By Dave Wagner, Freedom Newspapers
With virtually no outside work yet due to the recent winter weather, the Eastern New Mexico University baseball team is a work in progress as a season-opening series approaches against Sul Ross State on Friday and Saturday in Alpine, Texas.
Of course, the Greyhounds are in better shape than they would have been in past years — they have a new indoor facility near Greyhound Field where they can get quite a bit done in terms of batting practice and bullpen sessions.
The Hounds went 24-32 last year after a 16-4 start, and hope to have learned from that unpleasant experience. They were 6-14 in the Lone Star Conference South Division.
“My whole goal for this weekend is I want us to come back a better team,” said Phil Clabaugh, entering his 16th season at ENMU. “If we get beat (in all) four games, I’m not afraid of it because we’ll be a better team for it.”
ENMU has 12 players back who saw action last season, including its top three hitters, its No. 2 starting pitcher and its closer.
Those players are looking to make up for last season’s second-half slide.
“Pretty much everybody returning has a bad taste in their mouth,” said senior center fielder Tim Crafton, who hit .288 in parttime duty a year ago. “We’ve all been working hard this year; I don’t think we’ve ever worked this hard before.”
Clabaugh said the Hounds, picked fifth in the six-team South, should have more depth and versatility this season. Returning players in the infield include senior third baseman Derrick Kennedy (.356 in 2006), senior second baseman Mike McDuffie (.348, 9 homers) and senior first baseman Jeff Roemer (.321), who also went 3-3 in 14 appearances on the mound.
Clabaugh said the Hounds may have more speed than in the past.
“I think this team has a chance to hit,” he said. “As you look at the strengths of the squad, our offense might have a chance to do some things.”
The four-man pitching rotation to begin the season includes senior right-hander Evan Courteau; sophomore right-hander Tim Vaughan, a transfer; junior left-hander Seth Clabaugh, the coach’s son, and junior right-hander Josh Stevenson. Courteau (7-4) was the staff leader in wins last year.
Junior righty Keith Balderaz, who had a school-record nine saves last year and went 3-2 with a 2.83 ERA in 28 appearances, is coming back from off-season elbow surgery and Phil Clabaugh is hopeful he can regain his 2006 form.
Crafton said the Hounds are looking for one of the six berths in the LSC tournament — the top two teams in both divisions, plus the next two best records in division and crossover games.
“Our goal is to get to the tournament,” Crafton said. “Of course, everybody’s goal is to win. We just want to play to the best of our ability.”