GREENSBORO – On the day the North Carolina A&T baseball team’s 2013 season came to an end with an 11-5 loss to Bethune-Cookman at the MEAC tournament on May 17, the starting lineup was center fielder Brandon Wilkerson, first baseman Kelvin Freeman, shortstop Luke Tendler, designated hitter Cameron Jergens, third baseman Mark Nales, left fielder Dairio Little, right fielder Dylan Hipp, catcher Stefan Jordan and second baseman Jevoanny Tolentino.
When the Aggies open the 2014 season, which will likely be on Feb. 15 instead of 14 because of inclement weather, their lineup will look very different. After witnessing the Aggies’ 5.87 ERA and 129 errors – 54 more than their opponents – third-year head coach Joel Sanchez knew the team needed some fixes.
“Pitching and defense were the two areas where we definitely wanted to improve,” said Sanchez. “But overall, as a whole, we were trying to upgrade at every level, every position. I think we have done that for the most part. We still don’t have the depth we need. But overall, we have improved.”
All five infielders will be different from what fans saw in 2013. Freshman Kyle Clary will start at third base. Next to him at shortstop will be another freshman in Timothy Ravare. Ravare played third and second base in high school, but Sanchez said the Los Angeles native earned the position during the fall.
Second base will be manned by junior college transfer Brandon Mitchell, while Jergens will go from DH to first baseman, replacing MLB draftee Kelvin Freeman. Junior college transfer Lester Salcedo will be behind the plate. He has the ability to gun down a team’s base stealing attempts with a shutdown arm, according to Sanchez.
“Every year is different,” said Sanchez about signing junior college transfers. “It all depends on where your shortcomings are. If you have an older group that’s been around and can handle it, then you bring in freshmen. If you have an older group that’s not been able to handle it, then you bring in junior college guys.
Every year is going to be different. We wanted to bring in some experienced junior college guys because we’re looking to win right now. But we do have some freshmen who are going to play some key roles.”
There will be some familiarity in the outfield. Tendler, an All-American senior, will go from being an infielder to play right field in 2014. Wilkerson, who had 85 putouts without an error last season, will go to left field while junior college transfer Ryan Hill will man center field.
“We brought in our type of player so to speak,” said Sanchez. “We think it will be a scrappier bunch that’s got more hustle. We’re hoping the defense will be an upgrade, and we think we’ll be a better baseball team fundamentally than we were the last couple of years.”
Offensively, the Aggies relied on the power of Freeman, the 2013 MEAC Player of the Year. Freeman hit 16 of the Aggies 23 home runs, and his 59 RBI was 24 percent of A&T’s run production in 2013. There will be more balance to A&T’s offense this season, says Sanchez. A main component of that offense will still be Tendler, however.
Tendler is a career .350 hitter with 17 home runs, 142 RBI, 55 doubles and 17 triples. He has played several different positions in the infield and he has hit at the top, middle and bottom of the Aggies lineup.
“He is a hard-nosed kid, and he has always done what we’ve asked him to do,” said Sanchez. “He’s athletic enough to play anywhere. He’s a scrapper who swings the bat well from the left side.”
Jergens was also a big bat in the lineup last season. He was second on the team with 35 RBI. He also hit .294 with 10 doubles. The Aggies also have depth in the outfield with the return of Micah Carmony from Tommy John surgery. Bo McMillan drove in 13 runs last season and Dylan Hipp was tied for the team lead with 17 steals.
On the mound, the Aggies will turn to senior right-hander Tyler Boone to be the staff’s ace on the weekends. Boone posted a 4-5 record, 43 strikeouts, 21 walks and a 3.78 ERA in 81 innings pitched. The other two weekend pitchers to open the season are junior college transfers Charles Cantrell (Saturdays) and Mitchell McQueen (Sundays). JUCO transfers Luke McCreesh and Brian Poag could also figure in the mix. There could also be a chance for Tendler to pick up some relief innings.
“You’ve got to go out there and throw strikes and give your defense a chance,” said Sanchez. “The bottom line is you can’t walk guys. Make them swing the bat. Make them put the ball in play and hope your defense makes plays for you.”
The Aggies open the season at home against Temple with the rotation of Boone, Cantrell and McQueen. In fact, the Aggies first 11 games are at home, including a weekend series against archrival and conference foe N.C. Central March 1-3. There are a few things Sanchez wants to see by the time those first wave of home games are complete.
“We want to be able to establish a group of guys who can be our everyday guys,” said Sanchez. “Defensively, we’re hoping we can stick the regulars out there and they can have a set role. We want to be able to go into conference play knowing we’ve got a group of guys on the mound each weekend that we can truly depend on. At that point, we’ll have a group of guys on the bench who can fill certain roles as needed because we’ve established our starting group.”