JOHNSON CITY — It’s the dawn of a new season when the East Tennessee State baseball team hosts Toledo at 2 p.m. on Friday at Thomas Stadium.
The game is the first in a three-game series, and for ETSU coach Joe Pennucci, it’s important for the Bucs to start on the right track.
“The first series of the season, I want us to do the things we’ve continued to work on and be good at,” Pennucci said. “If we swing at good pitches, play good defense and pitch and catch well, I’m happy.
“Obviously, you want it to result in a win, and getting out of the gate is important. More important is how we compete, improve what we’re working on and get better every day. You can build off that.”
The Bucs parlayed a strong start of winning nine of their first 11 games into a 34-21 overall record last season. The Rockets, who play in the Mid-American Conference, are coming off a 17-36 season.
“There’s always an anxiety with the opening series. It’s February and the kids have been here since August,” Pennucci said. “That’s a long time before you play the game and there’s a big build-up, but it’s like, ‘Let’s not make it bigger than it is. Let’s take care of what we need to.’
“Last year was great how we got out of the gates. You hope to be playing well and learn how to win early where that momentum carries you on.”
SETTING THE INFIELD
Senior Landon Knack, a former Science Hill standout who went 9-4 last season, is the game one starter for the Bucs. Knack, a right-hander who boasted a 2.60 ERA in 15 starts, was recently named an All-Southern Conference preseason selection and the No. 11 pitcher in Division 1 by D1Baseball.com.
“Landon’s always had a good arm, but he’s put the work in to make the jump that he has,” Pennucci said. “I’m anxious to see it play out. From a leadership standpoint, too, these younger pitchers need to pay attention to what Landon has done and his transformation (in) how he’s gotten stronger and developed his pitches. You can see how he’s tightened up his breaking ball and how he’s not afraid to make an adjustment.”
Senior Jackson Greer, another All-SoCon preseason pick, is the starting catcher. He’s coming off a year in which he hit .314 with 15 doubles, 10 home runs and 42 RBIs. On the defensive side, he caught 12 runners stealing.
The Bucs boast experience throughout the infield. Noah Hill will start at first base, while another guy from his hometown of Ringgold, Georgia, Cade Gilbert, will be the shortstop. Jake Lyle will be at third base, and all three of the aforementioned are seniors.
It’s more open at second base, although versatile junior Sean Kearney could start on day one. Kearney filled in for an injured Noah Hill at first base last season and for Christian Bailey at third base the previous year.
Juniors Reese Farmer and John Louis Bland are other versatile players who can play multiple positions.
“The second base spot is open for competition, but we have enough depth where we have guys who can push some guys,” Pennucci said. “There is versatility with a lot of our infielders, but Sean is a guy who has gone through the fire and has the battle scars.”
INJURIES IN THE OUTFIELD
There are other questions with the outfield where the Bucs have depth, but Pennucci described every player dealing with some kind of ticky-tack injuries.
Junior David Beam started 43 games, which included a six-RBI performance against VMI, at center field last season. Sophomore Ben Jackson returns to the lineup after undergoing Tommy John surgery and redshirting last season.
Senior Ethan Cady and sophomore Markell Graham are expected to play a lot in the outfield, while Jake Madole, a grad transfer from UNC Asheville, could make a big impact this season.
Other weekend game times are set for Saturday at 2 p.m. and Sunday at 1 p.m.