Although the Tabor College baseball team will transition into 2017 without many of last year’s impact players, coach Mark Standiford said he has reloaded his 59-man roster with a recruiting class of 30, a majority of whom are pitchers, which bodes well for the season ahead.
“We went above and beyond bringing guys in,” Standiford said. “This will be the deepest pitching staff I’ve ever had in the nine years that I’ve been here.”
Tabor will need to replace pitchers such as Greg Turner and Thomas Longworth. Longworth (10-4) recorded a 4.58 ERA over 92 1⁄3 innings pitched, while Turner (9-4) led the Bluejays in strikeouts (57) and had an ERA of 5.17 over 85 1⁄3 innings of work. Tabor will also pitch without Dylan Algra (5-2, 3.68 ERA), Cedric Rodriguez (5-2, 4.81 ERA) and Jesus Brito (2-2, 6.81 ERA).
To counteract the losses, Standiford hit the recruiting trail, saying the Bluejays may throw upward of 18 pitchers this season.
“I feel we go deep quality-wise as well,” he said. “We have a lot of guys now that we can call upon. The good thing is, I don’t think that we have anybody that’s really the same. (They) have a little bit of difference, whether it be a certain pitch that somebody is better at, an arm slot (or) a velocity. We have some very quality guys on the mound.”
Headlining Tabor’s list of starters are right-handers Nathan Arruda, a sophomore out of Odessa College; Jagger Harjo, a senior from Emporia State; and Jordan Harris, a sophomore out of Missouri State.
Also included in the starting rotation—at least for Tabor’s seven-game outing in Texas—are left-hander Alfredo Perez, a junior out of Luna Community College; and right-handers Colton Moore, who returns for his sophomore season; Michael Box, a senior out of Texas A&M-Kingsville; and Reagan McCloud, also a returning sophomore.
The Bluejays return closer Tommy Sleva, and Standiford said the senior right-hander is one of Tabor’s most improved. Also anticipated to pitch out of the pen are Edwin Suarez, a senior right-hander from Saint Leo University; and returning seniors left-hander Manuel Reyes and right-hander Jahaziel Cantu.
For the first time this year, KCAC opponents will play three-game, two-day sets consisting of two nine-inning games and one seven-inning game, as opposed to last year’s format of four-game, two-day sets with one nine-inning and one seven-inning game each day.
Standiford views the change favorably, saying the four-game format took its toll physically and mentally. He said the three-game set will allow more teams to be competitive.
“Generally, the better teams are going to win the majority of the games,” he said. “But it does allow a conference team that doesn’t have quite the depth, pitching-wise, to compete.”
For Tabor, however, who boasts both depth and velocity, Standiford said the format is favorable.
“We go fairly deep with the guys that throw fairly hard,” he said. “That’s going to bode well, especially going to a three-game set in the conference. I think we can throw some guys out there in our midweek games now. We’re going to be highly competitive on the mound.”
Joining returning senior catcher Raulier Martinez behind the plate is newcomer Braxon Byfield, a senior out of Emporia State.
“He’s a great receiver, great communicator,” Standiford said of Byfield. “He’s a guy that’s going to step in and play quite a bit, there’s no doubt.”
Also returning are sophomore Brandon Garcia and junior Drake Duncan.
“From a catching standpoint, we have four guys,” Standiford said. “All four have their strengths and all four have their weaknesses, but I feel very good this year about our catching.”
Tabor sustained significant losses in the infield and will play without Michael Baca at shortstop, honorable mention All-KCAC first baseman Alex Couch, and second baseman Ryan Neufeld.
Baca batted .370 with 94 hits, including nine home runs, two triples, and 18 doubles, in 63 games a year ago. He had 55 RBIs and ranked 12th nationally in hits.
Couch filled the three-hole in the lineup a majority of the season, then moved to cleanup in the postseason. He batted .361 over 63 games, tallying 88 hits, including three home runs, three triples, and 23 doubles. He ranked 10th nationally in doubles and 27th in hits.
Neufeld hit .335 with 68 hits, including three home runs, one triple and 12 doubles. He drove in 27 runs.
However, Standiford is confident he has the talent to replace the missing pieces.
Up the middle, Standiford had high praise for junior shortstop Abdiel Alicea, who comes to Tabor from Cowley Community College.
“I probably have, this year, my best defensive shortstop I’ve ever had in Alicea,” Standiford said. “His range is outstanding. His arm strength’s good.”
Also solidifying the middle infield will be Jacob Jones, a senior who pitched 18 innings last year; and Kyle James, a junior transfer out of Bakersfield Community College.
“I feel very good up the middle,” Standiford said. “I don’t think we’ve lost anything defensively, In fact, I know we’ll be better defensively. Now offensively, that’s a different story. You’re having to replace a Michael Baca bat and a Ryan Neufeld bat.”
Even so, Standiford said he thinks the Bluejays will be able to replace the offensive production.
On the corners, seniors Colton Flax and Joel Frias return with experience. Added to the mix is John Izquierdo, a junior transfer from Cuyahoga Community College. James may contribute there as well.
Tabor will play without Manny DeLeon in the outfield this year. The unanimous first-team, All-KCAC selection was named KCAC Player of the Year and NAIA Player of the Year and went on to sign a contract with the San Diego Padres organization.
DeLeon led the team in batting average (.440), RBIs (108) and stolen bases (25). He recorded 102 hits, including 25 home runs, three triples, and 25 doubles. DeLeon ranked first nationally in six categories, including RBIs per game (1.7), home runs, RBIs and slugging percentage (.897).
While the Bluejays will also play without Jerrik Sigg in the outfield, Tabor returns Brent McClure from injury, as well as AJ Shaw, both seniors.
“You put those two guys out there, we’re going to cover some ground,” Standiford said.
Harris, Standiford’s anticipated three-hole hitter, is expected to see time in right field when he’s not on the mound. Additional up-and-coming players include juniors Jaxson Hooge and Blake Standiford.
The Bluejays enter 2017 ranked 10th in the preseason Top 25 poll. While Tabor may not have the power of last year’s team, Standiford expressed optimism for the season ahead.
“From a defensive standpoint and overall depth, I feel very good about what we have,” he said. “To replace a Manny is impossible, and you can’t expect that, but you can expect guys to step up a little bit more than they did last year. I think we’ll be okay. I really do. You couple that with our pitching, I’m very optimistic.”
The Bluejays were picked first in the KCAC preseason coaches’ poll in what Standiford said is an ever-strengthening conference. Last year, three KCAC teams—Tabor, Sterling and York—earned NAIA Opening Round bids.
“Our conference has really started to step up nationally,” he said. “When we start to get three and four teams into postseason play, that’s a big deal for us. It’s going to be very competitive.”
Vying for position at the top of the conference with Tabor are teams such as York, who Standiford said returns a talented outfield; and Oklahoma Wesleyan. He said he expects Friends and Kansas Wesleyan to be competitive, with Bethany, Saint Mary and Ottawa improved as well.
“Our conference is a true test,” he said. “I think it’s helped us for postseason play because there are no gimme games, in my mind. I don’t care who you play.”
Standiford’s goals include winning Tabor’s sixth-consecutive regular season KCAC title, which would put the Bluejays in a position to achieve their postseason goals.
“By winning the KCAC, it sets you up for your postseason,” he said. “I think if you’re able to come through our conference and win it, you’re going to be a one or two seed and that’s a big advantage when you’re at (a) regional. That four or five seed is bad, so our first goal needs to be able to take care of business in our conference. ”
Coming—Tabor has a strong lineup of nonconference opponents to start the season, beginning with seven games in four days in Texas Feb. 8-11. The seven-game stretch will allow Standiford to evaluate his pitching staff, which is one of the reasons he scheduled so many games so soon.
“I did it because I want to get these guys in,” he said. “I want to see what they can do. We haven’t kept score yet, so you never know how that’s going to change somebody.
“If I had to say a strength of our team, there’s no doubt it’s the pitching staff this year, which obviously is the opposite of last year.”
Strength of schedule is important for Tabor’s RPI, Standiford said, adding that the Bluejays’ February schedule includes Louisiana State-Shreveport, Southwestern Christian, Midland, and Oklahoma City, and Texas A&M-Texarkana.
Midland, LSU-Shreveport and Texas A&M-Texarkana all earned post-season bids a year ago, and are receiving votes in the Top 25 poll this season.
Tabor will open the season with a nine-inning game with Wiley College next Wednesday at 2 p.m.
2016 Season Recap
If there was one thing the Tabor College baseball team lacked in 2016, it was pitching depth.
It wasn’t that the Bluejays lacked talent—they had that in good measure—but a loss of three arms to injury before the season even began certainly took its toll.
What Tabor lacked in depth on the mound, it made up for with offensive power. The Bluejays outscored opponents, 566-361 over 63 games last season, and ranked second nationally in both runs scored per game (9) and hits (741), and third in runs scored, RBIs (506), RBIs per game (8) and hits per game (11.8).
Tabor relied on the bats of NAIA Player of the Year Manny DeLeon and first-team all-conference shortstop Michael Baca, among other offensive powerhouses, to lead a team ranked fourth nationally in batting average (.351).
The Bluejays earned their fifth-consecutive regular-season conference title with 28 wins and eight losses in KCAC play. However, having won the KCAC tournament the previous two years, the Bluejays made an early exit in 2016, being eliminated by eventual-champion Sterling with a 1-2 record.
Still, Tabor was one of three KCAC teams to earn postseason bids, and hosted an NAIA opening round tournament in Hutchinson.
Tabor played five games in three days after suffering a Game 1 loss to Wayland Baptist. Facing elimination, the Bluejays won their next three games—4-3 over Mayville State, 3-1 over Morningside and 12-7 over Wayland Baptist—to advance to the championship game.
But with the Bluejay pitching staff depleted, Tabor suffered an 18-2 loss to 11th-ranked Science and Arts in a rain-soaked game that concluded after midnight.
“Compared to what we’ve had in the past, there was no doubt our depth was an issue last year, pitching-wise,” coach Mark Standiford said. “I feel that we probably got as much as we could out of what we had. I was very proud of the way they performed. It’s just very difficult to take that next step to the World Series. But to get to a championship game in a regional was very good, and the guys that did step up, did a very good job on the mound.”
At the end of the season, Tabor compiled an overall record of 45-18, ranking 13th in the final NAIA Top 25 poll, having ranked as high as ninth during the season.