Plenty of positives to begin season for Tigers
By CONOR NICHOLL
The Fort Hays State University baseball team has several noticeable positives. Larks Park, home to more than 100 games a year, had its worn-out green turf replaced by a brand-new turf and a repainted outfield wall.
"We get perfect hops every time," ace right-hander Alex Ellison said of the new field. "Pitching on it, you don't get those holes. You just get a better feel, really. I am glad they redid it. Our sponsors, they did a great job paying for it all, and we are lucky to find a field like this."
Plus, the Tigers bring back senior infielder/outfielder Ryan Busboom, a returning first-team All-American, and a veteran corps that includes second baseman Chris Santoscoy, catcher Jay Sanders and Ellison, all seniors.
However, FHSU also has produced changes in several areas that aren't as noticeable to the Tiger fan base: stronger team chemistry, overcoming adversity and doing the little things right. Fort Hays was scheduled to open the season today with a doubleheader against Metro State (Colo.) College in Denver.
The three-game slate, the team's only non-conference series of the year, will conclude with a single game Saturday.
"In the fall, we sat the guys down and said, 'We need to become a team that does everything right all the time that we can control,'" Johnson said. "This has been the best group that we have had so far. You won't see guys coast around the bases and assume that it's a single. They are out of the box with a double, and just little details that we need to get better and better at."
Last year, FHSU had a veteran corps, but started 2-10. Fort Hays needed the majority of the season to climb back to .500 and finished 29-24 and MIAA conference tournament runner-up in Johnson's second season.
"These guys really enjoy being around each other," Johnson said. "I think the returners saw last year
"Someone is going to punch you in the nose, and we got punched in the nose and didn't respond to it," he added. "We made an incredible run at the end. We were as good as anybody at the end of the season, but to be a regional team .... you can't start out and not handle adversity."
FHSU brings back four players of the 10 that started at least 21 games last year, including Busboom who hit .386 with 16 homers and 66 RBIs, all team-highs.
"We have grown together as a team," Busboom said. "Seniors have helped get the younger guys, the new guys coming in from junior college, into the mix of things. I think we are going to be pretty good this year just because we are so much closer."
Ellison (3-6, 7.06 earned-run average) and senior Jesse Hart (4-2, 5.63 ERA) are the lone starters back who started more than two games. After a terrible start, Ellison went 3-2 after March 1.
Plus, Fort Hays graduated first team all-conference closer Brett Macari. Busboom labeled the pitching staff the key for the team. Senior Luke McKay, who redshirted last season because a transfer issue, has pitched very well in the preseason and attracted the attention of some scouts. He is hitting 91 to 92 miles an hour with a strong breaking ball.
McKay will be in the closer mix. Senior left-hander Taylor Davis has made big mechanical changes and will be in the No. 2 slot to open the year. Senior right-hander Rob VanCour, from University of New Mexico State, could push for a starting job. While Johnson mainly relied on the four starters and two relievers last year, he expects to have more depth this fall. Senior right-hander Kyle Leroy (3-0, 5.06 ERA in a game-high 20 games) likely will be in middle relief again.
"He might have been one of our most valuable guys last year because we could turn to him in any situation, seventh inning, second inning," Johnson said.
In the field, Sanders (.320 average) and senior Shane Wade (.351 average) will split the catching duties again. Sanders will see the majority of the time, while Wade will play some at other positions.
Santoscoy (.273 average) will start for the fourth straight year at second base. Shortstop was a question mark when the expected shortstop didn't make grades. However, Sam Thronton, a reserve utilityman last spring, has stepped up and played well.
"He is more of a team guy," Johnson said. "I think he enhances our team chemistry."
Junior Jordan Miller will be in left field and junior Clayton Garland, both junior college transfers, will be left and right, respectively. Right field has several options, include Wade and redshirt freshman Casey Sedbrook. Several players could factor in at third, first and designated hitter, including Busboom, junior Horace "Ryan" Johnson and senior Kelton Rule.