A year removed from a trip to the Regional tournament, the D1 Wisconsin Club Baseball team has rebuilt itself into a contender poised to make some noise in the playoffs.
“I fully expect a conference championship and a Regional berth. I personally don’t think this team should be happy with anything less than a World Series run,” said head coach Jeff Block. “The talent is there but we need to continue to put in the work.”
The Badgers graduated five seniors who all played a key role on last year’s team. Rory Menzer, Parker Sear, Sean Blythe and Chris Hase were all starters on last year’s club. They also lost starting pitcher Logan August.
However they have a strong returning rotation. Sophomore Nick Newburg, who finished fifth in the nation in ERA last year with a stellar 0.88 mark, will be back on the bump.
Sophomore Austin Mullins, who was named to the Great Lakes All-Region Second Team as a relief pitcher, returns as well. Junior Griffin Lynch, who has been one of the team’s top starters the past two seasons, will also hurl for the Badgers this spring.
Additionally, Wisconsin has reloaded on the hill, adding junior Mike Hansen, a junior-college transfer and junior Alex Noel, a transfer from Division 1 South Dakota State. Both will compete for starting spots in the rotation according to Block.
“The addition of Hansen and Noel is going to be huge for our pitching staff and I think both of them can contribute at a high level right away,” Newburg said.
Sophomores Evan Polce and Ben Horman could also figure in the starting rotation. Both are hard-throwing right-handers who have shown devastating stuff. The Badgers pitching staff will be deep this spring, an asset that is needed if they want to bring home the hardware.
“I think it is very important that our middle relievers, who might not see a ton of work during the regular season, realize their importance come playoff time when we have the possibility of playing five 9-inning games in the matter of three days,” Block said. “It’s usually those guys that make the difference between a trip to the Regionals and a trip to the World Series.”
Offensively, the Badgers lost several big bats and will need a new core to step up at the plate. Freshman Tyler Safgren, who hails from Eden Prairie, Minnesota, could be one of those guys. A powerful right-handed hitter who catches and plays first, Safgren said he hopes to be a “consistent player the team can rely on” this season.
Junior Aaron Peterson, another powerful right-handed bat, should also help to fill the holes left by the three and four hitters who graduated. Peterson, who plays third, has high expectations for the 2016 campaign.
“I think we have a group of guys that is largely intact from last year and gained a lot of experience,” Peterson said. “Everyone knows what it takes to win now.”
Sophomore third basemen Colten DeMorett, a transfer student who played baseball at the University of Minnesota-Duluth, should help the Badgers offensively as well. He earned three hits in the series against the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire in the fall, where the Badgers took two out of three games.
Newburg also believes that sophomore outfielder Ed Olson will improve on his performance from last year and play an important role in the middle of the lineup. Sophomore second basemen Brian Mariska was named to the Great Lakes All-Region Second Team and will look to build on his strong 2015 campaign.
Despite the talent in the lineup, the Badgers will have to be more consistent at the plate, according to Newburg.
“A lot of the games we lost [last year] were one-run games where one hit here or there would’ve won us the game,” Newburg said.
Block also recognizes the inconsistency as an issue for Wisconsin, but said this can be made up with the brand of small ball that the Badgers work hard on perfecting all off-season.
“This fall showed us that we could put up some serious numbers, but also that we weren’t immune to going cold like we did in the Eau Claire series,” Block said. “If the team buys into that [small ball] philosophy and executes when it counts, then this team should be above average offensively.”
Wisconsin kicks off their season in just four short weeks in sunny Tampa, Florida. Immediately following the week of Spring Training, the Badgers will begin the regular season in pursuit of a conference championship.
“If we all can play up to our abilities each weekend, it will be a fun season,” Peterson said.