Aside from the green and gold imprinted on the players’ jerseys, a casual USF baseball fan would have likely had trouble recognizing the team that took two out of three from Liberty University this weekend in the Bulls’ first series of the season.
A roster that features 20 new players, including five new starters, displayed both its talent and inexperience at great lengths over the season’s opening weekend.
With only one series in the books, it’s difficult to take away much about the 2016 Bulls, but some of what USF showed on the field in its opening weekend will likely pop up again as the season progresses.
1. New Bulls can hit
USF (2-1) was shut out in the middle game of its opening series, but scored a combined 17 runs in its other two games.
Both of those wins were powered by home runs from freshmen, as third baseman David Villar mashed a two-run homer in his first at-bat as a Bull, and sophomore first baseman Duke Stunkel hit a three-run homer in the final game of the series.
USF’s new starters combined to hit .325 in the Bulls’ two wins, pacing the offense.
Thus far, the standout of the bunch has been Villar, who leads the team with a .556 average, including a homer and a double.
2. Missing Tommy Peterson
The Bulls lost their closer when Tommy Peterson was drafted by the Washington Nationals in the offseason, creating a void at the back end of the bullpen.
That void was felt this weekend as USF relievers let Liberty back in the game in both wins. Bulls relievers surrendered the lead before USF eventually won on a walk-off single in the ninth inning of Friday’s game, and allowed Liberty to cut a three-run lead to one in the ninth inning of Sunday’s game.
Last season, Peterson recorded 16 saves with a 1.93 ERA, striking out 54 batters in 46 2/3 innings. Duplicating those numbers will likely be difficult for new closer Tommy Eveld and the rest of the bullpen.
Eveld allowed a two-run homer over his two innings pitched Sunday, but little else while he notched his first save of the season. Coach Mark Kingston said he wasn’t concerned with the homer given up, but rather that Eveld was able to focus and keep Liberty at bay when the game was close.
3. Who will be the ace?
If it was a Friday during the USF baseball season over the past three years, it would be assumed that ace Jimmy Herget would be on the mound for the Bulls.
But with the pitcher’s departure from the program after being drafted by the Cincinnati Reds in the offseason, Kingston and his staff will have to evaluate the starting pitchers as the season moves on.
Junior college transfer Phoenix Sanders earned the first start of the season Friday, pitching six innings while allowing one earned run. Despite the strong start, Sanders surrendered seven hits, one of which was a grand slam to Liberty outfielder Andrew Yacyk.
Aside from Sanders, sophomore Joe Cavallaro also turned in a strong season debut, as he lasted six innings Sunday while allowing one run on five hits.
Newcomer Brad Labozzetta struggled with his command during Saturday’s game, walking five batters in 1 1/3 innings before being pulled from the game.
USF plays at home tonight against Florida Gulf Coast at 6:30.