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May 4, 2017

UMass baseball opens its season with three-game series at Elon this weekend

(Judith Gibson-Okunieff/Collegian)

The unseasonably warm weather in the Northeast is a pleasant reminder that baseball season is just around the corner. For many college baseball teams, the 2017 season has already begun, but the Massachusetts baseball team will open its season this Friday against Elon University down in North Carolina.

With nine games under their belt, the Phoenix (3-6) have been playing against other schools for nearly two weeks. Their success has varied, but so has their level of competition. Elon has already played four games against nationally-ranked opponents, including No. 12 Clemson and No. 9 East Carolina, and have lost each of them.

The Minutemen’s season traditionally starts a few days after Mar. 1, so facing a team that is already two weeks in is nothing new.

“It’s always an adjustment process at the beginning of the season,” coach Mike Stone said. “For us, when you first start to play and play outside, that’s something that our guys are aware of from year-to-year.”

For Stone’s 30th and final opening day as coach of the Minutemen, he will be sending sophomore right-hander Justin Lasko to the mound.

In 10 starts last season, Lasko finished with a 4-1 record and an 4.19 earned run average. Though not credited with the loss, Lasko’s first start of 2016 lasted only two innings against Charleston Southern. At the time, the freshman gave up seven runs on nine hits.

If Elon follows the same four-man rotation they did to start the season, the Minutemen should be facing Ryan Conroy in the first game, Robbie Welhaf in the second and Kyle Brnovich in the final game on Sunday. Welhaf pitched a no-hitter in his first start of the season against Longwood Feb. 18.

Following Lasko in the first game, Stone intends for freshman left-hander Brooks Knapek to pitch the second game on Saturday and senior right-hander Mike Geannelis to round out the series Sunday at 12 p.m.

Knapek, a freshman from Albany, joins the Minutemen along with twin brother Carter and has proved he’s capable of being a starting pitcher.

“I just feel like he is one of our top guys and plus he’s a lefty and that mixes it up a little bit,” Stone said of Brooks Knapek. “But he’s progressed to the point where he’s ready to go.”

Knapek and fellow freshman Nolan Kessinger are the only two left-handed pitchers on the Minutemen’s roster.

The Phoenix boast a lineup that has good power but not a very high average. They have hit seven home runs on the year; good enough to tie for second in the Colonial Athletic Association yet are toward the bottom of the conference with a team batting average of .245. Their most telling stat, however, is the CAA-leading 99 strikeouts, over 20 more than second-worst James Madison with 71.

“We’re not going in thinking we need to have a certain amount of strikeouts or to not strike out a certain amount,” Stone said. “We’re just trying to execute in what we attempt to do.”

Offensively, Stone is just hoping to see his batters comfortable and aggressive in the batters box without thinking about how many runs they will score.

“The team that is the most comfortable the soonest during the game wins the game and that’s really what we need to focus on,” Stone said.

The UMass pitchers will have to get more comfortable throwing to a new catcher. With the graduation of John Jennings, the Minutemen plan on splitting time at the position between senior Matt Bare and junior Keith Linnane.

“It will either be to start with Matt Bare or Keith Linnane, he’s [Linnane] had a little bit of an arm issue but we’re working past that now,” Stone said. “He’s a very good receiver, I know pitchers like to pitch to him and I think they feel the same about Matt Bare. I think he throws the ball well and blocks well and has done a great job for us for the last three years, so he’ll get an opportunity.”

While Stone is sure the pitchers have a catcher they prefer to throw to, their input is not taken into account. The hope is that they will feel comfortable throwing to both.

The first game of the three-game series will be played in Elon on Friday at 4 p.m.

Philip Sanzo can be reached at psanzo@umass.edu and followed on Twitter @Philip_Sanzo.

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