TERRE HAUTE —
For 23 years, Rose-Hulman baseball coach Jeff Jenkins has taken his team to Florida to open its season and 2012 was no exception.
Jenkins said the point of this annual trip is not to stretch out on the beach, but to see “who can do what” in actual game situations.
“We use a lot of players,” he explained. “We used 16 pitchers [14 in varsity games and two more in split-squad games] on this trip alone.”
The Engineers went 5-3 this year, capping off their stay with a 7-2 victory over the College of New Jersey on Saturday at Winter Haven, Fla.
“We played an extremely tough schedule, probably the toughest we’ve faced since we started going down there,” Jenkins insisted, adding that three of their opponents competed in the NCAA Division III final eight at least once over the last five years.
“So we’re pleased. We’re really young this year.”
One of their losses was a 7-6 decision to Loras last Thursday. It lasted 15 innings, the second-longest game in Rose history.
Jenkins was particularly happy about the Engineers’ 5-3 triumph Friday, which came against nationally ranked St. John Fisher.
“That was a good one for us,” he admitted. “They’ve got a really good chance of going to the [NCAA Division III] regional this year.”
Rose-Hulman is back home now and preparing to face Greenville in its home opener at 6:30 p.m. Thursday at Art Nehf Field.
The Engineers are missing one of their top returning hitters from 2011 — senior outfielder Derek Dauenbaugh, who ruptured an Achilles tendon playing intramural basketball recently. Jenkins said Dauenbaugh may be able to return late in the season, but they’re not counting on a signficant contribution from him.
Some of the starting infielders, who helped Rose turn 19 double plays over the first eight games, are senior Will Burchett at shortstop, sophomore Andrew Benitez at second base and junior Bobby Newman at third base.
“The infield defense was very solid [in Florida],” Jenkins emphasized. “They’ve been just outstanding.”
Newman and Matt Turk hit the only home runs for Jenkins’ squad in Florida and Newman leads in runs batted in with 11.
Sophomore center fielder/lead-off man Hank Akard is No. 1 on the Engineers in batting average (.564), runs scored (13), doubles (eight) and stolen bases (four).
“He makes solid contact and he’s fast,” Jenkins said of Akard’s offensive skills. “He’s also become a really good center fielder for us.”
Also serving as the closer on their pitching staff, the right-handed Akard has chalked up one save and a 1.50 earned-run average this season.
Three former Terre Haute North High School standouts are expected to see a fair amount of action. Sophomore left fielder Parker Fulkerson — who’s in his first season at Rose-Hulman after he transferred from Holy Cross — is batting .343 as a full-time starter, junior Nick Pilipovich started five games either as a catcher or designated hitter in Florida and sophomore Dougie Collett started one game and appeared in five after missing last season with an injury.
Senior Jim Bob Schuler is the ace of Rose’s pitching staff, having already won two games with an ERA of 3.45. Last season, the 6-foot-4 lefty went 7-2 with a 2.86 ERA.
“He pitched very well on this trip,” Jenkins confirmed.
Other likely mound starters are junior right-hander Ethan Post (0-0, 2.61) and freshman righty Ben Menich (1-0, 3.60). Menich, by the way, picked up the victory against St. John Fisher.
Turning his attention to the Heartland Collegiate Athletic Conference, Jenkins predicted the Franklin Grizzlies will be difficult to beat again after they captured the HCAC tournament title last season. But the Engineers should at least be in the hunt in 2012.
“They’ve got good pitching and they always score a lot of runs,” he pointed out. “But we’re going to give it all we’ve got [to win HCAC games]. We just cannot afford any injuries. We are not very deep at all … and we’ve got to get consistent starting pitching.”