With four top hitters returning from last year's 39-win team, offense should be a Kansas City Kansas Community College baseball strength this spring.
Pitching, however, is another matter. Last season, four pitchers started every Jayhawk Conference game. Only one returns leaving a lot of inexperience but also a wealth of opportunities for a staff of 11 righthanders and five southpaws.
"We probably won't have last year's luxury of having four pitchers who started every conference game," says head coach Matt Goldbeck. "We're deeper on the mound this year; we just don't have the dominant arms at the top of the staff we had last year."
The Blue Devils open the season this weekend with four games in Dallas, Tex. They'll play Richland in a single game Friday and a doubleheader Saturday and Brookhaven in a single game Sunday before returning home to face Northeast Nebraska in a pair of doubleheaders Feb. 22-23.
Lefthander Osvaldo Mendez, who led the Blue Devils in wins in a 7-3 campaign last year, is the lone pitching returnee. A KJCCC Gold Glove winner, Mendez struck out 66, walked 34 and compiled a 4.26 earned run average in 12 starts. "Mendez will be our No. 1 starter; a real good competitor and hard worker," says Goldbeck.
Mendez will be joined in the starting rotation by three sophomore righthanders, Gabriel Ramos of Deltona, Fla.; Matt Fred of Saint Mary, Kan.; and Josiah Crowley of Bonner Springs. Ramos compiled a 4-3 record with 33 strikeouts, 11 walks and 5.04 ERA in 14 appearances, all in relief. Fred made six starts, compiling a 2-1 record with 42 strikeouts and 17 walks in 11 appearance; while Crowley made three relief appearances.
A trio of freshmen, Chase Terrell of Bonner Springs; Hunter Cashero of St. James Academy; and Parker Weddle of Park Hill, will head the all-important bullpen. Freshman candidates for starting roles include lefthanders Tyler Kapraun of Peoria, Ill.; and William Simmons of Olathe West; and righthanders Jake Shafter of Grain Valley and Joseph Reyes and Steven Santiago, both of Puerto Rico. Others are southpaws Logan Barnard of Lansing and Mathis Mauldin of Grain Valley and righthanders Kevin Melendez of Kissimmee, Fla., and Nao Fakuda of Auckland, Australia.
A quartet of.300 hitters will provide the core of the offense. Eduardo Acosta, who hit .352 with a .988 fielding average while playing centerfield last year, has been moved to shortstop while power-hitting Jose Sosa is back at first base. Acosta led the team in runs scored with 45 and drove in 36 runs while Sosa led in RBI (43) and doubles (21) while hitting .350.
Tyler Henry of Gardner-Edgerton, who led the Blue Devils in slugging (.613) while hitting .345 with five home runs among 27 extra base hits, will be back in left field. Griffin Everitt of Lincoln, Neb., who has signed with the University of Nebraska for next season, anchors the catching staff. Everitt hit .319 with 19 RBI last season. He'll be backed by freshmen Michael Edgar of Lee's Summit and Luis Martinez.
Seth Kenagy, a redshirt freshman from Gower, Mo., who has signed with Central Missouri, will be at second base with freshman Palmer Hutchinson of Hays the starter at third. Zayne Morrow, a freshman from Park Hill, will back up Sosa at first; while Cole Slibowski of St. Joseph, Mo., Kade Chastain of Frontenac and Joey Biggs of Wichita will be the infield backups.
Henry will be joined in the outfield by freshmen Ray Paniagua of Blue Springs and Caleb Adams of Lansing while sophomore Trey Hoover will be the designated hitter and see outfield duty. Hoover hit .278 in 15 games last year. Other outfielders include Sam Juarez of Topeka Seaman and Cooper Cleland of Frontenac.
"I'm excited about this group and the challenge," says Goldbeck. "With Sosa, Acosta, Henry and Everitt in the middle of the lineup, we should have some power with Kenagy and Paniagua providing some speed. Defensively, we may not have great range but should be solid."
The key, as always, will be the pitching. "We do have depth but it has to be proven in competition," says Goldbeck. "Unlike softball where pitchers can throw every day, our best guy will only pitch 12 games in a 56-game schedule. And playing 7 and 9-inning games we have to watch pitch counts and fatigue. The hot topic in baseball is protecting pitchers' arms and with Tommy John injuries skyrocketing, the starter typically won't finish the game." Last season, KCKCC had nine complete games while finishing 39-16 overall.
Third in the Jayhawk with a 23-9 record last year, coaches pegged the Blue Devils for fourth in this year's pre-season poll. As usual, perennial power and defending champion Cowley College is the pre-season favorite. The Tigers are ranked No. 10 and Johnson County No. 18 in the NJCAA DI preseason poll. JCCC and Fort Scott are also ranked ahead of KCKCC in the KJCCC poll followed by Coffeyville, Neosho County, Allen County, Labette and Highland.
In his fifth season as head coach and 26th season overall, Goldbeck will again be assisted by Bill Sharp, Dean Long, Pedro Leon, Daniel Freeman and Hector Garcia.
Led by head coach Matt Goldbeck, KCKCC's veteran baseball coaching staff is made up of (from left) Dean Long, Bill Sharp, Goldbeck and Pedro Leon. Goldbeck, Sharp and Long are all former Blue Devil players. (KCKCC Photo by Alan Hoskins)