Maybe it's his Wisconsin roots that keep Creighton baseball coach Ed Servais from generally making rash statements.
He's even-keel to a T, which makes for a news flash when Servais assesses his 2013 team in the following terms: “From top to bottom, I think we have more talent than we've had in my nine previous seasons.”
That's a bold proclamation, considering Creighton's NCAA tournament appearances in 2005, 2007, 2011 and 2012 under Servais — and given that his 2013 team is picked seventh in the Missouri Valley.
Servais then offers up a couple of caveats.
“The problem is that we don't have that guy or two,” he said. “And it's a lot of unproven talent. If we can stay the course this season and continue to progress like we have a habit of doing, there are going to be some good moments with this club.”
No team learned the importance of staying the course better than Servais' 2012 club. Returning the core of the team that had played in the 2011 NCAA tournament, Creighton went into last season with great expectations.
The Bluejays couldn't get it going, never winning more than three games in a row during the regular season. They headed to the Valley tournament with a 22-28 record that produced a last-place regular-season finish.
They proceeded to run off four straight wins that earned them the league's automatic berth in the NCAA tournament and a regional trip to UCLA. They continued their strong play in Los Angeles, knocking off New Mexico and San Diego before the host team ended their season.
Creighton returns five position-playing starters from that team but graduated its weekend rotation along with three key relievers. That means there will be plenty of newcomers being asked to fill important roles when the Bluejays open their season with a three-game series at Dallas Baptist.
Servais calls it the toughest opening assignment in his 10 seasons as head coach. The only time he can remember taking on such a formidable task to start a season was in 2001, when he was an assistant on a Creighton team that opened at fourth-ranked Arizona State.
“The fortunate thing is that we've been able to get outside a lot the past three weeks,” Servais said. “We've had a chance to scrimmage a couple of times, so I feel we're better prepared going into an opener than we've been in the past.
“You're never quite sure if you've had enough time to prepare a team to play the kind of competition we're going to face in Dallas Baptist, but I know the players are ready to go and are excited. It doesn't matter what I think.”
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Dallas Baptist has been one of college baseball's better teams offensively in recent seasons. And the Patriots will be playing their first games in their new 2,000-seat Horner Ballpark.
That's a big reason Servais has decided to have senior Nick Musec pitch the opening game. Musec has made 27 appearances, including six starts as a junior, in his three seasons with the Bluejays.
“Nick pitched in the regional against UCLA last year, and he's pitched in midweek games against Kansas and Kansas State and Nebraska,” Servais said. “He's used to pitching in front of big crowds. He'll be a strike-thrower for us.
“With as much emphasis as we put on defense, we can't have a guy on the mound that isn't throwing strikes. Nick will give us a chance.”
Overview: The premium the Bluejays place on defense made it a high priority to find capable replacements for catcher Anthony Benboom, first baseman Nick Judkins and third baseman Chance Ross. Coach Ed Servais likes what he's seen from Kevin Lamb, Reagan Fowler and Federico Castagnini. Lamb started his career at Oral Roberts before transferring to junior college. He's shown dependable skills behind the plate. Fowler, an All-Nebraska player at Millard South, showed solid development during his redshirt season as well as in the summer season. Castagnini, a former shortstop, provides the expanded range Servais likes in his third baseman. Castagnini originally is from Verona, Italy, but played junior college baseball at Barton County (Kan.) Community College where he hit .294 and drove in 41 runs as a sophomore. The Bluejays have a dependable double-play combination in shortstop Alex Staehely and second baseman Jake Peter. Staehely struggled offensively last season after a sophomore season in which he batted .285. Peter, who also will pitch for the Bluejays, is coming off a freshman season in which he hit .217.
Projected starters: 1B Reagan Fowler, 2B Jake Peter, SS Alex Staehely, 3B Federico Castagnini, C Kevin Lamb
Key reserves: Redshirt freshman Tommy Clouthier, freshman Ryan Fitzgerald, junior Jerry Mitchell
Missouri Valley rank: Sixth
Key stat: In nine seasons under Servais, Creighton has committed the fewest errors (466) and compiled the best fielding percentage (.977) in the country.
Overview: If you evaluate Creighton's veteran outfielders based on last season as a whole, the group could be found wanting. But Mike Gerber and Brennan Murphy played well down the stretch to provide a reason for optimism. Gerber struggled mightily at times during his sophomore season but turned it on at the end, hitting .480 with eight RBIs in seven games of the Valley and NCAA tournaments. Murphy transitioned slowly from junior college but closed the season with a 17-for-39 tear that raised his average from .193 to .247 over the final month. Defensively, both are speedy enough to cover the wide open spaces of TD Ameritrade Park. Brad McKewon was solid in left field, and is the Bluejays' top returning hitter with a .256 average. Senior Michael Blatchford could be a contributor if he can stay healthy — he's been hindered by a variety of injuries since coming to Creighton, while Jordan Makovicka has been a capable backup. Ben Lahn, who hit 10 homers at Lamar (Colo.) Community College in 2012, will get opportunities both in the outfield and at designated hitter. His power potential, along with his ability to pick up Creighton's system, has been a plus during the fall and preseason practice.
Projected starters: LF Brad McKewon, CF Mike Gerber, RF Brennan Murphy
Key reserves: Senior Michael Blatchford, junior Ben Lahn, senior Jordan Makovicka
Missouri Valley rank: Fifth
Key stat: Gerber was the only Bluejay to hit a home run at TD Ameritrade Park last season. He hit three on the road to finish as the team leader with four.
Overview: There is plenty of intrigue with this group as Creighton must rebuild its rotation from scratch. Senior Nick Musec will get the opening-night assignment, mainly because he's the only starter on the staff who has appeared in a Division I game. Redshirt freshman Tommy Strunc made solid strides during his redshirt season and is considered perhaps the best bet to take over the No. 1 spot. Jake Peter's live arm makes it too tantalizing to limit him to being the team's starting second baseman. Figuring out how best to use Peter is a top priority, but for now, he'll fill the No. 3 spot in the rotation. The team's highly regarded freshmen — Austin Groth, Taylor Elman and Matt Warren — figure to be “tweeners” at the start of the season, as does junior college transfer Brett Swain. Pitch counts will dictate some early exits for starters, and those four will get their opportunities to fill the innings until the bullpen normally would take over. Groth's strong showing in preseason practice gives him a slight edge on the other two freshmen, while Swain's development has been stunted by an illness that has kept him from going full-bore in the preseason.
Projected starters: RHP Nick Musec, RHP Tommy Strunc, RHP Jake Peter
Potential starters: Junior RHP Brett Swain, freshman RHP Austin Groth, freshman RHP Taylor Elman, freshman RHP Matt Warren.
Missouri Valley rank: Seventh
Key stat: Whoever emerges as the No. 1 starter has some big shoes to fill. Ty Blach, who filled the role most of the past two seasons, allowed one or no runs in 25 of his 50 starts.
Overview: Few teams depend on the bullpen as heavily as Creighton, so it's vital the Bluejays get things sorted out behind Mark Winkelman. Winkelman starts the season as the closer, although Servais said game situations often could dictate how the senior left-hander will be used. Servais won't hesitate to use Winkelman in the seventh inning if the Bluejays need to retire a couple of left-handers and then rely on Bryan Sova or Max Ising to finish the game. Sova, an Omaha Creighton Prep graduate who played two seasons at Scottsdale (Ariz.), Community College, led the nation in saves last season with 17. Ising's junior college experience also should prove valuable in his transition to Division I. Freshman Nick Highberger has two things that get the coaches excited — a fastball that tops out around 91 mph and an ability to throw strikes. Will Bamesberger gives Creighton another left-hander, while Mark Lukowski showed well in the fall after getting a few limited chances last season. One of this group's strengths could be the variety of looks it can throw. Servais says each pitcher's style is a little different, which gives the staff options during the late innings.
Top reliever: LHP Mark Winkelman.
Potential contributors: Freshman RHP Nick Highberger, sophomore RHP Mark Lukowski, junior RHP Max Ising, junior RHP Bryan Sova, freshman LHP Will Bamesberger, redshirt freshman LHP John Oltman.
Missouri Valley rank: Sixth
Key stat: The Bluejays need to replace the 98 appearances and 125 1⁄3 innings lost with the departure of relievers Chase Webb, Kurt Spomer and Reese McGraw.
WORLD-HERALD RANKINGS OF VALLEY TEAMS
1. Missouri State: The Bears have the personnel — five returning position players and nine pitchers — to build on last season's NCAA tournament appearance.
2. Wichita State: The Shockers are hungry to get back to being Valley's top dog, but their talent level has slipped a notch or two from when they were the league's dominant program.
3. Illinois State: All-Valley performers Zac Johnson and Eric Aguilera headline a solid offense, and the return of J.D. Leonard from injury bolsters pitching staff.
4. Indiana State: Defending regular-season champion returns solid core group of offensive players but will need to shore up pitching staff to make another title run.
5. Southern Illinois: Austin Montgomery, Jake Welch and Brock Harding add punch to a lineup that came within a win of making NCAA tournament last season.
6. Creighton: The Bluejays will need improvement from veteran position players to ease the pressure on a pitching staff that will be young and inexperienced.
7. Bradley: Freshman All-Americans Chris Godinez and Max Murphy return, as do four other position players and seven pitchers from a 27-27-1 team.
8. Evansville: The Purple Aces pin hopes for improvement on a veteran staff that includes four pitchers who each started at least four games plus closer Josh Biggs.
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