Strong midseason held at 28-2; Johnson rakes 0.392
The 2018 season has been a grand slam for the Augustana University baseball team so far, as the Vikings have played their way to a 27-2 overall record, earning them the third spot in the NCAA D-II national ranking.
Senior right-hander Jacob Blank, who earned a myriad of accolades last season including D-II Pitcher of the Year, the National Collegiate Baseball Writers Association Pitcher of the Year and achieved the lowest ERA in all of college baseball at 0.78, said there are multiple factors that contribute to the team’s success.
“We’ve received a really impressive contribution from several underclassmen this year,” Blank said. “We have a positive team chemistry that has been cultivated by our upperclassmen, where if one guy is
unable to get the job done, the next man up is ready and capable to pick up the slack. And the program as a whole is undergoing a culture shift that embraces the success and confidence that we’re demonstrating on field.”
Those contributing factors have allowed the Vikings to supersede expectations to a degree. The NSIC preseason coaches poll placed the team second with only one first place vote. However, the Vikings currently sit first in the NSIC by two games with a 14-2 conference record.
Head coach Tim Huber, in his tenth season at the helm for the Vikings, said the roster’s mix of old and new players has helped them to sustain success throughout the year.
“We’ve got a good mix of older guys and younger guys,” Huber said. “Our pitching staff is pretty old, [and] the vast majority of guys that have had success are seniors. We’re kind of the opposite of that position wise. Six or seven of our top guys have been freshmen or sophomores, so it’s a really good mixture of talent and experience.”
The pitching staff is bolstered by three senior righties: Blank, who has maintained a 5-0 record, a 2.09 ERA and 49 strikeouts in 38.2 innings pitched; David Flattery, a transfer from the University of Nebraska-Omaha, who has gone 4-1 with a 1.66 ERA and 53 strikeouts in 38 innings pitched and Tyler Mitzel, a Sioux Falls native who transferred to Augustana from Arkansas State and has gone 4-0 with a 1.85 ERA and 22 strikeouts in 24.1 innings pitched.
Freshman lefty Jed Schmidt has been the exception to the senior right-hander rule of the rotation, dealing excellence at the four spot with a 3-0 record and a 1.38 ERA.
But all the action hasn’t just been coming from the mound. The lineup has seen a number of underclassmen and upperclassmen contribute to the scoreboard.
Sophomore infielder Sam Baier, the returning NSIC freshman infielder of the year, has come back strong with a .318 average, 6 home runs and 31 RBIs.
Ryan Nickel and Riley Johnson, two freshman infielders, have hit .386 in 88 at-bats and .392 in 120 at-bats, respectively. Junior catcher Lucas Riley has batted at .357 and junior outfielder Michael Svolvil has hit a .353.
“Our pitching staff has been unbelievable this year, which has definitely helped us win a lot of games,” Blank said. “On the offensive side, we’ve had multiple guys come up and execute well in big spots.”
Concerning sustaining success throughout the rest of the year, coach Huber said the team will need to endure a multitude of tests.
“I think maybe we’re starting to see an offensive slump, partly because of the weather,” Huber said. “We’re not able to get outside and practice. It’s the same for a lot of the teams we face, but it really throws off the normalcy of our routine. But there are other things to look out for. It’s the middle of the season, so offenses can slow down.”
But Huber is confident the pitching staff and defense can hold the fort until the offense kicks it back into gear.
“Pitching and defense shouldn’t slump, and we’ve been doing that really well this year with playing good defense and pitching well,” Huber said. “We just need to take better at-bats, know what the pitcher is going to throw at us and try to get on base. Our pitching and defense put us in a position to win, but we need to score runs.”
Heading into the home stretch of the season, the Vikings are confident in their ability to continue winning. Blank said, “we never enter a game merely hoping to win anymore. Now it’s an expectation to win.”
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