Diamond days upon us:

Over the past few months, the biggest news related to Tech baseball has surrounded two alumni—first baseman Mark Teixeira, who signed a $184 million contract with the New York Yankees, and catcher Matt Wieters, a highly touted prospect expected to shine in his rookie season with the Baltimore Orioles.

The news has overshadowed the fact that the 2009 Jackets squad has earned a No. 12 preseason national ranking and looks as strong as any team in recent memory. On Friday night, they will set out to defend their ranking as the season begins with a three-game set against Lipscomb.

Tech posted a strong record of 41-21 last season, but the season was far from easy. In early April, the team learned of the sudden and shocking death of left-handed reliever Michael Hutts; the loss of a teammate and friend caused the team to struggle for several games, but Tech managed to right the ship in time for the ACC Tournament. However, they fell short in the conference tourney, and the season ended on a bitter note when the Jackets fell to Georgia in the championship game of the NCAA Athens regional.

This year’s team seems to have improved on all fronts from the 2008 squad. There have been key losses, including the top two weekend starting pitchers and two everyday position players, but the Jackets have the personnel to replace them without missing a beat. Depth is a major strength of this Jackets squad, and it will allow Head Coach Danny Hall to ease in the incoming freshmen—especially in the lineup—rather than having to press them into full-time roles right away.

With most of last season’s core intact and a year older, Tech is poised to return to the top of the ACC, but that goal will not be easy to reach. Within the ACC alone, two teams—North Carolina and Florida State—are in the national top 10 ahead of Tech, and Miami is close behind at No. 14.

Still, Hall believes that most, if not all, of the other top ACC teams have lost enough talent that they are vulnerable this year. He considers winning the conference, or at least staying near the top of the standings, to be a priority for his team.

“I think if you look at college baseball [overall] last year, the teams that did well in their conferences—the teams that finished 1-3 or 1-4 hosted regionals, so I think the key for us is to try to do everything we can to finish as high as we can in the league, and hopefully win the league, because that’s going to increase [our] chances of hosting a regional,” Hall said at Wednesday’s practice.

Ultimately, though, the team’s objective remains the same as always. “Our number one goal is to win every game we play,” Hall said.

in the Field | at the plate

The lineup will still be a clear strength for the Jackets in 2009, both in talent and in depth. In 2008 the lineup revolved around power, as Tech’s total of 92 home runs ranked 13th in the nation, and this year the team may be even better on that front. Four of the five players who hit 10 home runs last season will return in 2009. Tech will, however, miss the contributions of leadoff hitter and outfielder Charlie Blackmon, who led the team with a .396 average and 25 steals and was second with a 1.033 OPS, and third baseman Brad Feltes, a defensive star who was also second on the team with 14 home runs and 62 RBI.

The heart of the order is highlighted by sophomore shortstop Derek Dietrich, who last year won NCBWA Freshman Hitter of the Year honors. Dietrich started all 62 games for Tech and led the team in RBI’s (66), walks (26), and total bases (141, tied with Blackmon). Returning along with Dietrich will be senior Luke Murton, who had 12 homers and a team-high 25 doubles; junior Tony Plagman, a strong defensive first baseman who also led the team with 16 homers; and senior catcher Jason Haniger, whose performance as a first-time starter last season has led Hall to expect big things from him.

Other positions seem to be locked in. Sophomore Thomas Nichols will be the usual second baseman, and junior Patrick Long will see time there and at third base; both will also contribute as relief pitchers. Junior Jeff Rowland will continue to start in center field and will be the team’s primary leadoff hitter. The other outfield positions appear to be a bit more fluid

The batting order itself is not set in stone; aside from Rowland at leadoff, the rest of the order could vary daily.

The coach wants to take advantage of the team’s stellar depth at every position to ensure he is starting the best lineup possible. “A lot of these guys have worked hard, and they deserve a chance to play, and hopefully after the first couple weeks of play we’ll have a better idea of who can do what and how we need to attack the ACC,” Hall said.

“I could literally play almost an entire left-handed lineup…I could put three left-handed hitting outfielders out there [and] I could DH someone left-handed, and I’m probably going to do that, particularly early,” he said in reference to the team’s large number of left-handed hitters.

With the majority of the lineup returning, experience should not be an issue, and Hall will be able to slowly work his incoming freshmen into the system. The coach mentioned that power-hitting corner infielder Matt Skole will see a lot of time at third base, and that slick-fielding Connor Winn could be a late-game defensive replacement.

on the mound | in the bullpen

The 2009 starting rotation will be without a pair of stalwarts after two would-be seniors, left-hander David Duncan and right-hander Eddie Burns, were taken in the 2008 MLB Draft. However, the outlook is still good for Tech’s pitching staff. Sophomore right-hander Deck McGuire takes over the top of the weekend rotation after a stellar freshman campaign as the midweek starter; in 13 starts and four relief appearances, the hard-throwing McGuire led the team with a 3.46 ERA and held opposing hitters to a .240 batting average. Behind him is junior right-hander Zach Von Tersch, who worked out of the bullpen as a freshman before becoming the third weekend starter last season. Von Tersch posted a solid 4.33 ERA last year, and despite a relatively high WHIP of 1.54, he allowed just three home runs in 72.2 innings.

Sophomore right-hander Brandon Cumpton, who led all Tech relievers with 46.1 innings pitched last season, will fill the No. 3 spot in the weekend rotation. Cumpton struggled out of the pen as a freshman, allowing opposing batters to hit .325 against him; however, he did make five starts last season, performing well in each one.

Hall has not definitively decided who will be the midweek starters, but he expects that two hard-throwing sophomores, right-handers Kevin Jacob and Andrew Robinson, will be in the mix. The bullpen has potential this year, but inexperience may present a challenge, as only one reliever is not a freshman or sophomore. Right-handers Brad Rulon and Chris Hicks, who served as the team’s closers last season and combined for 16 saves, are gone. Hard-throwing freshman right-hander Mark Pope will take over the closer role, but Hall indicated that Robinson may also see opportunities to close out games.

The strength of the bullpen lies in left-handed relief. Sophomore Zach Brewster was the team’s primary specialist last season, and this year he will have help from freshmen Jake Davies and Jed Bradley, the latter of whom Hall is considering as a midweek starter. As for right-handed relief, aside from Pope and Robinson, the Jackets will look to a handful of part-time position players. Hall mentioned that junior Patrick Long and sophomore Thomas Nichols, both of whom will start at second base often, will see time in the bullpen.