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Lincoln baseball looks for improvement this spring

It was the kind of year you automatically want to forget, and yet, the Lincoln University baseball team doesn’t want to forget last season.

After scuffling through an 8-40 campaign in 2012, the Blue Tigers are doing everything in their power to make sure 2013 looks nothing like that. Especially the group of 14 seniors that got the bulk of the playing time in those 48 games.

“I have been really happy with the attitudes of the seniors,” Lincoln coach Jim Dapkus said. “You never know when you have that big of a group how they’re going to handle things, but almost all of them have come up to me and said, ‘We do not want to go through what we did last year.’ That changes how they do their workouts and hopefully this weekend we see some positive results from that work.

“It would be nice to get some confidence going and let it ride for a while. Ever since I’ve been here, we have gotten off to horrendously bad starts to the year and hopefully we can change that this year.”

The Blue Tigers start the season at Northwestern Oklahoma State, a team that went 34-24 last year. After a doubleheader today, the teams will play one game Sunday, making up three of just seven non-conference games on Lincoln’s schedule.

Dapkus said the Blue Tigers have gotten past two hurdles and are hopefully poised to clear the third.

“I always tell people there’s so much more to this than just the playing season,” he said. “There’s the recruiting season, then the fall season and we’ve been able to get through all the hurdles and we like where we’re at right now.

“I know we got picked last in the (Mid-America Intercollegiate Athletics Association), which did not surprise any of us by any means. Nobody expects a lot out of us and hopefully we can change some minds as the year goes on.”

Dapkus added he has a much deeper team this time around, which has created some positive competition for spots. And the team will be much improved in one facet that should pay immediate dividends.

“I’ve been really happy with our team defense — we’re going to have three guys in the outfield who will be able to cover the whole outfield. The infield is also good, and while we have not been outside enough consistently to see for sure, we’ve looked good in the gym. I think we’re going to be a very solid defense, which hopefully keeps us in games.

“And we’ve added some offensive pieces to a team that did not hit the ball very well last year. So hopefully we can score more runs, which takes pressure off the pitchers and the defense.”

That group of outfielders includes senior returnees Colby Shepherd in left and Logan Smith in right field to go with junior-college transfer Zach Roberts in center.

“(Roberts) has shown he can cover from gap to gap, and he’s also going to be our leadoff hitter,” Dapkus said.

The infield includes junior-college transfer Ben Stewart at third, senior shortstop Caleb Kemna and senior second baseman Andrew St. Pierre.

Several players are in the mix at first base, with Brad Wright, another junior-college transfer, getting the early nod.

“He could be our 4-hole hitter, he’s a big, tall, left-handed kid who can really knock it out of the park,” Dapkus said.

Wright could also see time at catcher, giving senior Clint Cashen some rest. That could be big, considering Cashen could also see time as a pitcher.

“He’s about 87, 88 mph from the mound, but catching and pitching is an odd combination,” Dapkus said. “I’ve never once had to do that as a college coach, go to the mound saying, ‘My catcher’s going to take the gear off and step on the mound.’ But he might end up getting some closing opportunities, depending on how it works out.”

Because Cashen and several other position players could see time on the mound, the Lincoln pitching staff goes about 13 players deep. Leading the staff are senior Blake Jones and two junior-college transfers, junior Scott Jones (no relation) and sophomore Cameron Moss.

“I don’t know if we have a true No. 1, but we have three No. 2s,” Dapkus said. “I think that’s going to pay off for us. ... We needed some pitching depth and I think we’ve got that now, as long as we stay healthy.

“The goal is that hopefully whoever starts can keep us in the game, and then we’ve got some guys in the bullpen who I think we can count on.”

That need for health extends to another senior hurler.

“A big key for our pitching staff is John Bisges,” Dapkus said. “He was really good for us last year, but his arm just is not at 100 percent. So we’ve talked to him about maybe becoming a bullpen guy where maybe we can get one or two innings out of him at a time instead of five or six.”

The Blue Tigers will look to provide that staff with better support with the sticks. Last year, Lincoln hit just .248 as a team, compared to a .332 average for their opponents.

“Last year, a lot of our guys came from junior colleges where they were part-time guys or didn’t get to play a lot and we stuck them in positions where they were playing all the time,” Dapkus said. “Keeping my fingers crossed, I think the experience they got last year is going to pay off this year.”

Lincoln hit just 12 home runs last year, sending one over the fence an average of once every four games.

“Adding Ben (Stewart) and Brad (Wright), two middle-of-the-lineup guys will help,” Dapkus said. “Last year, we just had no middle of the lineup. Those guys are showing us they may be able to handle that middle and then everybody else slots in a lot better spots than we had them in last year.

“We struck out way too much last year, we didn’t get enough baserunners and by the time our offense did start kicking in a little bit, our pitching staff started breaking down. If we can get them both working, who knows what can happen?”

Notes: With 15 teams in the MIAA this season, the league has assigned teams to five-team pods. The Blue Tigers are in a pod with Central Missouri, Lindenwood, Southwest Baptist and Truman State and will play home-and-home mid-week doubleheaders against each. Lincoln will play a three-game weekend series against the remaining 10 teams. ... Lincoln’s home-opening series is set for Feb. 23-24 against Emporia State.

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