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Preseason All-Sun Belt selection Mark Nelson will need to produce runs if the Owls are to repeat as Sun Belt champions. ( photo)


Repeat Quest

FAU baseball begins its season on Friday night against Cincinnati. Here are five questions the Owls need to answer if they are to repeat as Sun Belt champions.

Originally published on 2/14/2013

by Chuck King

Florida Atlantic's baseball season throws its first pitch on Friday when Cincinnati comes to Boca Raton for a three-game set. For the second time in three years the Owls will be attempting to defend their regular season Sun Belt Conference title.

What will the Owls need to do to be successful? Which players need to step forward if the Owls are going to repeat? The Owls will play 55 games between Friday and the start of the Sun Belt Conference tournament, which this year will be played at Lafayette, La.

Below are five questions the Owls need to answer if they are going to once again claim the conference title, this time in their final season as members of the Sun Belt.

1. Will FAU fall victim to high expectations?

FAU was in a similar position in 2011. The Owls claimed the Sun Belt crown the year prior and were the preseason choice to repeat. FAU's crew never recaptured the momentum from the year prior and finished in a tie for fourth.

“We've been talking about that a lot,” FAU coach John McCormack said. “I tell them they can't be complacent.”

McCormack said he kept waiting for the 2011 team to turn it on, but it never happened. To try to ensure that 2013 isn't a reprise of the 2011 season, McCormack and the coaches have been stressing the little things to his players. He's also tried to keep competition thriving during the preseason, and as recently as two days before opening night McCormack said he was still undecided about whether Nathan Pittman or Geoff Jimenez would start in center, and whether Robert Buckley or Sean Murrell would draw the assignment at second.

2. Who will replace Ryan Garton on Friday nights?
For the better part of three years, Ryan Garton got the ball to start the weekend series. His 33 Friday night starts are the most in program history. But Garton and his nine wins from last season are in the Tampa Bay organization now. Preseason camp saw a three-way battle between lefthander Austin Gomber, righty Jeremy Strawn and righty Kevin Alexander for the Friday night slot.

Bicep tendonitis brought on by weightlifting removed Kevin Alexander from consideration. (He won't pitch the first weekend but could be back the following weekend.

Gomber ultimately beat out Strawn, who is returning from a torn latissimus doris tendon in his back. Gomber is coming off what he called “a pretty decent freshman year” in which he posted a 3-4 record with a 3.86 ERA. He will get the ball this first Friday night.

“I'm so excited, I cant wait,” said Gomber, a preseason All-Sun Belt selection.

Gomber and his 92 mph fastball will be followed by Jake Meiers this Saturday and Strawn on Sunday. Meiers has added a little pep to his fastball, which should make his change-up even more effective. Strawn only pitched in two games games last season before his injury struck.

McCormack and pitching coach Jason Jackson have demonstrated in the past they aren't afraid to juggle their rotation, so don't be surprised if this rotation is in flux for the first couple of weeks.

3. Who will produce the runs?
Last season three players tied for the FAU home run lead with seven round trippers apiece. Two of them are back.

The easy answer is that preseason All-Sun Belt first baseman Mark Nelson will be counted on for more power – and McCormack says Nelson has improved his power stroke during the offseason. But if the players around Nelson don't hit, there's no reason to pitch to him.

A hot start from State College of Florida transfer Tyler Rocklein (.332 3 HR, 46 RBI in 2012) will keep pitchers from taking the bat out of Nelson's hands. Corey Keller, who like Nelson belted seven homers last season) and Mike Spano will have their two live bats behind Rocklein, and Ricky Santiago showed surprising pop as a freshman. Will Santiago continue to improve as an every day player?

4. Which newcomers will play significant roles?

Rocklein jumps to the front of this list. He'll play leftfield and bat clean-up. McCormack thinks a line of .320, 9 homers and 40 RBI is not out of the question.

Levi Meyer will begin the season as the primary DH and will bat second. McCormack said the junior transfer from Iowa Western CC has done nothing but hit during the preseason. Meyer will also see significant time behind the plate when Spano needs a rest.

Brandon Rhodes or Seth McGarry will be available out of the pen this weekend, but if they aren't needed there is a good chance one of them will get the start on Wednesday when Miami comes to Boca Raton.

5. Who will provide leadership?
Former catcher and second baseman Mike Albaladejo was the emotional spark plug of the Owls for the past four seasons. Albaladejo is now a member of the Nationals organization and someone will have to fill that void.

Nelson has been voted captain by his teammates but he is more of a quiet guy who leads by example. If the Owls are going to have a vocal leader, look for it to be either Pittman or Meyer. Both players are full of energy and McCormack says they aren't afraid to speak their minds.

Championship teams generally have at least one member who knows how to push his teammates and keep them focused. The quicker some player can emerge for the Owls, the easier it will be for them to navigate through those down patches that eventually come.

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Breakdown Box

Predicted Rotation (2012 record)

Fri: LHP Austin Gomber (3-4, 3.82)
Sat: RHP Kevin Alexander (5-1, 3.29)
Sun: RHP Jeremy Strawn (0-0, 1.93)

RHP Jake Meiers (2-4, 9.64)

RHP Hugh Adams (redshirt)

Probable batting order

1. Nathan Pittman CF
2. Levi Meyer DH
3. Mark Nelson 1B
4. Tyler Rocklein LF
5. Corey Keller RF
6. Mike Spano C
7. Ricky Santiago 3B
8. Mitch Morales SS
9. Robert Buckley 2B

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Go watch college football in Boca. It's that simple. Support your local team and go have a good time!

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