From NWOSU Sports Information
ALVA, Okla. – After losing a pair of impact bats and a frontline starter less than a week before the 2012 baseball season began, it would have been easy for Ryan Bay to wonder “what if.” Instead, the fifth year Northwestern Oklahoma State coach is finding satisfaction in “what was.”
“We faced so many obstacles,” said Bay, who lost a second starting pitcher to Tommy John surgery in the first month of the season. “With the amount of adversity we faced, to still have some moderate success, I was really proud.”
That Bay considers ten games over .500 to be “moderate success” speaks to the strides the program has taken under his leadership. The Rangers finished 34-24, posting a 17-13 mark in the uber-competitive Sooner Athletic Conference.
In 2009, Bay took over an eight-win team and immediately made an impact. In his first year, the Rangers improved to 26-27. They’ve been over .500 in every season since, posting 34 wins in two of the last three years.
Northwestern would like to see some of that bad luck even itself out, though in reality, that may not even be necessary. Bay has the talent in place to take another big step in 2013.
The Rangers return their top five hitters from a year ago and figure to be a much-improved team offensively. They also bring back two of their top three starting pitchers, anchored by right-hander Jason Martyn, the team leader in wins and strikeouts a season ago.
“Our biggest challenge will be setting a rotation and establishing roles within the bullpen,” Bay said. “Those guys we lost were very key to our success last year.”
Derek Epps led a group of four senior relievers who combined to post a 3.00 ERA in 126 innings of relief in 2012. Replacing that reliable production – and the emotional security that came with it – will be a major priority.
Martyn will open the year at the top of the rotation. He posted a 4.85 ERA as a junior, but he struck out 90 over 85 innings of work and opponents batted just .207 against him.
“[At 5-foot-11] he doesn’t have a big frame, but the velocity and the stuff are there.” Bay said.
Clay Thomas (7-6, 4.99) returns to the number two spot. Bay praises his leadership, heaping one of the ultimate baseball compliments on the senior righty.
“He’s a bulldog,” Bay said. “He’s a mid-80s guy, but he’s very mentally strong. He seems to feed off of pressure and emotion and is a guy our team rallies around.”
The third spot is up for grabs. Eddie Cumpston held it a year ago and made seven solid starts before going down with an arm injury. He underwent Tommy John surgery and could return as soon as March.
Newcomer Grant Mason – a transfer from NOC-Tonkawa – could also factor in as either a starter or out of the bullpen. The 6-foot-3 right-hander throws three pitches for strikes.
Another transfer, junior righty Jaxson Johnson, will get first crack at the closer spot after filling the role for NOC-Enid in 2012.
“We’ve been trying to groom him for it,” Bay said. “[During the fall] we tried to put him in some of the worst spots imaginable so he could get used to handling [the pressure].”
The Rangers will also get a lift from the return of Josh Swain, who missed all of 2012 with an arm injury. Swain was first out of the pen in 2011, making 19 appearances, and will return to that role as the season begins.
Northwestern has the luxury of offensive experience with six of its nine offensive starters back.
Jarad Moore batted leadoff last season and is a natural fit there. A year ago, he posted a .453 on-base percentage and earned All-Conference honors as a centerfielder. But if others can emerge, Bay wouldn’t mind trying him in the middle of the order, where Moore’s team-leading .397 average and 18 doubles could drive in a few more runs.
The Rangers will be strong up the middle with senior shortstop Trevor Long (.333 average, 7 homers) returning. Camilo Baldelomar will shift from third to second base.
“They both have to be good for us to be good,” Bay said. “[Baldelomar] seems more natural over [at second base]. He’s been working out there all fall,”
It’s a defensive switch that should pay dividends, and it may also allow the Rangers to add a little more pop to the lineup. Baldelomar’s brand of offense is a rarity at second base. In 2012 he hit a team-high 12 homeruns and also paced the team in slugging percentage. The senior from Miami could also be a factor as a hard-throwing reliever if he can develop a little more on the mound.
Juan Natal and George Mendoza – two more seniors – will split time behind the plate. Natal (.326 average) will also see extensive time in right field. Both backstops bring something to the table, and Bay will rotate them based on matchups.
“Juan has a great arm. We’re talking MLB pop-to-pop time,” Bay said, referring to the measurement professional scouts use to compare catchers’ reaction time and arm strength when throwing down to second base. “Mendoza seems to have a calming effect on our pitchers. He’s a smart guy and knows how to work an umpire,”
For all that went wrong early in the 2012 season, Jonathan Freemyer’s emergence was a blessing. The Ranger basketball star decided to give baseball a try, joining the team in early March.
“We saw him as being maybe a late-game pinch hitter. A power guy we could bring off the bench in certain situations,” Bay said.
Freemyer joined the team during an offensive lull, and Bay decided to roll the dice, inserting the 6-foot-6 righty as the designated hitter.
“He’d had about five days of BP. He wasn’t great at first, but he strung together a few hits and knocked off the rust as he went. By the end of the year, he looked like a college hitter.”
Freemyer finished with a .321 batting average and 13 of his 36 hits went for extra bases. He’ll will look to make a similar transition once his hoops career ends on March 2, though Bay is hoping a deeper lineup will allow Freemyer the luxury of easing in a little more slowly this time around.
Newcomers Nick Bata, Calvin Ellis, Daniel Bolanos and Nathan Hancock could all see regular duty.
Bata has the versatility to play all three outfield spots but will primarily see time in left field. Bata was a big run producer for Colby (Kan.) Community College last year, hitting seven homers and driving in 44 runs in just 50 games.
Ellis and Bolanos are two other middle-of-the-order types who will battle for time at first base and DH.
While Baldelomar breaks some stereotypes at second base, the same can be said for Hancock, who will see time at third.
“Little guy, big arm,” Bay said, referring to the 5-foot-9, 160 pound Hancock, who has the skill set to be a table-setter at the top of the order.
Colten Dickerman and Mike Morales are both plus defenders who will provide depth in the infield and outfield.
Northwestern – which makes the move to the Great American Conference this year – opens its season Feb. 2 with a four-game set at Huston-Tillotson.
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Bryan Holmgren is the Sports Information Director at Northwestern Oklahoma State University.