Strong pitching, balanced offense should bode well for Tiger baseball

The hitters love the pitchers. The pitchers love the hitters.

Marshalltown Community College baseball coach Rich Grife just hopes all phases of the game come around before season’s end.

“It’s a pretty balanced club,” said Grife. “We have swung it better than I thought we would at this point and we have a strong staff. It’s a fun team.”

The Tigers will look to improve upon a 28-31 season from a year ago. MCC also went 17-15 in the Iowa Community College Athletic Conference.

“I think once this group gets going, and the pitchers are up to where we need to be, the sophomore leadership will take over and we’ll be able to come through in some of those close games we lost last year,” Grife said.

Some of the sophomore leaders Grife is referring to will be position players William Salas, Justen Folger and Andrew Utterback and pitchers Jake Whaley and Ben Ryder.

“We lost a lot of one-run games last year,” said Utterback, who is one of the team captains. “We’ve grown up a lot. We can depend on the guy in front of us and the guy behind us. We have meshed together really well.”

Utterback is one of the Tigers who expects the pitching staff to lead the way this season. The Tigers have six starters who have thrown in the 90s, and Utterback feels like MCC can hang its hat on pitching and defense.

“We’re pretty loaded 1-6 starters,” said Utterback, who hit .271 last year with 29 runs and 22 RBIs. “We have a strong bullpen too. We can overpower guys and they can get a strikeout whenever we need it. They are so confident every time they go out. Throwing 90 mph is a big plus for them, too.”

Marshalltown native Bennett Mann feels like the offense won’t have to do much to win games, and that is in large part due to the potential of the pitching staff.

“The pitching staff is very strong. They will keep us in every game. As long as we score four runs, we’ll be in any game,” Mann said. “When you have six guys that can throw 90 mph plus, it is pretty hard to hit that. Teams haven’t been able to catch up with those guys so far. Then we can bring in closers that keep the hitters off balance.”

The top four starting pitchers on the squad this year are expected to be sophomores Whaley and Ryder and freshmen Cory Ceponis and Ron Gumbos.

Whaley is a little more cautious when talking about the pitching staff. He knows throwing 90 miles per hour doesn’t mean much if the pitches aren’t thrown for strikes.

“This team has a lot of potential this year, and things have looked good so far,” said Whaley, a recent Kansas State University signee. “We all just need to come together as a team. But the pitchers need to throw strikes. The speed doesn’t matter if it’s not a strike.”

Whaley, who is projected to be the No. 1 starter, was 3-5 last year in nine starts and he struck out 57 hitters in 54 innings. Ryder was 5-5 in nine starts as well. Ryder, who will extend his baseball career at Alabama A&M, had 37 strikeouts.

Ceponis is a lefty from Chicago who throws in the low 90s, according to Grife. Gumbos also hits 90 miles per hour and comes to MCC by way of Connecticut.

“The stuff has been really good,” Grife said of the pitching staff. “They are relentless workers. They have worked harder at things than any other group I have had. I think by the time it is all over, they should be able to really pitch.”

While the pitching staff will look to overpower opposing hitters, the MCC offense is not expected to have a ton of power. Instead, the Tigers will look to manufacture runs with hit and runs, stealing bases and bunting.

“We have a lot of guys that can hit anywhere in this lineup,” Utterback said. “We won’t generate a lot of home runs, but we’ll try to manufacture runs in other ways. That will be a big part of our offense this year.”

Grife said the top four hitters in the lineup are expected to be sophomores Salas (lead-off) and Folger (clean up) and freshmen Ty Russell and Daryl Blaskovich.

“Folger’s been fighting knee problems since high school, but he is healthy this year and you can tell,” Grife said. “He has more bounce in his step. He looks good.

“William relaxed everything at the top of the order in our first three games. He had really good at-bats last weekend.”

Salas hit .323 last year with 24 runs and 20 RBIs, while Folger finished with a .281 batting average as well as 23 runs and 23 RBIs.

“We have a great order from top to bottom,” said Mann, who also is a captain along with Whaley and Ryder. “Everyone can bunt and do a job when needed.”

Mann comes to MCC after hitting .363 with the Bobcats last year. He also knocked in 38 runs and scored 28 times. He is expected to play right field for the Tigers.

Russell and Blaskovich both come to Marshalltown from Canada. Blaskovich is likely to hit in the No. 2 hole. while Russell will bat third.

“Ty swings it left-handed, squares up everything and swings it really well,” Grife said. “Blaskovich moves the baseball around and can bunt, hit it the other way and he runs well. He brings a lot to the table.”

If the Tigers want to win a conference championship this season. they likely will have to go through Iowa Western and Indian Hills. The Reivers are the defending national champions and have claimed two titles in three years, while the Warriors also present a tough challenge.

“We have to pitch and close out games,” Grife said. “If we do that and play defense, we’ll be fine. The defense has been OK so far, but I am not ready to say where we are at right now. We’ll see.

“The league is always good. Everyone will present a challenge for us.”

Iowa Western begins the season ranked No. 1 among Division I teams. The Reivers went 62-6 last year.

DMACC finished 51-15 last year and won the Division II Region XI Tournament. The Bears begin the season ranked No. 4. Iowa Central (No. 12) and Ellsworth (No. 19) also find themselves in the Division II preseason rankings.

The Tigers have already played three games – all against Roane State – and went 1-2 to begin the season.

In those three games, Folger had seven hits and Salas has six. Whaley also earned the win on the mound in the season opener. He struck out seven in five innings.

MCC left town Thursday to play in a weekend tournament at Jamestown, N.C. The Tigers’ home opener is March 16 at 1 p.m. against rival and 19th ranked Ellsworth Community College.