2012 Baseball Preview: Outfield
Feb. 16, 2012
By Sam Hickman
There is no substituting a Trent Whitehead. A two-time All-Conference USA selection, Whitehead helped the Pirates to three NCAA Regional appearances (2008-09, '11), one Super Regional (2009), the 2009 C-USA regular season title and a combined 138-92 record, which included three 40-win seasons.
A three-year starter, Whitehead cemented himself as a fan favorite with his fearless play and hustle on the field as well as his ability to find ways to get on base, which earned him Williams' Jungle Offensive MVP honors in 2009. He started 204 of 236 games for the Pirates boasting a .338 average with 290 hits, 18 home runs, 122 RBI, 196 runs and made only four errors 470 chances for a .991 fielding percentage - ranking among the all-time leaders in school history.
During the last year's campaign, the diminutive lefty sported a .325 batting average, belted four home runs, and knocked in 27 runs. The Washington, N.C., native ranked among the Conference USA leaders in doubles (3rd/20), hits (5th/80), stolen bases (8th/17), and total bases (8th/114).
While he won't be hauling in line-drives in the gap or swiping bags on the basepaths, Whitehead won't be far away.
He has joined the coaching staff as he finishes his undergraduate degree in health fitness management. The student assistant will work primarily with the outfielders and serve as the squad's first base coach in 2012.
Hitting coach Nick Schnabel said that he doesn't know who will begin the season in center field.
"When you look at center field, we have a couple of options with (Ben) Fultz and (Philip) Clark," Schnabel said. "We also have Jay Cannon and Chris Gosik who will add a different dimension to our outfield. The depth is there. We have a lot of options that we'll toy with."
Clark and Fultz - two returning starters from the 2011 team - are viable candidates to fill the void as the two most experienced returning outfielders. Both left-handed hitters, the pair combined for 88 starts a year ago, with Clark getting the starting nod in right field on 42 occasions. Fultz notched 46 starts, 30 in left and 16 in right. The duo is expected to begin the season as two of the three outfield starters, but positions have not been solidified. Both speedsters could draw time at the No.1 spot in the batting order left vacant by Whitehead.
A Norfolk, Va., native, Clark batted .310 with three home runs and 28 RBI in 2011 - all career-highs. He challenged opposing defenses as blazing speed helped him tally 13 stolen bases and collect seven hits on bunts. He also recorded a team-high 11 sacrifice bunts. During a stretch in April, he had a career-best 10-game hitting streak in which he batted .405 with seven RBI.
Fultz, a graduate of Ragsdale High School in Greensboro, N.C. completed his initial campaign by garnering C-USA All-Freshman Team accolades and earning a spot on the Charlottesville All-Regional squad. Fultz displayed a flare for the dramatic as he blasted a two-out home run against Rutgers on Mar. 18, which tied the game in the bottom of the ninth. The long ball sparked a come-from-behind 3-2 victory in 11 innings over the Scarlet Knights. Additionally, Fultz ripped a game-tying two-run triple off the wall at Houston in the ninth inning, a contest the Pirates wound up winning 5-4 in extra frames. He finished the year with a .303 batting average, four home runs, 26 RBI, and 13 extra-base hits (nine doubles and four triples).
Gosik started 25 of the 43 games (21 in left field) in which he saw action last season batting .293 with 12 RBI. After a successful rookie campaign, where started 19 games in 2010, he helped ECU in various capacities as the corner outfielder logged 96 at-bats and drove in six runs with two outs and runners in scoring position. He had a career-best performance against Rutgers on Mar. 18 as he collected a trio of base-knocks including the game-winning single in the bottom of the 11th lifting ECU to a dramatic 3-2 triumph.
Cannon comes to Greenville after a stellar career at BCC. He offers versatility in the Pirates' lineup, an infielder during his time in junior college that also possesses the tools to immediately compete for the final opening in the Pirate outfield. Cannon finished his freshman season for Brunswick batting .331 with five home runs, ledgers that were strong enough to earn second-team all-region accolades. He followed the rookie campaign with an impressive 2011, where he batted .327 with 15 multi-hit contests; marks that would help him garner a spot on the first-team all-region honors. He served as the Dolphins' shortstop, but is expected to see most of his time in the outfield for the Purple and Gold in 2012.
Schnabel said that the lineup you see on opening day could be altered many times throughout the season, a decision that would be made based on individual performance.
"We have a lot of tools, a lot of guys we can throw out there," he said. "Guys have been competing for playing time. That's great to see. I wouldn't be surprised if we had to mix-and-match the lineup a few times. If guys perform, we'll find a spot for them."
Sophomore Jonathan Holt returns for the Pirates and adds a clutch bat to the personnel. Holt played sparingly in 2011, but when asked to contribute the Greensboro, N.C. native capitalized on the opportunities. He batted .500 with four RBI as a pinch-hitter and provided several key hits, which catapulted ECU to a pair of late-inning comeback victories over Marshall. He also extended a rally against Houston in the final frame and eventually scored the game-tying run on a Fultz triple. During the ninth inning, Holt batted .800 (4-for-5) and drove in three runs while also scoring a trio of runs.
Utility specialist Drew Reynolds has also seen action in the outfield during preseason practice sessions after spending his rookie season in the infield. The Cherryville, N.C. native, who added 20 pounds to his 6-foot-2 frame over the summer and fall, could also be looked upon as a defensive replace at third and will battle for a spot in the backend of the bullpen as the season progresses.
Newcomer Kevin Sanders, who is listed as a catcher and outfielder on the roster, will likely sit out the 2012 season after having labrum surgery in early February.
The Pirates will take the field tomorrow at Lewis Field inside Clark-LeClair Stadium for the season opener against UW-Milwaukee. First pitch is scheduled for 3 p.m. (ET).