Note: "Tonight" in the story refers to Wednesday.
For the past few seasons, the McDowell Titans have relied heavily on their starting pitching to keep games close while the offense tried to scratch out a few runs here and there.
This season may look drastically different.
The Titans no longer possess a dominant pitching staff, but they should be much stronger in every other aspect of play, especially at the plate. That’s the hope of 11th-year head coach Alex Smith, whose club opens up the 2018 season tonight at home against Patton.
“In the past, we’ve relied on our pitching because we’ve had some top-shelf pitchers,” said Smith, whose team returns seven full- or part-time starters. “This year, we’re the thinnest we’ve been in a while, and the pitch-count rules force you to throw multiple pitchers. What we’ve got to do is be strike-throwers. I really like our lineup offensively and defensively, but the question is; are we going to be able to throw enough strikes?”
If the Titans’ pitchers can keep it around the dish, they could have the pieces in place at other spots to improve on last season’s 14-12 record. One thing is certain: The Titans will have to get things done by committee on the mound.
Not only will McDowell be affected by the state’s fairly restrictive pitch-count rules, the Titans have three ballgames on the schedule in six of the eight weeks of the season. Because the Titans’ spring break doesn’t synch up with that of the rest of the league – this is McDowell’s first season in the Northwestern 3A/4A Conference – the Titans face a seven-day layoff midway through the campaign.
Although the club faces some logistical difficulties, Smith said he’s been overjoyed with how well his team has prepared itself for the upcoming season.
“One thing I’m proud of is that we had 23 guys who attended more than 90 percent of our offseason workouts,” said Smith. “They’re a great group of young men. They love baseball and they like each other, and it’s a fun group to work with. That’s a breath of fresh air. The offseason has been fun because of the level of commitment these guys have had.”
Smith said that commitment has been most apparent in the Titans’ gains in the weight room; practically every play on the roster is significantly bigger and stronger than a year ago.
That fact will no doubt come into play for McDowell’s pitching staff, which will be led by senior Matt Smith. Smith was third on the team in innings pitched last season behind graduated seniors Canaan Silver and Zach Franklin. Smith was 2-3 last year with a 3.78 earned run average, 30 strikeouts and 12 walks in 29 2/3 innings pitched.
“Matt had some quality starts and relief appearances last year, and he’s going to be given the ball,” said Coach Smith. “We expect a lot out of him. I have a lot of confidence in him and he’s a great young man.”
Seniors Nate Watkins and Nick Grande, both varsity returners, will also see their share of innings, as will a trio of juniors off the jayvee team, Juan Campos, Brycen Seymore and Josh Maddux.
Scanning the rest of the field, there are solid fielders and hitters nearly everywhere you look.
Handling the staff behind the plate will be returning starter Kell Smith, a junior. Smith caught 165 innings a year ago and led the team with 18 RBIs. He hit .277 and was a stalwart defensively, throwing out 47 percent of base stealers (15-of-32) and committing just two errors with a fielding percentage of .992.
All-Conference first baseman Sydney Pike returns after a standout junior season. Pike was tied for the team lead with 23 hits last season, hit one of the team’s two home runs, and swatted five doubles. His slash line was a solid .284/.376/.383, and he drove in 17 runs.
Fellow all-conference performer Ryan Murdock returns in right field. Murdock drove in nine runs and posted a slash of .305/.488/.339. He had a pair of doubles and 11 walks, and got aboard on hit-by-pitch a whopping 10 times. Defensively, Murdock is as solid as they come, Smith said.
Senior Nate Watkins, an honorable-mention choice, returns to the leadoff spot when he hit .290 with a .479 on-base percentage. Watkins drove in 13 runs and tied for the team lead with 18 runs scored. He also tied for tops on the club with seven stolen bases and led the team with 25 walks. Smith said Watkins would play a variety of positions as well as pitching, but could well find a home in left field.
Senior Dylan Poplin returns at second base. The defensive standout posted a .917 field percentage last year, making just two errors all season. He drove in 10 runs and smacked two doubles, but could make a lot more noise at the plate this time around.
“Nate was our leadoff guy all year,” said Coach Smith. “He can handle the bat well and he gets on base a lot for us. Kell has added a lot of strength in the offseason. Sydney has proven he can hit, but he’s starting to show more power than he ever has. Poplin is stronger and he’s about as reliable as anybody we’ve ever had there (second base). Murdock is one of the best all-around outfielders we’ve ever had, and I think that goes unappreciated sometimes. The jump he gets on the ball turns doubles into singles. It’s not because of his foot speed, but because of his instincts.”
There isn’t as much experience available at some of the other spots, but Smith is still confident in the team’s younger players.
Seymore figures to be the shortstop. Senior Troy Shepherd, who started there last season, had shoulder surgery in the offseason and Smith is unsure if he’ll be available at all this year. Senior Dawson Beck will anchor the hot corner. Maddux is a top candidate in center field.
Other seniors who have chances to earn playing time include infielders Landon Hensley and D.J. Creson and juniors Dylan Walker, Jacob Suttles and Brian Boris.
Smith will be assisted by jayvee head coach Brent Rowe, Matt Brown and pitching coach Jeremy Freeman.
McDowell Titan baseball schedule 2018
Date Opponent Time
Feb. 28 Patton 4, 6:30
March 1 Owen 4, 6:30
March 2 @Burns 4, 7
March 6 @West Caldwell 4, 6:30*
March 8 Trailblazers 4, 6
March 9 @Freedom 4, 6:30*
March 13 Hickory 4, 6:30*
March 14 R-S Central 4, 6:30
March 16 @St. Stephens 4, 6:30*
March 20 South Caldwell 4, 6:30*
March 21 @Draughn 4, 7
March 23 @Alexander Central 4, 6:30*
March 27 @Watauga 4, 6:30*
March 29 West Caldwell 4, 6:30*
Apr. 6 Trailblazers 4:30, 6:30
Apr. 10 Freedom 4, 6:30*
Apr. 11 @Owen 4, 6:30
Apr. 13 @Hickory 4, 6:30*
Apr. 17 St. Stephens 4, 6:30*
Apr. 18 @R-S Central 4, 7
Apr. 20 @South Caldwell 4, 6:30*
Apr. 24 Alexander Central 4, 6:30*
Apr. 25 @Patton 4, 6
Apr. 26 Watauga 4, 6:30*
Apr. 1-4 @NWC Tournament TBA
All games JV and varsity doubleheaders
*-Northwestern 3A/4A Conference games