The Milligan Buffaloes baseball team has been close the last few seasons. As in moving beyond the Appalachian Athletic Conference tournament and making a move to the national playoffs.
But even after losing several veteran pitchers – including standout Jason Trivett – the Buffs outlook is as good as ever as head coach Nathan Meade and his charges take aim at higher aspirations in 2012.
Trivett was a four year relief pitcher who saved 32 games in his career but moved to a starter’s role in 2011 where he finished 4-9 with a 3.01 earned run average as a senior.
“We lost a lot from our pitching for sure,” stated Meade. “But our young guys are really making some strides. Ethan Fleenor has gotten so much better. He’s already thrown 13-14 innings with a 0.80 ERA which is phenomenal.
“Another kid showing good stuff is Jake Watts from North Carolina. He’s a freshman that’s really coming into his own.”
Milligan comes into 2012 ranked third in the AAC pre-season polls, but Meade and the squad feel that number one is within reach.
“It’s a good conference with a lot of talent, and I think we will compete and show ourselves as capable as anyone of being on top,” Meade said.
Graduates like second baseman Dustin Ford, and pitchers Trivett, L.A. Owens, and J.J. Bergamin will be hard to replace for their leadership qualities, but Meade feels that the seniors he has including centerfielder Wes Jones will provide plenty.
“We have a good group of seniors with Wes Jones, Cory Hilton, Kyle Kolat and others that I think can lead us,” Meade said. “Wes is batting leadoff for us now and he’s hitting around .350 and has 10 stolen bases. Cory had a great season last year leading the nation in doubles and he’s picking right back up this year.
“Cory has the kind of versatility you need. He brings three gloves to every game and understands what needs to be done. He’s never too high or too low.”
First base is where Hilton will find himself stationed most of the time and thus far in 2012 is batting .389 with eight RBI as Milligan stands 4-6 overall on the young season.
In the middle infield, the double-play combo of senior second baseman Ryan White (.242, 7 RBI) and sophomore shortstop Luke Kirk (.452, 5 RBI) looks solid and the third base position is manned by Kolat.
Kolat is currently hitting a robust .375 and leads the Buffs in RBI with 20.
In the outfield Jones is the mainstay in CF and his leadoff hitting has produced 16 runs. Also in the outfield mix are junior Joe Purus (.263) in right and sophomore Hunter Carpenter (.313) in left.
“I batted leadoff as a freshman,” said Jones. “The mindset is a little different. You have to be more patient and get the right pitches to hit. I think we are coming together and the younger guys are getting to understand their roles better more and more each game.”
On the mound is where the Buffs youth will show itself capable or lacking, but so far the results have been mostly positive. Fleenor is 1-1 with a miniscule ERA while Watts is also 1-1 with a 5.40 ERA.
Some youngsters have struggled and their ERA’s have ballooned into double figures but Meade feels his pitching coach Chris Gordon will eventually get the best out of them.
“Coach Gordon works hard with these guys,” said Meade. “We have some good arms that just need seasoning and work under their belt to gain confidence. We are very young at that position, but I don’t think it’s a negative thing.
“We can build their confidence by scoring runs and playing good defense in the field. When you get men in scoring position you have to get them around. That’s a pitchers best friend.”
Sophomore left hander Tyler Wilson (Science Hill) is one that Meade is counting on to provide quality innings of work as is fellow lefty Josh Hullett.
“Right now it’s too early to make a real assessment because guys are just starting to rack up innings of work,” Meade said. “But I feel like they have the talent to be quality pitchers for us.”
In the last two seasons Milligan has come close to making it out of the AAC tournament and a spot in the National World Series losing the the semi-finals of the AAC tourney the last two seasons.
“We had a tough loss two years ago against Wesleyan,” Meade stated. “That was when Trivett was charged with a balk in a save situation. That one was tough. I don’t see any really dominant team in our league right now like Wesleyan was those years.
“We could have had two teams in the World Series, so this is a good league. Two out of 10 speaks well for this conference. To take the next step we have to get it done late in the season and carry that over to the tournament.”
The Buffs will host UVa.-Wise on Thursday at Anglin Field in a 4 pm twin-bill and will finish the three-game set on Sunday with an afternoon game with first pitch scheduled for 2 pm.
Note: A team photo of the Milligan baseball squad will print in a future edition of the Star.