In a perfect world, Mike Mutcheson would start at second base when Creighton opens its baseball season Saturday.
But Mutcheson's back is far from perfect, which means Creighton coach Ed Servais will open with freshman Alex Staehley at second. Given the importance Servais places on defense, that's enough to make the coach's stomach do a back flip or two.
“We've had to spend a lot of time trying to get a young player ready to play out there,” Servais said. “It can be very challenging for young infielders to play in our system, because the expectations are that we're going to make all the plays, whether it's the first game or the 65th game.”
Staehley is one of the Bluejays' question marks heading into their two games Saturday at Central Arkansas. Creighton will open the season Saturday at noon with a game against Southern Illinois-Edwardsville.
The Bluejays come back to play the host school in a 4 p.m. game.
Servais recruited Mutcheson out of New Mexico Junior College with the idea that he would have the inside track on replacing Vicente Cafaro, a two-year starter at second who hit .313 and drove in 35 runs last season.
A back injury hindered Mutcheson's progress in the fall and kept him out of most of preseason practice. Servais said the 5-foot-11, 180-pound Canadian recently started working out again, but it's uncertain when he'll be ready to play.
Two other players who spent most of the fall on the sideline — pitchers Mike Nihsen and Greg Hellhake — should be ready to go this weekend. Nihsen, a senior right-hander from Ralston who is 8-3 in his two seasons at Creighton, is expected to start the game against Central Arkansas.
He'll probably pitch only an inning, as will Hellhake in relief in either of the games. Hellhake, a junior left-hander, won five games last season and also has eight victories over the past two seasons.
“We're encouraged with Mike and Greg both being able to throw in competitive situations,” Servais said. “We're not going to pitch them very long, but I think they can get some guys out this weekend.
“To say we might have both of them pitching is a huge step in the right direction for our team.”
Junior Jonas Dufek, penciled as the No. 1 starter, will open on the mound against SIU-Edwardsville. Servais said he expects Dufek to pitch three or four innings, although pitch count will dictate how long he's used.
Creighton returns five starting position players from last season's 31-25 team: catcher Carson Vitale, shortstop Elliot Soto, third baseman Jimmy Swift, center field Robbie Knight and right fielder T.J. Roemmich. Knight, Soto and relief pitcher Bob Lackovic are preseason All-Missouri Valley Conference picks.
Ian Dike, a senior from Lincoln Southwest, is set to take over for four-year starter Darin Ruf at first base. Servais expects junior-college transfers Clay Cuno and Trever Adams to split time in left field.
Sophomore Scott Thornburg will catch the second game Saturday and will continue to back up Vitale behind the plate.
Servais said he doesn't expect to make many lineup changes early in the season but will tinker with the batting order.
“We have to get guys ready to play,” Servais said. “What you will see more of is changes in the batting order. We feel good about Robbie Knight and Elliot Soto being our 1-2 hitters, but we have to find out who's comfortable hitting in those slots behind them.”
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