FORT MYERS, Fla. – A season ago, the FGCU pitching staff helped lead the Eagles to their third straight Atlantic Sun conference championship, while topping the league in ERA (5.33), strikeouts (484), hits allowed (589), and opponent batting average (.290). The Blue and Green welcome back eight arms from last year’s squad and greet nine new hurlers to this season’s team.
With the key losses of A-Sun Pitcher of the Year Chris Sale and A-Sun All-Conference first team selection Pete Woodworth to the professional ranks following the 2010 campaign, the Eagles have a couple big spots to fill in the starting rotation.
Voted as the A-Sun Preseason Pitcher of the Year, senior right-hander Richie Erath (West Palm Beach, Fla./Palm Beach Central HS) looks to fill the void at the number one position. Finishing with a 7-4 mark in his junior campaign, Erath finished the year ranked fifth in the A-Sun with a 4.42 ERA in 16 appearances with one complete game and one save. In 97.2 innings, he amassed 79 strikeouts while holding opponents to a .268 average en route to a second team All-Conference nod.
Also vying for the starting rotation is senior righty Jack Wagoner (Berlin, Conn./St. Petersburg College), who spent much of last season coming out of the Eagles’ bullpen. With a solid combination of mid-90’s fastballs and breaking balls, Wagoner totaled 28 strikeouts last season in 34 innings of work. Named to the National Collegiate Baseball Writers Association (NCBWA) Stopper of the Year Award watch list for his relief efforts last season, Wagoner finished with 4.24 ERA and a team-high nine saves in 25 appearances in 2010.
The final two slots in the Eagle rotation could turn out to be pitching by committee, with a number of good arms waiting in the wings. Junior right-handers Jason Forjet (Fort Lauderdale, Fla./Nova HS) and Jacob Barnes (St. Petersburg, Fla./St. Petersburg HS) have been in coach Tollett’s system for three years and understand the rigors of a full season. Forjet appeared in 15 contests last season, notching one save and 22 strikeouts in 21.2 innings on the bump. With a laser fastball in his arsenal, Barnes held a 2-2 record in 2010 while sitting down 28 batters in 34.1 frames on the hill.
Looking to start the season out of the pen, the other returners include senior righty Craig Crumbly (Winter Haven, Fla./Lake Region HS), and lefty sophomores Kevin Bryant (Homestead, Fla./South Dade HS) and RJ Brown (Brandon, Fla./Bloomingdale HS), in addition to redshirt junior southpaw Patrick Nathanson (Maitland, Fla./Trinity Prep), who continues to rehab from injury. In 12 appearances, Crumbly accumulated 10 strikeouts and one save in 15 innings on the mound. As part of the starting rotation in 2009, Nathanson started in eight contests and finished with 5-4 record and a 5.29 ERA, adding 66 strikeouts and two saves in 68 innings. Bryant held a 5.21 ERA through his 11 appearances, including a trio of starts, ending the year with a 1-1 record and retiring nine batters in 19 innings. Brown made 11 showings, recording eight strikeouts and one save in 10 innings pitched.
Joining the 2011 pitching staff are nine new faces, including three MLB First-Year Player draftees. Freshmen right-handers Alex Diaz (Miami, Fla./Ferguson HS) and Harrison Cooney (Vero Beach, Fla./Vero Beach HS) were each selected in the 40th round by the Washington Nationals and Pittsburgh Pirates, respectively. Classmate Ricky Knapp (Port Charlotte, Fla./Port Charlotte HS) also heard his name called on draft day, as the righty was taken in the 44th round by the Detroit Tigers.
Junior righty Javi Sujo (Miami, Fla./Miami Sunset HS/Middle Georgia College) becomes an Eagle after a two-year stint at Middle Georgia College, and is joined by left-hander Andrew Swain (Daytona Beach, Fla./Seabreeze HS/Brevard CC) from Brevard Community College, as the only transfers on this year’s roster. Sujo figures to see action both on the mound and in the outfield.
Other freshmen newcomers include righties Brandon Hernandez (Miami, Fla./John A. Ferguson HS) and Ashton Fronsoe (Stuart, Fla./Martin County HS), as well as, lefties Alex Norris (Clearwater, Fla./Dunedin HS) and Brandon Bixler (Oviedo, Fla./Hagerty HS).
Part two of the FGCU Baseball season preview will take a look at the incoming and returning infielders and outfielders of the 2011 squad. Just a few days remain before the season gets underway, as the Eagles host the Central Michigan Chippewas in the first of a four-game set on Friday, Feb. 18 at 6:30 p.m. at Swanson Stadium.