An unknown theorist once said, “The whole is only as good as the sum of its parts.” The same can be said of any athletic team, including the 2013 TMC baseball team. On paper, the Mustangs appear to have the individual parts necessary to win a lot of games, challenge for their first GSAC title in 10 years, and make a deep run in the postseason. But, any manager worth his salt knows that individuals don’t win games, conference championships, and playoff series. Teams do.
Nobody knows that better than 17th-year head coach Monte Brooks who has won his share of games over the years and is prepared once again for the task of taking those parts and transforming them into a team that is capable of winning. He has plenty to work with, too, as seen on a roster that boasts 17 returning players, including seven starters, from the 2012 squad that won 34 games. Simply, his job is to identify the best starters in the field and on the mound, fill out a lineup with the most productive batters, find playing time for those who provide quality depth, and gel all of this into a cohesive unit.
Although the pitching staff and outfield will feature some new faces, Brooks is fortunate to have intact the same infield that closed the 2012 campaign as the finest quartet of fielders in the country. Junior third baseman Cody Harris is, in terms of starting experience, the senior member of this foursome who can really pick it at the hot corner while developing into a proven run-producer at the plate. Returning with him on the left side of the infield is shortstop Jonathan Popadics, already one of the finest fielders at his position in the nation to go along with his new role as the club’s leadoff man.
Teaming with this pair of young veterans to form a dynamic double play combination is sophomore Sam Robison who came on late last year to claim the second base job by displaying impeccable defense and showing consistency at the plate. This threesome and those that will join it for spot starts will have a welcome target to throw to in the form of senior first baseman Spencer Downs, one of the best at his position in the history of the program and a force at the plate where he’ll be counted on to drive in a lot of runs.
If the ball gets by or over this foursome, there’s an excellent chance that it will wind up in the glove of one of three capable outfielders, led by sophomore Steve Karkenny. The incumbent leftfielder is the only returning starter in the outfield, bringing stability and a strong arm on defense while returning to his No. 2 spot in the lineup with a lethal bat. Taking over in center field is sophomore speedster Caleb Halverson who can really go get the ball and then use that same swiftness to get on base as a “second” lead-off man at the bottom of the order.
Rounding out this starting trio is junior Ryan Shackelford who transitions to right field after two years as a part-time starter at second base. He’ll display speed and a strong arm in the field to go with a bat that hits to all fields. On rare occasions, fans might even see junior Joe Riddle in right field but the club’s primary designated hitter will concentrate his efforts at the plate where he’ll be counted on to drive in bunches of runs from his spot in the middle of the order. Transfers Anthony Leal and Brett Piper will also provide quality depth.
Armed with the knowledge of a superb defense playing behind it should enable a talented pitching staff to relax and thrive. Southpaw A. J. Work was able to do both last year and this season should be no different for the fast-working, senior ace who pounds the strike zone and finishes what he starts. Joining the rotation for one year is senior transfer Tyler Elrod, a hard-throwing righthander with excellent command and the arm to go deep into games. Rounding out this threesome that should pitch every weekend from January through May is junior James Scott. The righthander learned the ropes of starting last year and that, along with improved strength, should translate into more confidence and wins.
During a season that will feature 16 doubleheaders, pitching depth will be at a premium, so having spot starters or those who can go in long relief will be a great asset. In these situations, Brooks will turn to veteran Daniel Sheaffer, who has toggled between starting and relieving during his first three years on the staff, and junior transfer Andrew Klausmeier who brings NCAA Division I experience to his role. Ticketed for middle, situational, and set-up roles will be a plethora of young arms including junior transfer Tucker Richardson, sophomore Bryce Clancy, and freshmen Dalton Thompson and Justyn Lee.
When the starters can’t finish things off or the other relievers successfully hold leads, they can be assured that Tommy Kister is waiting to save another win. The junior righthander has the mindset of all closers, wanting the ball at the end of the game.
This quality pitching and depth will be tested during a grueling 51-game schedule that starts early in mid-January and runs through April. With 30 of those contests slated for the FieldTurf of Reese Field the Mustangs are hoping to use that as an advantage, but it won’t be an easy task, especially against GSAC opponents who have become accustomed to playing on the Placerita Canyon turf. In a slimmed-down conference, featuring seven baseball-playing teams, the Mustangs will play a 36-game slate, highlighted by contests against defending GSAC Tournament champion Concordia, which enters the season as the NAIA’s No. 11, and Biola, which also earned a spot in last year’s national tournament.