|Slow Start, Fast Finish to Unusual Baseball Season|
CHARLOTTE, N.C. – The Charlotte 49ers baseball team had a little bit of everything appear during the 2014 season between a season-opening snow storm, a dozen more weather-related issues causing postponements and cancellations, to the usual mid-season injuries and jump back into Conference USA play. Despite the obstacles, the Niners managed a solid finish to the year finishing over .500 in the last 31 games.
The Niners seem to start the new season behind the proverbial eight ball after a North Carolina snow storm washed out the season-opening four games with Youngstown State and Virginia Tech. Youngstown State would eventually participate in the Bloomington regional hosted by Indiana. Charlotte would actually take on a total of three regional participants and one super regional player in 2014 among the many league champs in the non-conference portion of the schedule.
“We’re going to continue to play a really aggressive non-conference schedule in addition to our conference schedule we have,” remarked Head Coach Loren Hibbs. “We tell our kids when we recruit them, you’re going to play against a high level of competition. When you play in a great league like we are, you’ve got to prepare for league play.”
When all was said and done in the regular season, all three of Charlotte’s non-conference weekend opponents would go on to win their respective league titles in the MAAC (Canisius), Big East (Creighton) and The Valley (Evansville). After an 11-inning loss at High Point in the new season-opener on February 18th, the Niners would bounce back to take two-of-three from Canisius in the home-opening weekend set. After that good news in taking two from the Golden Griffins, the rough and unexpected part of 2014 would arrive.
In the Canisius series, Charlotte had avoided an offensive outburst by the visitors until Sunday’s 10-1 loss that started a 1-14-1 stretch over the next 16 games. The midweek Charleston trip began the tough mental part of baseball where an infield dropped pop up and six-run eighth inning (all with two outs) saw the Niners snatch two defeats from the jaws of victory. College of Charleston turned out to be a Super Regional team nearly advancing to the College World Series with a pair of 1-0 losses at Texas Tech earlier in June.
The pair of losses in Charleston make up close to 15 defeats for the Niners where errors or failure to hold a lead added up to nearly half of the 31 total losses on the year. Charlotte ended the year allowing 104 (of 241) runs with two outs on the board and 52 unearned runs after committing 71 defensive errors.
Before anyone knew it, the Niners found themselves in a miserable 20-game rut standing 3-16-1 that included the dreaded tie against Creighton, sweeps by #21 FIU, Middle Tennessee and East Carolina, and eventually six of those 15 losses at the fault of the Niners.
Fast forward to March 25th where things started to turn in the right direction with a road contest at Winthrop. Charlotte began to gain some momentum with a five-run fourth inning and never let up with two runs in each of the final three frames cruising to an 11-2 victory. Less than 24 hours later, the Niners backed it all up with a 9-0 win over UNC Asheville when Brandon Vogler, Micah Wells and Logan Sherer combined for the shutout on the mound.
With a little confidence and momentum, the Niners hit the road for their second Conference USA series at Old Dominion. The weekend began just about the same as the previous three with a pair of losses and a C-USA losing streak to 11 to start the year. After an hour and 15 minute rain delay on Sunday, with a cold, breezy and borderline freezing rain falling, the Niners bats heated up for an 11-4 whipping of Old Dominion. Another midweek win upon return to Charlotte over USC Upstate again, pointed the ship in the right direction. The Niners seemed to ready for a much-needed off week out of C-USA play, but as luck would have it, the Niners would see Evansville arrive (remember, The Valley champs) and Kyle Freeland who was the ninth overall pick in this year’s MLB draft.
Whether it was the costly errors in Charleston, the Creighton tie, #21 FIU’s offense, erasing a 6-0 deficit before a 7-6 loss at Middle Tennessee and facing East Carolina with starter Jeff Hoffman (#8 overall pick in the draft), the Niners couldn’t seem to catch a break and level out any normalcy to the 2014 season.
(Upon instant replay, which has its own issues in baseball, it has been decided there is no such thing as normal in baseball).
Rewind quickly to the final game at Old Dominion and the 11-4 win. That victory started the final 31 games of the season after that dreadful 3-16-1 start that saw Charlotte finish 16-15 overall, 10-8 in Conference USA play.
“We’re in a great league,” continued Hibbs. “As a staff and with players in their end of year meetings, we realized what the competition level is going to be now moving forward. Conference USA had 35 players taken in the MLB Draft and had nine teams in the top-100 of the RPI. We had the second-most as a league behind the SEC.”
The final 18 games of the season began with the series-finale at Florida Atlantic where much like at Old Dominion, the Niners gave one game completely away and found themselves trying to avoid a sweep in bad weather. With another delayed start at FAU, the Niners bats again arrived in an 11-1, seven-inning victory (due to C-USA Sunday rules) thanks to Brock Hudgens’ complete-game two-hitter. Corey Roberts and Ryan Butler followed that complete game with each of their own that resulted in a pair of victories at home over Tulane.
All of a sudden, the Niners had a three-game win streak going, split a home-and-home series with Wake Forest before heading to San Antonio for a first-ever meeting with UTSA. UTSA had a lead late in the Conference USA tournament championship game over Rice before ironically, errors cost the Roadrunners.
In the hottest weather of the year for Charlotte with temps in the mid-to-upper 90’s, the Niners rolled into San Antonio and took two-of-three from the Roadrunners backed by solid pitching and timely hitting. UTSA was sitting in third place inside the Conference USA standings at the time of Charlotte’s arrival.
These final 18 games saw the Niners put together an 11-7 overall record going 9-6 in league play. The season would finish on a high note with a three-game sweep at Louisiana Tech and wins over Winthrop and Southern Miss.
As baseball fans might imagine, the actual statistics would support the type of play at any particular time. The first 20 games saw the Niners hit just .237 as a team (opponents hit .285) with a pitching staff ERA of 4.41 (2.58 for the bad guys). Numbers improved and got closer in comparison over the last 31 games going 16-15 as the Niners hit .262 (opponents .242) and lowered the ERA to 3.33 (3.84). Over the final 18 games and the 11-7 stretch, .283 to .234 and 3.19 to 4.10.
Overall, the Niners hit .252 in the 51-game schedule of 2014 while opponents hit .260. The pitching staff also bounced back nicely concluding with a 3.76 ERA to the opposition’s 3.33.
“We got better as the year went on,” remembered Hibbs. “We didn’t play as well at home as what we need to moving forward. That’s something we have to address with trying to get Niner Nation out here to support us on the weekend and we’re going to have to get ‘The Hayes’ back to being a better home field advantage for us. There are some things we’re going to need to do on the field to help create an atmosphere that’s comparable to other Conference USA schools we’re going to.”
Looking ahead to 2015, the Niners return the top seven offensive producers who played in at-least 44 games (Jordan Hudson hit .289 in 32 of his games). Derek Gallello and T.J. Nichting led the team with a .283 average while Brett Lang hit .277 and became a brick wall behind the plate. Mikal Hill and Logan Sherer return in the middle part of the infield and batting order while Zach Jarrett, who turned his offensive struggles around in the second half, and Des Roberts, who played in 50 of 51 games missing the season-finale due to injury all return. As for the immediate time being, pitching will be a key in 2015 as Charlotte lost all three weekend starters, a midweek starter and the bullpen closer.
As it is with everyone in the offseason, recruiting in the utmost of importance trying to shake off the days in the Atlantic 10 with what everyone got a taste of in returning to the high-profiled Conference USA, especially in baseball. Regardless, the Niners will still have a fairly young roster heading in the new spring season. With the returning core of players and the excitement of new ones entering, the future of Charlotte bright is certainly bright. The energy of these young players are certainly fun to watch in-between the white lines, especially given the time to get better.
“The fall is a huge time for development, it’s a huge time for getting guys stronger in the weight room and for us to try and make up ground in the conference,” quipped Hibbs. “We’re trying to get into the top eight for Conference USA and if you are, you’re definitely a regional caliber team.”
Absolutely no one reading this season recap (or typing it) expected nor enjoyed the start of the 2014 season, but saw the potential and light at the end of the tunnel over the second half of the year. 2015 will certainly have its challenges again between youth and the always expected tough schedule in and out of Conference USA play, but if the Niners can get the early season weather to cooperate, a few bounces to go there way on defense and a few more of those hits to fall in (especially in timely situations), the Niners will certainly find themselves in the eight-team, extremely-tough Conference USA tournament field in an attempt to return to the NCAA’s postseason.
The 2015 baseball schedule currently features several regional teams from 2014, a plethora of home games at Robert and Mariam Hayes Stadium, a rapid start to the 30-game Conference USA schedule and it all begins with a bang. Charlotte will open the year traveling to Athens, Georgia for a season-opening three-game series at the University of Georgia.
There’s certainly plenty of storylines to follow with Charlotte baseball in 2015 and it’s all going to be fun to watch with these young guys on the diamond. Here’s hoping to a fast start, C-USA tournament appearance and trip back to the NCAA regional tournament. Minus the weather issues, of course!
See you in February (with sunny skies and temperature of 70 degrees) at ‘The Hayes!’