Baseball traveling for first series of the year


Justin Brown

Sophomore, Dane Toppel, throws to first base while teammate Andrew Curran and head coach Jason Anderson watch during a scrimmage on O’Brien Field Monday afternoon. The Panthers open the season Friday at the University of South Alabama.

Maher Kawash, Baseball Reporter

The cool, sunny spring weather is in the air which means a few things but one especially; baseball is back.

Despite the unusually warm weather for this time of year in Illinois, the Eastern baseball team is still heading south to begin its 2017 campaign and first up is South Alabama.

As they do every year, the Panthers play their first 19 games of the season on the road and the series against South Alabama to start is a three-game set.

The Panthers won just 15 games all of last season, but did see some improvements by ending the year with a four game winning streak.

Now with head coach Jason Anderson in his second year at the helm, the Panthers are just searching for consistency.

That consistency can begin with this three-game series against a South Alabama team that was pretty polished. The Jaguars finished the year 20 games over .500 with a 42-22 record, and finished pretty deep into the postseason.

South Alabama saw the season end against No. 1 seed Florida State in the NCAA Florida Regional.

The Panthers have an even tougher task ahead considering what the Jaguars did on their home field last season by posting a 26-7 record there.

It is a particularly tough opponent for Eastern to open the season against as South Alabama is also projected to finish second in its division this season; behind the reigning national champion Coastal Carolina.

The Panthers have just five returning pitchers, but the staff still has a good piece of its core.

Senior Michael McCormick is expected to head the staff with redshirt senior Brendon Allen in this series and the rest of the season as two key returning starters.

The starters did not seem to be what plagued the team last year as the Panthers lost many games in late innings because of a thin bullpen.

Redshirt junior Jake Haberer returns as a vital part of that bullpen this season, and is expected to get plenty of time in this first three-game series to contain that Jaguar offense.

With some young arms and just enough returning leadership to the pitching staff there is plenty of reason for optimism on the Panthers team.

The offense lost one of its best hitters in former second baseman Cale Hennemann, who transferred, but junior Joseph Duncan is set to resume duties out of the leadoff spot.

Duncan had a special season a year ago as a sophomore center-fielder, and his team-leading .332 average was enough to support that.

The Panthers also lost infielder Nick Maton, but will have sophomore Dane Toppel back for his sophomore campaign after a growing start to his career.

Toppel had a few struggles in his first season, but may now have to fill the void in the infield among others.

He hit .255 at the plate last season while shuffling around from the top to the bottom of the order.

The three-game series will be a good test for Eastern to get things started in their 2017 campaign, and it all begins Friday at 6 p.m.

Maher Kawash can be reached at 581-2812 or [email protected]