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February 1, 2013

Pitching to lead Blazer baseball in 2013

VSU opens season today vs. Sailfish

VALDOSTA — Greg Guilliams has a stable of six senior pitchers that he will call upon this season.

The Valdosta State head baseball coach knows those six horseman of pitchers will be the ultimate factor for the Blazers, who are looking to win their second Gulf South Conference championship since 2010.

“We are going to rely very heavily on those guys,” Guilliams said. “We are going to go as far as our pitching staff takes us.”

The Blazers will see how far that pitching staff will take them this year when they open their 2013 campaign today, by hosting the Comfort Suites Classic at Billy Grant Field. VSU will host the Palm Beach Atlantic Sailfish tonight at 6 p.m., and Lynn Saturday at 2 before closing out the weekend with a game against North Georgia Sunday at 3 p.m.  

All six pitchers Guilliams and the Blazers will rely on this year were on the pitching staff last season, when the Blazers finished with a 27-19 record and no appearance in the South Regional Tournament.

Pete Whittingslow (3.68 earned run average, 6-4 record in 2012) is the team’s most productive returning starting pitcher in 2013. He will be joined by Jarod Carlton (6.35 ERA, 4-1 record in) and Nick Forgarty, who finished with a 4.86 ERA and a 2-1 record in six starts late last season.

In the bullpen, Zach John (5.34 ERA, 3-2 record) and Ben Watson (8.18 ERA, 1-0 record) will be the go-to relievers, while  Benjamin Weil will be the team’s closer again this season.

In 2012, Weil made 32 appearances, all out of the bullpen, finishing with a team-leading 3.36 earned run average and 38 strikeouts. He didn’t allow a home run all year.

All together, the Blazer pitching staff is about the only thing fans will recognize from last year’s team. After all, sophomore catcher Bryant Hayman is the team’s only returning starter.

Regardless of the amount of turnover, Guilliams likes his new team and how hard the players have worked since arriving on campus.

“I think it is a challenge any time you only have one returning starter,” Guilliams said. “I think our club is still trying to learn our system. Having said that, I think they’ve worked hard and their attitudes have been good. At the end of the day, you never know until you get out there and start playing the games that count. I’m cautiously optimistic.”

With Hayman, the 2012 Gulf South Conference Freshman of the Year, being the only returning starter, Guilliams said the team will look to him to make big plays at the plate. In 2012, Hayman finished the season with a .333 average, 10 doubles and eight home runs.

“He has even gotten better, especially defensively,” Guilliams said. “He is going to hit in the middle of our order and he has got to be a guy that produces offensively for us if we want to be a good club.”

Of the new additions, Guilliams said that he and his assistant coach, brother Todd Guilliams, have changed their recruiting strategy and have started to locate players that aren’t always looking to hit home runs, but can rather play solid defense and run the bases in a more efficient manner.

“Our recruiting has changed,” Guilliams said. “We’ve tried to get back to more team speed, we’ve tried to be a more defensive ball club. That was an issue with us last year. So we have tried to address that, but I guess the proof will be in the pudding when we start playing.”

Among the Blazers’ athletic recruits are two members of the Valdosta State football team. Outfielder Cooper Lemonds and pitcher Dom DeMasi, both of whom were on the baseball team last year, were both on the 2012 national championship football team, something Guilliams is proud about, even though they may be a little behind in baseball.

“I think they are a little behind, however they are both athletically gifted where they can do both,” Guilliams said. “Those guys can get caught up...Certainly, those guys bring an aura of successful with them. Those guys expect to win and hopefully that will rub off.”

Following this weekend’s tournament at home, the Blazers will have a streaky schedule, playing a chunk of games on the road and at home. The Blazers will play nine of their next 12 games at home, before taking to the road for eight straight games, six of which will come against conference opponents. Then, the Blazers play 12 straight home games before heading onto the road for eight straight road contests.

“It is a good schedule if we can win,” Guilliams said. “If we don’t win it is not a good schedule. But anytime your playing at home there is a certain comfort level there. Starting the season off, I am certainly glad we are at home.”

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