By: Sean Neidig, sports information graduate assistant
COLUMBUS, Ohio – With spring mercifully just around the corner, Capital University Baseball's 2019 season is ready to bloom as well. The Crusaders will be a young team in 2019 with only five seniors and eight juniors, making this a year of transition for the Crusaders.
"We have to define some roles," said 10th year head coach Ryan Grice. "That's our big thing right now. We're young and we're athletic but there are a lot of unknowns right now. It's exciting because we are athletic and we like our young guys and they work hard so now it's just a matter of seeing where their roles are when the season starts."
In the Batter's Box
Grice and the coaching staff are excited about Capital's bats heading into the season and expect the Crusaders to be improved on offense in 2019. The Crusaders scored only 182 runs a year ago but this season have placed more of an emphasis on physicality as a way to drive more balls into the gaps and generate more runs.
"We're much more athletic than we were last year," said Grice, which will increase Capital's chances of connecting on those line drives to the outfield.
Junior Shane Lyons led the team with 24 RBIs as a sophomore last year and is Capital's most prolific returning hitter after he finished second on the team with a .352 average. Sophomore Drew Ellis recorded 19 RBIs as a freshman, the second-most on the team and hit .256. Lyons will likely find himself fourth in the order on most days with Connor Richardson either in front of or behind him.
Around the Diamond
After playing 32 games at third last year, Ellis will be shifting over to shortstop this season. Richardson, who played 35 games at short in 2018, will switch over to third.
"It's not a demotion in any way," Grice said. "Ellis is just a little more athletic and has a little more range where Rich is a little bit bigger and has a more third base body type. But we can move Rich around a little bit too."
Joe Caporale started 28 games at second base last year and will reprise his role at the keystone, although he also started games at third and short. Lyons will hold down first base once again.
While the infield is pretty much set, the outfield depth chart is still being written. All three starting spots are up for grabs after all three of last year's starters graduated. Senior Mitchell Bodden will have the chance to take control of center. Tyler Osborne will likely start in right while in left, Konnor Black, Bryce Grisez and others are in the mix.
On the Mound
One of the team's biggest questions will be who eats the majority of the available innings on the mound. Senior Alex Mukensturm returns with the most innings under his belt with 75 career innings pitched, 29 2/3 of which came last season. Behind Mukensturm, Nick Beck has pitched 43 career innings, 25 1/3 last year, and sophomore Clay Piatt pitched 35 2/3 innings as a freshman. Mukensturm will be the team's No. 1 starter.
"I'm in the weight room, eating right, drinking more water and trying to stay healthy to put this team in a spot to win games," said Mukensturm when asked about how he has prepared for his new challenge. "What I do to prepare myself is watch a lot of film. I definitely go out there wanting to throw strikes, attack and put us up to win ball games."
After Muckensturm, Grice expects sophomore Jared Heidecker to step into the No. 2 role. Beck will play a key role in the bullpen, as will Ellis. Capital's infield depth will allow the sophomore to throw. Grice said that sophomore Scott Gutstein and freshman Anthony Gannon will also have the opportunities to earn innings as the season goes on.
In the Dugout
Capital has only five seniors on this year's team but all of them are veterans of the programs who have played different roles throughout their times at Capital, a trait that helps them see things from different lenses.
"Your older guys are important," said Grice. "They're really important being an extension of the coaching staff. I relay to the younger guys that if the older guys are instructing you to do something that's just like me instructing you. We want to have that chain of command."
The Ohio Athletic Conference remains one of the strongest in the region as five of the 10 teams in the conference won at least 27 games a season ago and two won at least 30.
Grice named Baldwin Wallace University, which won 33 games last year, as the team to beat in the OAC this season. Otterbein University lost some key players but will be near the top again as will Marietta College.
"I think it's going to be another season where we all beat up on each other like we did last year and I think you're going to see five, six or seven teams in the top 25 throughout the year," said Grice. "I think it's that way every year and I don't think it's going to change this year."
The Crusaders will play seven games in Florida as part of the RussMatt Central Florida Invitational beginning on Feb. 23 and concluding on March 1.
After returning to Ohio, the team will have a small break before playing a home-and-home series against Ohio Wesleyan University on March 6 and 7. March 7 represents Capital's Opening Day at Clowson Field. The game against OWU is the first of seven consecutive games to be played at Clowson Field, including a doubleheader against John Carroll University on March 23 to open OAC play. After three non-conference games, Capital finishes March at Ohio Northern on March 30.
A pair of home doubleheaders against Marietta and Muskingum bring the Crusaders into April and the heart of the OAC schedule. Capital will play road series at Otterbein, Wilmington College and the University of Mount Union and play Baldwin Wallace and the College of Wooster at home. Capital's regular season concludes at home on May 3 against Heidelberg University.
To follow along with Capital Baseball all season long, visit athletics.capital.edu/bsb, follow Capital Athletics on Twitter, follow the team's Twitter account, 'Like' Capital Athletics on Facebook and follow Capital Athletics on Instagram.