It’s safe to say the 2019 season didn’t go according to plan for USF baseball coach Billy Mohl.
Hampered by injuries, the Bulls failed to qualify for the eight-team AAC Tournament in Clearwater, finishing last in the nine-team conference.
But it’s not as if it was all for naught.
Considering the numerous injuries to the pitching staff, including the loss of right-handers Carson Ragsdale, Graham Hoffman and Ben Koff to Tommy John surgery, the fact the Bulls remained mathematically alive for the conference tournament until the penultimate day of the season was a positive.
“Part of the positive was, as banged up as we were on the mound with the seven arms that we lost throughout the course of the year, those guys still held their own in terms of, if you look at the final numbers and everything,” Mohl said. “We were middle of the pack pitching-wise and guys stepped up and some guys got bigger roles than what they had, so they have more experience under their belt heading into this year.”
The last time a season like 2019 happened, the following season was filled with positive results. In 2016, USF was also hampered by pitching injuries, necessitating freshmen to pitch more innings than expected. Then, in 2017, the Bulls went 42-19 and made the NCAA Tournament.
The only real consistent arm in the rotation last season was now-senior right-hander Collin Sullivan. He pitched a team-high 81.2 innings with a 3.86 ERA. Sullivan put together a magical performance against then-No. 6 North Carolina in Chapel Hill, going 6.2 innings, allowing one run on two hits while striking out seven in what was ultimately a 3-2 loss.
It’s probably safe to say Sullivan will be the Friday night starter again. But who complements him in the rotation remains to be seen. Freshmen right-handers Orion Kerkering and Jack Jasiak could be the answer. Kerkering posted a career 1.05 ERA and 214 strikeouts at Venice High School, while Jasiak had a career ERA of 1.20 and 250 strikeouts at F.W. Springstead High School in Spring Hill.
“I don’t know mentally if they’re [Kerkering and Jasiak] ready, but stuff-wise, they have a chance to be really special arms in this program,” Mohl said. “Both of them have really elite stuff. They’re two different pitchers. Kerkering’s more fastball, breaking ball.
“Jack’s more of a fastball, command guy who’s got an above-average slider. They’re two different breaking balls, which is nice to have, but they’ll both be 90-92 [MPH]. And they’re both competitive.”
Mohl will also have returning arms, including right-handers Baron Stuart and Dylan Burns. Stuart went 4-3 in 10 starts last season with a 5.48 ERA. Burns posted a high ERA as well (5.23), but logged a number of innings at the back end of the bullpen when the injury-plagued Bulls needed them most.
“Baron Stuart, I’m just looking for consistency,” Mohl said. “Dylan Burns was great for us last year. He ate up a lot of innings and he had marginal success. He was really good late for us.
“And then, obviously getting Koff, Ragsdale and Hoffman back. Ragsdale could be in that starting rotation. So we have some options.”
Whoever winds up in the starting rotation for the Bulls when the season starts Feb. 14 will pitch as a proverbial underdog most of the season. USF was picked to finish seventh in the AAC. But Mohl isn’t worried about preseason predictions, as they’ve been wrong before.
“Preseason rankings to me mean nothing,” Mohl said. “My first year, they picked us seventh or eighth. Everybody bet against us. We ended up No. 2. It’s just a ranking. The proof will be in the pudding once we get rolling into the season and to conference play and see where we finish.”
Wherever the Bulls finish, it’ll be well earned, as USF plays the proverbial “Big 3” (UF, FSU and Miami) on the road at least once this season, including a three-game weekend series against the Gators from March 6-9.
“It’s big,” Mohl said. “It’s going to prepare us for the American. Florida’s a great program. They’ve got a really good team coming back this year. … That’s a great program and that’s what we want to test ourselves against, because down the road, in June, when the regionals come, if we’re not hosting, usually we end up in Gainesville, so it’s a nice test.”
Thankfully for Mohl and his team, due to the scheduling of local programs like the “Big 3,” they don’t have to leave the state of Florida until the second weekend of AAC play at the end of March.
“It’s huge,” Mohl said. “Being in Illinois for five years, when I was an assistant coach up there [at Illinois State], your first six weeks, you’re on the road. You got real used to the hotels. It’s good for our guys from a class standpoint — from just a well-being standpoint, that they get to sleep in their own beds at night and we’re not on bus rides all over the place.
“So it’s great having sunshine down in Florida.”