SMSU baseball preps for start of NSIC season

As many have noticed, spring is taking its sweet time in arriving this year and the delay in the warmup is already taking its toll on Southwest Minnesota State University baseball.

The Mustangs were slated to begin their Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference season with a pair of road doubleheaders against Wayne State (Neb.) on March 23-24. With the ground still thawing in Nebraska as well, the games were rescheduled to today and relocated to Omaha before ultimately being canceled all together.

SMSU was also supposed to have its home opener this weekend against Augustana, but field conditions and weather concerns have moved the game to Sioux Falls, S.D.

If weather permits SMSU, which completed its non-conference schedule with a 5-9-1 record, to begin play in the NSIC against the Vikings on Friday, it will be exactly two weeks since the Mustangs last played. For a team that was just starting to get a feel for baseball again, the stall to the start of the conference season comes at an inopportune time.

“You obviously want to keep some kind of consistency as to when you’re playing,” SMSU head coach Paul Blanchard said. “We finished up winning two of our last three in Arizona, so we were kind of happy about that. We didn’t play real well before that, but we thought we had some stuff going there at the end.

“It’s disappointing we don’t get a chance to play,” he added. “I think we’re paying for last year’s weather. We want to try to get back out there and start playing, and I think we’ll have a better chance of that this weekend at Augustana.”

Regardless of when the NSIC season begins for SMSU, the Mustangs will be looking to improve on a ninth-place finish from a season ago. Seventeen letter winners return from the 2012 squad to play for Blanchard, entering his 17th year at the helm of the Mustangs.

One of those returning stars is pitcher Alex Alvarez. A right-handed senior, Alvarez led SMSU with 49 innings pitched and 32 strikeouts. He also posted a 3.49 ERA in 11 appearances. Outside of Alvarez, however, the Mustangs are fairly inexperienced as far as pitching is concerned. Discounting the six starts made by Alvarez, current Mustang pitchers combined for just four starts last season. With such limited experience on the mound, Alvarez must become a teacher as well as an ace for SMSU in 2013.

“He’s been around a long time and he’s got that experience that he can bring to the younger guys,” Blanchard said of Alvarez. “He’s done a nice job with the younger guys and letting them know what to expect. We’re relying on him quite a bit to help out the younger people and so far he’s been doing a good job.”

For as young as the Mustangs are on the bump, there are far fewer concerns around the field. Team RBI leader from 2012 Brian Ness returned for his senior season and will man first base. Blazing shortstop Ben Korger led the Mustangs with 11 stolen bases in his sophomore campaign a year ago, while outfielder Jon Ellis looks to add to his stellar freshman season when he hit .322. Even a few new of the new faces have adjusted quickly to college ball.

“Jarred Carlson is a guy that we have to thank the football team for. He had played football but just got banged up enough that he wanted to try baseball,” Blanchard said. “He came from a very good high school program in Marshalltown, Iowa. He’s been the biggest surprise so far, hitting the ball very well. He leads us in RBIs.

“Sam Haas has done well, a true freshman from Lac qui Parle Valley,” Blanchard added. “He hit a home run down in Arizona in a pretty big park, so that was nice to see. Second base is new, with a couple guys battling it out there between Ryan Engels and Mason Schnaible. Engels has kind of taken the lead there so we hope he continues to play well.”

Blanchard said that although the Mustangs were more experienced last season, the conference as a whole was as good as he’s seen it. And despite their youth, Blanchard also felt that the Mustangs will score enough runs to keep pace in the NSIC.

“I think we’re going to score enough runs on the offensive side, but we do have some inexperience position player-wise,” he said. “In the first eight games we played, I thought we did pretty well. Our inexperience on the mound showed, but hopefully some of those young guys have gotten enough innings under their belt where they can do a good job for us down the road.”