and Ryan Hatten, both of whom saw a great deal of time last year, and freshmen Nathan Loyd and Will Knight.
There will be several changes on the infield this year, but they will be among familiar faces. Seniors Jacob Jaye and Jake Huggins return and are likely to start at third and first base respectively, with Jaye also backing up at shortstop when newly minted starter Nathan Eaton moves to the mound.
Jaye comes off a year that saw him become the first VMI middle infielder since Cory Spangenberg to hit double digit home runs, while Huggins took a step forward offensively in a year that saw him hit .259 with his first career four homers.
"Jake Huggins has always been a guy that we believed could and would hit at this level," offered Coach Hadra. "The difference last year was that he put together more consistent, quality at bats. That is a sign of maturity but also confidence that he will get the job done. He has been having very solid at bats during the preseason and we are looking forward to watching him continue progressing throughout the spring."
In the middle of the diamond, Eaton is slated to start at shortstop after missing the 2017 season. Eaton started every game as a freshman in 2016 and hit .284 with 100 total bases. Sophomore Michael Diodato is the likely starter at second base, with freshman Noah Cook and others also likely to see time.
"As good as Jaye and Eaton are playing, so are some of the younger guys," said Coach Hadra. "Josh Hollifield has taken a step forward in his development and is really playing good baseball right now and we will look to him for defense late in games and added depth at the corners.
Noah Cook has been a freshman that has really started to figure some things out and is playing with a ton of confidence. We have some young guys that may or may not have had a lot of playing time, but they are working hard while they wait for their opportunity. I know they will be ready when the opportunity presents itself."
The pitching staff got a new mentor this past offseason, when Sam Roberts - former VMI star and reliever in the Oakland A's organization - was promoted to the pitching coach role. Coach Hadra offered positive words on Roberts' work, saying "Having Sam on staff now for the second year has been tremendous for our players, as well as myself. He brings such a unique perspective and instant credibility to the position every day because of his versatility as a player."
The discussion of the staff itself has to begin with ace Josh Winder, who has had perhaps the best first two seasons of a starter in VMI baseball history. Winder, the 2018 Preseason SoCon Pitcher of the Year, is among the top five returning pitchers in Division I in 2017 strikeout totals. He set a school record in both that category and innings pitchers, earned three SoCon Student-Athlete of the Week Awards and finished in the top-30 in Division I in strikeouts, complete games and strikeout/walk ratio.
Behind him, two second-year hurlers have stood out. Left-hander Brady Watts received a medical redshirt after arm troubles in 2017, but returns with a sterling pedigree and has appeared to be back in form this fall, while right-hander Zak Kent has stepped forward with adjustments this fall and may have earned a weekend rotation berth in the process.
"Zak Kent came back this fall in tremendous shape and really separated himself from some of the other arms," said Coach Hadra. "All of his success has been, and will continue to be, his ability to command the strike zone consistently. When he is in the zone, he has always been very difficult for guys to barrel up."
Left-hander Brandon Barbery could also be in the mix for starts, while in the bullpen, a former weekend starter should be closing out games.
"Matt Eagle is commanding the baseball extremely well and has really bought into his role as a back end of the game type guy," said Coach Hadra. "His stuff and mentality both play extremely well to that type of role."
The Keydets will have flexibility in the rest of the bullpen, with options from the left and right sides. Barbery, Kyle Staats and Michael Geary all return with a great deal of experience from the left side, while the rubber-armed Derek Tremblay and the returning Eaton will be key cogs as righties.
Among the freshmen, Sam Ewald and Austin Murphy have both impressed this fall and are likely to see time out the bullpen.
Once again, the 2018 VMI baseball season begins Friday in Columbia, S.C.