Q&A With Head Coach Danny Hall

Jan. 29, 2009

Head coach Danny Hall’s outlook on the upcoming season:

ON THE MOUND

You have two established starting pitchers in Deck McGuire and Zach Von Tersch returning this season but then there are several players vying for the remaining roles in both the weekend starting rotation and as your weekday starter(s). Who has the edge entering the season?

Brandon Cumpton has really elevated his game – he has worked extremely hard and was very good in the fall. Going into this season, I would have to say that he has the edge as our No. 3 weekend starter.

“Another person that has stood out is Andrew Robinson. We haven’t quite decided what we want to do with him, but I think he could be a definite candidate for our Tuesday starter role. And then you can look at someone like Kevin Jacob for a midweek post, or one of the freshmen, Jed Bradley, who really impressed us this fall.

“We have our work cut out for us in sorting out the midweek rotation, and then there is also quite a bit of competition for the weekend spots as well. Deck has been solid for us and didn’t lose a game all summer, pitching for Peninsula in the Coastal Plains league. He has continued to get better and is in much better shape physically than he was a year ago. He can really pitch – he has four pitches that he can throw for strikes and he can use them all at any time in any count, which makes him extremely hard to hit. Von Tersch pitched in the Cape this summer and didn’t throw many innings, which I think may have been a blessing. Once the fall was over, he and Coach Kinkelaar really honed in on a couple of mechanical issues while trying to improve a couple of his off-speed pitches, and he has done a great job since then. He has all the pitches, now he just needs to be mentally prepared for what he’s going to face each and every weekend, and particularly in the ACC.”

With Brad Rulon and Chris Hicks both signing professional contracts, there is also that all-important role as closer. Who has made a push for that job?

“It looks like we are going to start out the season with a freshman, Mark Pope, as our closer. A lot will depend on what we do with Andrew Robinson though – he was a valuable member of our bullpen last year, so we are hesitant to take him out of there, but we also feel like he may be better suited to be our midweek starter because those games are critical when you start trying to rack up wins that will get you into the NCAA Tournament.

“A lot will also depend on how Pope will handle it. He’s got the aggressiveness, and I think he’s got plus pitches that would be hard to hit in the ninth inning. I would also not rule out a guy like Thomas Nichols, who pitched some in the fall. I was very impressed with him, and I feel like he also has the mindset to close. And then there is Zach Brewster – he missed all of last season, but he is a lefty with very good stuff. We just have to see where his command is, but he is a guy that can pitch himself out of trouble because he has very good stuff on the mound.”

Would Andrew Robinson be the type of guy who could start for you on Tuesday, and then enter in relief over the weekend?

“That is definitely a possibility. It would probably depend on how many pitches he threw Tuesday, but you could certainly see him helping us on a Saturday out of the bullpen and then coming back to throw Tuesday.”

You mentioned both Pope and Bradley, but you brought in a bevy of freshmen pitchers that could all see some time on the mound early in the season.

Jed Bradley has a big upside – he has very good size and can throw 88, 89. He’s got a nice low cutter that he uses, and his changeup is getting better and better. The only thing that he lacks is experience. Growing up in Michigan, he probably isn’t as battle-tested as some of our other guys, but I like what I’ve seen so far. Another left-handed freshman is Jake Davies, who I see more as a reliever that can come in and get some guys out. He’s a great competitor that will come in and throw strikes. He’s also got experience – he’s played summer baseball with East Cobb since he was nine or 10 years old, so he’s definitely been battle-tested.

Jacob Esch is a guy with a big upside, much like Jed Bradley. He did all of his pitching in Minnesota, where he also played a lot of shortstop. He didn’t throw much in the fall, but we do feel like we have him back healthy and ready to go. He’s sort of an unknown commodity for us – we don’t know exactly what we can get from him, but we think he’s going to be a guy that can help our team in the long-run.”

Taylor Wood was one of your top left-handed relievers last season, what will his role be in 2009?

“Taylor came on very well for us late in the year last year, and he’s another player with a huge upside. He could be a guy that ends up getting relief opportunities when we need a lefty, or he could end up being a guy that we make our Wednesday starter to get him some innings. It’s really up to him – he’s a talented guy that has continued to grow into his body and get better and better for us.”

You touched on your newcomers on the mound, and mentioned Thomas Nichols as a possible pitcher in 2009. Is there anyone else that could see time on the mound that we haven’t seen before?

“We will definitely see Patrick Long out there at some point this season. He could be a setup guy in our pen, or he could be a guy that would come in and eat up some middle innings for us. He throws strikes, and he has a very good breaking ball. He seemed to enjoy pitching in the fall, so I think that both he and Nichols will give a lot more depth to our pitching staff.

BEHIND THE PLATE

While you’re fairly deep at all positions, the one with perhaps the most returning experience is behind the plate.

“I believe we have one of the best catchers in the country in Jason Haniger. He really came on as the season went on last year, ending it by making the All-Tournament Team at the NCAA Regional in Athens. He’s a great leader, a great performer, and one of those guys that has improved every season. I fully expect him to be even better this year.

“One of the most improved guys on our team this season is Cole Leonida. He caught a few games for us last season, and is probably going to do that again this season, but the thing that he has really improved on is his offense. He is a lot like Haniger – he’s a hard worker that goes about his business the right way, and usually it is guys like that who make a big jump.

“And then one of the most talented guys that we have on our team is Brandon Miller. He probably has as much power as anyone we’ve had in a long time, and he has a great throwing arm. He’s a guy that we could stick in there if one of our other two guys goes down, and we wouldn’t miss a beat. The only thing that he lacks is experience, but he will get that the longer he is here.”

ON THE INFIELD

Derek Dietrich arrived on the Flats with quite a bit of hype, but he certainly seems to have lived up to those expectations after being named the National Freshman of the Year in 2008. Where can he improve on his outstanding freshman campaign?

“He was probably under the radar a bit last year, but now everyone knows who he is. He is going to get everyone’s best effort, and because of that he has to make sure that he is ready to go every day. He’s going to have to be mentally strong, especially if teams try to pitch around him. We have to hope that he’ll be willing to take some walks and that we’ll have guys hitting around him that will make it tough for teams to pitch around him. Other than that, he is working on improving his defensive game and the mental aspect of the game, knowing that everyone will be shooting to get him out this season.”

One of those players protecting Dietrich in the lineup will likely be Tony Plagman, who led the team in home runs last season, but is also a very valuable defensive first baseman.

“Tony is a force in our league, and I think he’s a force in college baseball. He just keeps getting better and better, and I’m happy to see that he’s taking advantage of his opportunities. He is a great defensive first baseman, and I think that’s something that tends to go unnoticed about first basemen. He’s tremendous around the bag defensively, and he hits in the middle of the order. He led the team in home runs and drove in several more runs for us last season, and we are counting on that production from him again this year. After splitting time at first base his freshman season, he was our full-time guy over there last year and we are expecting him to play the same role again this season.

“You could see a little bit of Jake Davies or Luke Murton at first base, and all three are very capable guys that could play (first base), but right now Tony is by far the best of the three.”

Where you are solid at both shortstop and first base, there are a number of players vying for jobs at both second and third base. Has anyone stepped up to claim those spots as theirs full-time yet?

“We are going to play several different guys this season, but Thomas Nichols is the incumbent at second base. I do want to pitch him some, and depending on how much time he spends on the mound may limit what he does at second base. He’s got a lot of competition there, and it comes in a lot of different forms. We put Patrick Long over there late last season, and if we wanted to slide him over there again, I think that we could. One of our freshmen, Connor Winn, is an excellent defensive second baseman, so he could see some time there. And then there is Jason Garofalo – one of those guys that just goes about his business and sometimes goes unnoticed, but not by our coaching staff. I also wouldn’t rule out Evan Martin – he played some shortstop for us in the fall, and he is another guy that could see some time at second base. So a lot of it will depend on how well Nichols plays, but also on how much we feel like we need to use him on the mound.

“And then at third base, Patrick Long is ahead of Matt Skole defensively, but I would say that Skole is ahead of Patrick on the offensive side right now. Skole is a guy that we expect to not only hit for average, but also hit a lot of home runs and drive in a lot of guys for us. He impressed me as being able to move around pretty good at third, and a lot of time you will see coaches sacrificing a little defense to get another offensive guy in the lineup. But we will begin by playing both guys and just leave it up to them to see who can settle in and win the job.”

IN THE OUTFIELD

Jeff Rowland brings so many facets to the game, with his ability to get on base, the ability to steal bases, and his defensive instincts in the outfield.

“Jeff is one of the most competitive guys I have ever been around. He loves to compete, and he loves to play baseball. We felt like he could come in here and be an impact guy for us last year, and he certainly was. The sad part about it is that he just keeps getting better and better, and he is draft eligible as a sophomore so this could be his last season with us. He’s going to lead off, and he’s going to play a great centerfield for us. He had a good year for us in 2008, but I think that he is a lot better player right now than he was at any point last season. He’s an exciting player that can get on base and puts pressure on people with his legs. Hopefully he will score a bunch of runs for us and play solid defense – that’s what great players do, and he is certainly one of them.”

You have two other incumbents in the outfield in Chris House and Luke Murton, but then there are several talented players on their heels.

Chris House played a lot of left field for us last year, and we’re hoping that he can have a good offensive season for us in 2009. He swung the bat as good this fall as anybody that we have, and the best that I have ever seen him swing. I’m hoping that he can take that into this season, because I think he can be a great hitter for us. He is by far the best defensive left fielder that we have, and it gives us a great defensive outfield when he is in the lineup. Another guy that you could see out there is Jay Dantzler, a guy that can really play all three outfield spots. Right now I would probably say that he is our fourth outfielder, but I wouldn’t rule him out of becoming a starter for us this season. Along with Jay, we have a very talented freshman in Jarrett Didrick that could come in and play leftfield and there would be no drop-off.

Luke Murton has really gotten himself into great shape to play right field this season. He wants to play that position, and he’s worked extremely hard and is running much better in an effort to get himself ready, so we will certainly give him the opportunity there. Another guy that played out there some last year is Chase Burnette, who has improved quite a bit. He’s a good defensive player that throws very well from right field. And I also wouldn’t rule out sticking Dantzler over there.

“I really feel like we have four guys for sure, and maybe five, that are capable of playing both of those outfield spots, and a lot of it will come down to who is playing the best defense and who is hitting the best.”

And then when you throw in a guy like Evan Martin that can play both infield and outfield, you are pretty solid in both areas.

“He is a very good baseball player – a very good hitter that understands the game, doesn’t make mistakes and is capable of playing basically anywhere in the field. That’s really why we recruited him. He’s a valuable guy because he can play so many positions.”

EXPECTATIONS

You may have lost your top hitter and one of the best defensive infielders when Charlie Blackmon was drafted and Brad Feltes graduated, but you are pretty solid at all of your fielding positions entering the 2009 season, wouldn’t you say?

“Position player – wise, we do have a lot of guys. Charlie Blackmon had a phenomenal year and Brad Feltes had a great year for us as a senior. We were excited for Charlie to be drafted where he did and to get an opportunity to play pro ball and also very happy that Feltes went out of here with the best year that he ever had, but I do feel like we have guys that can replace them. With the depth that we have, I think that we can play a lot of guys and have multiple lefty-righty matchups if we need them.”

Pitching is somewhat the opposite – you have only two players that have reached their junior year with any real experience.

“That’s the question mark. I was pleased with everything I saw this fall out of the pitching staff. Coach Kinkelaar and our staff did a great job of getting themselves prepared, and I honestly think that our pitching staff is going to be good, but until they get battle-tested a little bit and we start playing some games, we won’t know if they can handle the mental aspect of playing great competition.”

With that combination – experience in the field and youth on the mound – where do you see the team in the Atlantic Coast Conference at the end of the season?

“I think we can challenge anybody in the ACC. Our team is in place to be very competitive, and I think we can definitely win the league – but only time will tell. We are going into this season thinking that somebody is going to have to beat us, or else we are going to be the champions.”

What does this team have to do to be hosting an NCAA Regional come June?

“We have to play well in the ACC. We saw that first-hand last year. If you finish in the top three or four in the ACC, you have a great chance to be a host school in the tournament. If you don’t finish in the top three or four, you hope that you are fifth or sixth so that you are still in the tournament, but you are probably going to be on the road somewhere. So the better that we can play in the league, the better our chances of hosting an NCAA Regional in 2009.

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