Minutemen return to the field, open season at Central Florida

By Eli Rosenswaike, Collegian Staff

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The Massachusetts baseball team opens its 2007 season tonight against Central Florida (8-9) in the first matchup of a three-game set. The Minutemen and the Golden Knights will square off Friday through Sunday at Jay Bergman Field in Orlando, Fla.

UMass will see its first live action since the end of last season, while its opponent, the Golden Knights, have had the benefit of playing 17 games to get in the full-swing of things in the early stages of the season.

“Just the fact that they’ve played in 17 games is an advantage,” UMass coach Mike Stone said. “They have warm weather, they’re outside and playing on a field and they can really do everything. We have to scale down our preparation, but the main thing is seeing live pitching and outside game situations.”

Senior Chris Lloyd will toe the pitching slab for the Minutemen on Friday, while freshman Jared Freni and sophomore Mike Dicato will get the call this weekend, respectively.

The trio of right-handers are charged with holding down a solid Golden Knight offense, a lineup which currently features five .300 hitters and a dynamic leadoff man in Tyson Auer. Three players in the UCF batting order have previously been drafted by Major League clubs, including Kiko Vazquez – who leads the team with three home runs and 18 RBIs.

UCF has the added advantage of having three hitters in its starting lineup that can bat left-handed to counteract an entirely right-handed UMass pitching staff.

This early in the season, though, Stone isn’t too concerned with individual matchups at the plate.

“It would be nice if we matched up that way, but we don’t have that,” he said. “It’s something that we don’t need to focus on as much, we just need our people to pitch quality innings – regardless if it’s right-left or left-right.

“The first seven games you play, you’re really playing against yourselves,” Stone added. “I don’t really focus a whole lot about what the other team has done. I really try to prepare for what we can do and what our strengths are.”

It was a struggle for both teams last season, as the Minutemen finished 14-30 overall and 11-16 in the Atlantic 10, and the Golden Knights ended the year at 22-33 – albeit in a deeper conference (Conference USA). Stone expects a little bit of rust for their first series of the season, but is optimistic his team will start strong.

“Of course I’m concerned about how we will react the first time outside playing games, but I think we’re an improved team and have better talent [this season],” he said. “We’re playing against pretty good competition and we just need to be tough enough mentally and physically. We want to come out and play well, play tough and come out with a lot of energy and aggressiveness.”

That aggression could pay off for the Minutemen, putting added pressure on a UCF defense that has struggled mightily thus far – having committed 41 errors through 17 games. The Golden Knight pitching staff has also had some early-season problems, issuing 86 walks in only 152 innings. UMass will attempt to exploit those weaknesses this weekend.

“Certain times you want to be patient, but I like to be aggressive on offense,” Stone said. “You need to get guys on, move them over, try to get them in and put pressure on the opponent so you can get better pitches to hit.”

The Minutemen have the luxury of a rested pitching staff, while the Golden Knights’ arms may be slightly fatigued, having played five games in the past week. Irregardless of how the starters do, Stone will have plenty of hurlers ready to go in the series.

“Our plan is to have three starters ready and to have three more starters backing them up,” he said. “We’ll have middle guys ready, and then short-relievers (junior Aaron Smith and senior Bryan Adamski) ready to go to close out any games. And if people don’t pitch on Friday, they’ll just get bumped to Saturday.”

The entire staff will need to be ready to take the ball against a powerful UCF lineup in order to start the season off well.

Eli Rosenswaike can be reached at [email protected]