BARBOURVILLE, Ky. - It's the dawning of a new day, and the Union baseball team is set to kick off its 2014 campaign in earnest on Saturday.
The Bulldogs will open the new season with a home doubleheader versus Cumberlands (Ky.) at 12:30 p.m. with the hopes and goal of once again battling for the Appalachian Athletic Conference championship.
Union posted a 30-23 overall record last season and finished second in the AAC regular-season with a 14-10 league mark. However, the Bulldogs went 1-2 in the conference tournament, ending the season earlier than they have become accustomed to.
Offensively, Union had one of the more potent lineups last season not only in the AAC but in the NAIA as well. The Bulldogs ranked 14th nationally in stolen bases (120) and stolen bases per game (2.264), 17th in RBIs per game (6.208), 18th in runs scored per game (6.906), 22nd in total RBIs (329) and 26th in total runs scored (366). In addition, the Union posted a .302 team batting average with six regulars hitting over .300.
The Bulldogs, however, struggled on the mound. Despite compiling 11 shutout victories, Union amassed a team ERA of 5.20.
Union does return a lot of experience in the field with seven starters back for 2014 with a handful of other key contributors also returning.
Around the horn, Union returns three starters with another familiar face moving to first to fill that vacancy.
Nelson Price spent his first two seasons in the outfield, but with the graduation of Tyler Brake, he will now man first. Last season, Price posted a .332 average with five home runs, 10 doubles and 39 RBIs. He will be helped out by Tyler Wheeler, who went 2-for-4 with two RBIs in limited action last year.
At second will be Miguel Mendez once again. In his first season as a Bulldogs, Mendez sported a .280 average with two homers, 12 doubles, a team-high three triples and 23 RBIs. He also scored 41 runs and stole 23 bases. J.D. Burrell is back at shortstop after missing nearly half of 2013 due to an injury. When he was on the field, Burrell hit .309 with 13 RBIs and 26 runs scored and stole 15-of-17 bases.
Third base will shared by Jared Tomany and newcomer Ryan Horvath. Tomany played all over the infield last year, especially when Burrell was out with an injury. At the plate he batted .259 with 19 RBIs and 23 runs scored. Horvath is a junior transfer from Owens Community College where he batted .274 with seven doubles, three triples and 24 RBIs in 39 games.
Zach Gross and Jackson Arnett could also see time in the infield. Gross did not see any action last year as a sophomore, while Arnett placed in 33 games and posted a .295 average with a home run, 12 RBIs and 10 runs scored.
Senior LaVance Anderson will anchor the Bulldog outfield as the team's centerfielder once again. A solid defensive player, Anderson was also an offensive threat. Although he batted .279, he owned a .422 on-base percentage thanks to the help of 35 bases on balls and 12 hit by pitches. He led the team in runs scored (57) and stolen bases (28). Anderson also had a home run, four doubles, two triples and 38 RBIs.
Left field will be manned by Tyler Young and Zach Dillman. Both played in 48 games last season with Young starting 46 and Dillman 36. Young manned the outfield in both left and right field and sported a .308 average with one homer, four doubles, a triple and 23 RBIs. Dillman served as a backup catcher and designated hitter and finished with a .341 average with two doubles, two triples and 30 RBIs.
In right, look for Justin Elder to get the starting nod. The junior transfer batted .286 for Owens Community College last season. He only had five RBIs but produced 18 stolen bases and scored 31 runs.
Gone is All-AAC and Gold Glove catcher Gabby Juarbe, and in his stead will be newcomer John Wilson. A junior transfer from Eastern Kentucky, Wilson appeared in 26 games for the Colonels last season, starting 14. He batted .298 with a pair of doubles, seven RBIs and 11 runs scored.
Backing Wilson up will be either Dillman or Arnett.
The designated hitting duties will be primarily shared among a trio of players based on who is playing in the field in a given game. Dillman, Young and Price will split time in this role.
The Bulldogs return their ace from last season in senior Luke Collis. He posted a 7-3 record with a 3.17 ERA with 56 strikeouts in 82 1/3 innings pitched. He showed amazing control in that he walked only nine batters all season, ranking fifth in the NAIA for walks allowed per nine innings (0.98) and ninth for fewest total walks allowed. He also earned AAC Pitcher of the Week honors once.
Joining Collis atop the starting rotation will be senior transfer Garrick Whittle. In 2013, the left-hander went 1-1 despite only tossing 2 2/3 innings for Morehead State.
Others who will likely seeing time in the starting rotation include Trey Alexander, Ray Smith and Erik Tarbell. Alexander appeared in 13 games last season for Union with six starts, finishing 5-0 with a 3.24 ERA. Like Collis, He earned AAC Pitcher of the Week honors once. Smith is a lefty, junior transfer from Lawson State Community College. A right-hander, Tarbell is a junior transfer from Delta College.
Tomany is currently tabbed as the team's closer. Last season he went 1-2 with two saves and a 3.68 ERA in 14 appearances. Sullivan appeared in 16 games with four starts and recorded 5-0 mark with a 6.27 ERA. Appearing in 15 games with 10 starts, Price went 4-5 with a 6.17 ERA and one complete game.
Registering a team-high 25 appearances with two starts, King posted a 3-4 record, a 5.51 ERA and three saves. Primarily used as a reliever, King averaged just over two innings an appearance as he finished with 50 2/3 innings of work.
Meanwhile, Whittle is freshman right-hander from Danville, Ky.
Schedule and Conference Outlook
Union has a 56-game slate lined out for 2014 with 15 home games in February, 12 in March and nine in April. Meanwhile, only 20 contests will be away from Jerry W. Carey Stadium.
The Bulldogs will play a 27-game Appalachian Athletic Conference slate with five of the three-game series on the road. Union will play at St. Andrews (N.C.) on March 1-2, Milligan (Tenn.) on March 8-9, Truett-McConnell (Ga.) on March 29-30, Reinhardt (Ga.) on April 11-12 and Tennessee Wesleyan on April 26-27. Meanwhile, the Bulldogs will host Virginia Intermont on March 15-16, Montreat (N.C.) on March 22-23, Point (Ga.) on April 4-5 and Bryan (Tenn.) on April 18-19.
Union is picked to finish second in the AAC behind Tennessee Wesleyan, which is ranked No. 8 in the NAIA Preseason Poll. Virginia Intermont is projected third after making a strong postseason run to advance to the AAC Tournament championship game.
Under head coach Bart Osborne, the Bulldogs have 10 30-win seasons and six 40-win seasons in going 410-166 for a .712 winning percentage.