Oshkosh baseball winds up for season with new pitchers
Published: Thursday, March 17, 2011
Updated: Thursday, March 17, 2011 10:03
Derek Hiroskey didn't need more than half a second to state who the best baseball team in the Wisconsin Intercollegiate Athletic Conference is.
"Oshkosh," said the senior infielder while sharing a light chuckle at the slight embarrassment that comes with declaring your team the best in the conference.
The three-time varsity letter-winner said he knows the competition will be tough as always in the conference, but he still believes it's the Titans that field the league's best roster.
"We wouldn't be playing if we didn't feel that way," Hiroskey said.
Tall words to be sure, but these are Shaquille O'Neal-type tall words. Oshkosh is coming off its first losing record in eight years, finishing at 11-13 in the WIAC (18-20 overall) and placing third in the conference last season.
"It was definitely a year that we would like to forget," Hiroskey said. "There was a lot of players not stepping up when we needed them to step up."
Hiroskey answered the challenge last year by hitting .355 (third-best on the team) and starting all 38 games for the Titans, but injuries, a lack of veteran leadership and too much reliance on an inexperienced pitching staff seemed to doom the Titans before the season even started.
"Things just started off on a bad foot, and it just went on a downfall from there," senior right-handed pitcher Jeremy Rubens said. "It was tough to come back from where we were at."
Rubens knows how hard it is to come back. He underwent offseason Tommy John surgery, missed the entire 2010 season and was forced to watch the young pitchers who were not yet ready to compete at the NCAA level struggle for most of the season.
"All I wanted to do was get out there," Rubens said. "It was tough to watch. We had a young staff, so they got some experience anyway—that was the only positive thing about it. I couldn't even explain to you how it was to sit there and watch—and I couldn't do anything. I had to watch them suffer."
Rubens' injury helped cause a team earned run average to balloon up to 6.29, a full 1.3 runs higher than it was in 2009.
Junior righty Troy Mrkvicka, who struck out 29 batters in 60.2 innings last year, pitched his way to a 4.15 ERA.
"I have high expectations for myself and I have high expectations for the (other) pitchers as well," Mrkvicka said.
In addition to Mrkvicka and Rubens, junior southpaw Luke Westphal will try to help alleviate the hole in the rotation that Kyle Kannenberg left after exhausting his four year baseball eligibility.
Kannenberg, who led the Titans in wins, appearances, shutouts, complete games, saves, innings pitched and strikeouts in 2010, is not easily replaceable. But Hiroskey said there is strength in numbers.
"We feel like our pitching staff is going to be tons better than last year," he said.
Considering that a trio of sophomores now has nearly 70 innings of experience under their belts after coming in with zero last season, Oshkosh's pitching staff is light-years ahead of where they were in 2010.
Righties Matt Wells and Andrew Murphy along with lefty Sean Grabig underwent baptism by fire on the mound last season combining for a 10.92 ERA, but are now three experienced pitchers whom teammates like Mrkvicka say are ready to answer the challenge.
"I have all the confidence in all the guys we have this year, and I'm excited to get the season started," Mrkvicka said.
For most WIAC teams, Rubens, Westphal and the sophomore trio would be more than enough pitching to compete in the conference. But head coach Tom Lechnir has an ace up his sleeve.
Junior pitcher Phil Schreiber transferred to UW Oshkosh this spring, coming over from the University of Iowa to add more talent to the Titans rotation.
Schrieber was named the 2008 Wisconsin High School Baseball Player of the Year when he was a senior at Kaukauna High School, notching a miniscule 1.75 ERA.
The right-hander went 5-8 in his two-year Iowa career, striking out 62 in 99.2 innings against some of the best hitters in the country.
Schrieber is the final piece to an impressive 2011 transfer class that Lechnir was able to bring aboard.
He joins junior first baseman and middle-of-the-order thumper Kyle Van Abel and catcher Alex Mullendore who are both expected to be everyday players for Oshkosh.
Van Abel, a high school teammate of Schrieber's at Kaukauna, came over from Madison Area Technical College where he batted .361 with eight home runs and 49 RBI's. Van Abel's team made it all the way to the National Junior College Athletic Association World Series in 2010.
Meanwhile Mullendore hit .315 with five home runs and 45 RBI's last year for Elgin Community College in Illinois. Even though he recently joined the team this spring, he rattled off the Titans pitchers' names as if he has been catching for them for years.
"It pretty much doesn't matter who we're facing because all of them can go out there and get the job done for us," Mullendore said.
Rubens said the veterans will be an immediate help and the added depth will help prevent nudging younger athletes onto the playing field before they have been properly seasoned to the college game.
"I think we just have more experience, and they're ready to go," Rubens said. "Instead of relying on freshman, we have some guys that are already experienced."
Senior shortstop Nolan Fadness, who led the Titans in runs scored (53), triples (9), total bases (89), slugging percentage (.614), on-base percentage (.458) and stolen bases (24), said it's important to get guys on the diamond who have invaluable experience.
"They're older guys who have experience playing baseball at the college level," Fadness said. "They're coming in ready to get going and they've adapted well to the program."