by Steven Mercado
As the Azusa Pacific Cougars approach the new season, they also approach a new team identity. However, this identity still remains a mystery.
Several key players graduated after the 2012 season. Seven of the nine starters are gone, along with key bench players and relief pitchers. This is no cause for concern, as the Cougars have welcomed 14 new players to their roster in order to fill the open spots.
“Fall practice went real well. We have a hard-working group of guys, and we have real good senior leadership this year, so I think the transition has gone well,” Head Coach Paul Svagdis said.
There are several factors that establish the identity of a winning team. Svagdis and the rest of the coaching staff stress the importance of showing great energy and hustle out on the baseball field.
“The term we use is ‘bringing steam’ each day to practice,” Svagdis said. “We need to have a lot of steam, and that can be vocal or it can be physical in how they practice. Sometimes when you bring in 14 new players and they’re used to a certain style of practice or a certain style of play, it can take a while to transition. The seniors have done a good job in leading them and the young kids have picked it up pretty quickly.”
Senior catcher and third baseman Brendan Casey and senior second baseman Tyler Putjenter were voted team captains by their teammates last spring. Casey started 53 of the 59 games he appeared in at third base and finished the year with a .314 batting average and 30 RBIs. Putjenter started in six of the 47 games he appeared in and finished the year with a .324 batting average and four RBIs. They both look to bring their veteran experience and leadership to the team.
“[Casey and Putjenter] have been excellent leaders,” Svagdis said. “They lead by example and they’re vocal when they need to be. I think they’ve taken what the seniors last year, the leaders, kind of role modeled for them during the season and they just picked right up where our great class of guys last year left off.”
If the Cougars pick up where they left off last year, they would be in good shape, to say the least. They ended last season with a 47-12 record, which is the second-highest winning season in program history.
Junior outfielder Matt Kimmel looks to be the top option on offense. He finished last year’s season with a team-high of .437 batting average, 60 RBIs and also a team-high in stolen bases with 11. He will provide power to the balanced Cougar offense.
Despite being aware of his role in the offense, Kimmel does not want to let expectations affect his performance.
“Last year, I had a pretty successful season, but I can’t let that affect how I play this year,” Kimmel said. “I can’t let the success last year get to my head. I have to stay focused on what I do, on how I play, and let my heart work and let my talent speak for itself.”
The Cougars’ offense will involve more “small ball” — line drive base hits and shots into the gaps, and doing anything to move the runners across the bases. The key to this strategy apparently is to “elevate,” which became a sort of mantra with the coaching staff last year.
“It’s a good mental cue for our guys,” Svagdis said. “If we are going to be a team that drives the ball in the gaps, we need to hit elevated pitches, and when those elevated pitches come, we need to be prepared for them; we don’t want to let them slide by.”
As for the pitching staff, senior Michael Finnigan and sophomore Zach Hedges look to lead the rotation. Hedges finished last year with a 7-0 record out of 11 appearances and eight starts. He pitched a 3.30 ERA and finished with a stunning 37-7 strikeout-to-walk ratio. Finnigan finished with a 6-1 record, a 3.07 ERA, and 52 strikeouts.
Joining them in the rotation and new to the starting pitcher spot is senior Jason Plowman. He showed promise in his only start last year in a six-inning win, but was a reliever for the rest of the season. Plowman expressed that the change is a tough one, but he is handling it well.
“The switch wasn’t exactly easy,” Plowman said. “I knew it was going to be a lot of work. It started this summer when I played in the California Collegiate league. I got a lot of starts there, so that kind of helped me understand how to be a starting pitcher and control a game that way instead of coming out of the bullpen, where the tempo has kind of been set.”
According to Plowman, the team’s everyday motto is “Let’s get better today.” This worker’s mentality is a formula for success in the future, as long as the team does not let up.
“Let’s get better today, even if it [is through] practice,” Plowman said. “Let’s have a lot of energy, not sit back and think we’re the greatest team because it’s baseball; you can get beat by anyone on any given day.”
The Cougars continue to “bring steam” as the season opener approaches quickly. They will be facing the Claremont-Mudd-Scripps Athenas on Feb. 1. Plowman is expected to get the start as the Cougars look to “elevate” early and start the season on a high note.