Baseball: Wingers building a new core
It’ll take some time to recognize all the faces in the dugout for the Red Wing baseball team.
They Wingers lost seven starters in the field and 12 players in total. They lost 78 percent of the team’s at-bats from last season. And, they lost 66 percent of the team’s innings pitched from a year ago.
So in the first two weeks of practice, it has been a learning experience for Red Wing players and coaches.
“We’re definitely an inexperienced team in terms of the varsity field,” Wingers’ head coach Paul Hartmann said. “When you’re trying to replace eight starters … you might see some growing pains early on, but we think we got a group of kids that like to work and like to play the game.”
When Red Wing is finally able to head outside and play – Hartmann is optimistic that the team will play its first game Friday April 11 at Northfield – the team will look to rebound from its 6-11 mark from a year ago.
Gone are last year’s seniors including Trey Eckstrom, Matt Zorn, Zach Lang, Preston Blaney, Michael Friedrich and highly touted prospect and current Nebraska Cornhusker Ryan Boldt, who missed all but two games last year due to a torn meniscus. Michael Bigelbach, who as a junior last year was an All-Area selection after hitting for a .288 batting average with two home runs and a .519 slugging percentage, will not return after playing hockey in the North American Hockey League.
Only Ty Buck, at shortstop, and Thate Peterson, as a part-time catcher, come back with varsity experience in the field, but both believe there is plenty of talent to work with this spring.
“The guys coming up who played VFW and JV last year are pretty good players,” Buck said. “When we were younger, we hit the ball pretty good and played well together, so hopefully the guys coming up can replace the players from last year and do well this season.”
Peterson added, “It’s going to be different this year. There’s only five of us seniors (Peterson, Cody Leitner, Cam Voigt, Gunnar Tubbs and Austin Strand), and last year there was over 10. It’s a whole new atmosphere here; it’s going to be different and someone’s going to have to step up, but I think we’re going to be just fine.”
Where the Wingers look to get rolling right away is on the mound, where Buck and Leitner look to anchor the rotation. Buck was 2-2 with a team-high 26 strikeouts and a 1.85 ERA, while Leitner had a 1.71 ERA in 16.1 innings. Should weather force Red Wing to go deeper into the rotation, Hartmann hopes to have some extra hurlers emerge from the group of juniors Nick Bolland, Sam Palmatier, Jacob Duden, Zach Collins and Corey Hawe, and sophomore Tait Kelly.
“You got the big, hard-throwing right-hander in Ty, then you got a left-hander that likes to mix and match in Cody,” Hartmann said. “Being able to use those guys in the same game was really beneficial against opponents last year. Every year, it seems like there’s a kid that comes out of nowhere and surprised you, and Cody was certainly that last year.”
In hoping to be an anchor in the top of the rotation, Leitner is working on keeping hitters on their toes with more off-speed pitches.
“I didn’t throw (off-speed) a lot last year. I threw mostly curves and fastballs,” Leitner said. “I’ve been working with coach (Josh) Nelson and he’s been working me through it, like how to hold it, throw it and finish with it.”
Offensive is the great unknown for Red Wing. Buck comes in as the team’s most feared hitter with 24 hits – nine for extra bases – for a .429 average, along with 18 RBI and a .492 on-base percentage from last year. Behind Buck, Peterson returns with the most at-bats from last season with 37. No other returning Winger had more than three at-bats.
“We’re going to have to play small ball, there’s no doubt about that,” Hartmann said. “We’re going to have to bunt maybe more than I’d like to. We’re going to have to get runners on for Ty and we’re going to need guys around Ty to try and protect him.”
Buck added, “In practice, we’ve been doing a lot of stuff we didn’t do last year. We had (assistant coach Kyle) Blahnik come in this year to help. We have a lot of good coaches who can help get our hitting down and, if we just keep our head in there and swing, what’s the worst that can happen?”
Regardless of how the lineup falls into the place, the goal is to get runners on board for Buck.
“The one thing I’ve noticed is that the ball comes off (Ty’s) bat different than any player I’ve ever coached. That’s including some pretty good players,” Hartmann said. “What he continues to show people is his bat speed and his power.”
It’s going to take time for everyone to get comfortable out on the diamond, and the Wingers’ ultimate goal is to be in sync by late May and, hopefully, early June.
“Going into the playoffs, we may be .500, or somewhere below or above that, but going into the playoffs, anything can happen,” Buck said. “I believe in this team and I hope we can get far.”
Peterson chimed in, “Last year was kind of a bummer, especially in the eighth inning (of last year’s Section 1AAA opening-round loss to Rochester Mayo). That wasn’t fun at the end. But hopefully things can go our way this year.”