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USF's Kingston up in arms, and it's a good thing

USF senior Phoenix Sanders is expected to start Friday's season opener at home against Iowa.

Photo provided by USF

USF senior Phoenix Sanders is expected to start Friday's season opener at home against Iowa.



Third-year USF baseball coach Mark Kingston believes the pundits who have offered modest projections for the Bulls in 2017 simply haven't seen a large chunk of his pitching staff.

Unless they smuggled a hidden camera inside the Bulls' rehab room last year.

Arguably no USF coach this side of Murry Bartow warrants a mulligan more than Kingston, who lost four pitchers to Tommy John surgery in 2016. The result was a 24-33 record, only one season after USF earned its first NCAA Tournament berth since 2002.

"No disrespect to last year's team, but we had to deal with a lot of adversity," Kingston said.

Entering Friday's season opener at home against Iowa, adversity has been supplanted by anticipation. The Bulls' pitchers are healthy again.

Toss in a seasoned nucleus of sophomore position players, and a promising freshman class rife with bay area flavor, and Kingston's outlook is much brighter than his fellow American Athletic Conference coaches (who picked USF sixth in the AAC preseason poll) or (which picks USF seventh).

"When you factor in our (injured pitchers) are now returning, you factor in some new players that were in this year's recruiting class, and then you talk about the continued growth that (pitching coach) Billy Mohl has done with our guys...I feel a lot better about our options going into this season," Kingston said.

"Knock on wood, so far this year guys appear to be at full strength and we've seen a lot of improvement on the pitching staff."

Almost certain to get the ball Friday is senior right-hander Phoenix Sanders (5-5, 4.15 ERA, 95.1 IP, 95 Ks in '16), one of the few pitchers to remain healthy last season.

Also in line for a weekend starting spot are no fewer than three of the Tommy John veterans: freshman lefty Shane McClanahan, junior righty Peter Strzelecki, and senior righty Ryan Valdes. All three redshirted in 2016.

McClanahan is ranked No. 3 on Baseball America's list of the AAC's top 2018 draft prospects. Brawny rookie right-hander D.J. Roberts (6-foot-1, 235 pounds), is ranked fourth among AAC freshmen.   

Sophomore lefty Andrew Perez, whom Kingston says has made a "huge jump" from a velocity standpoint, is the leading candidate to replace '16 closer Tommy Eveld, now in the Diamondbacks organization.

"We have options, now it's a matter of figuring out how to put the best pieces of the puzzle together," Kingston said. "But I like the pieces, I can tell you that."

2017 USF Baseball
Coach: Mark Kingston (third season at USF, 58-59-1; eighth season overall, 231-161-1)
First pitch: vs. Iowa, Friday, 6:30 p.m., USF Baseball Stadium
Need to know: Look for this year's team to possess a better slugging percentage -- and seasoning -- than last year's rookie-laden lineup. Kingston returns five position players who started at least 38 games as freshmen last season. In the first five intrasquad games, USF hit 10 homers, Kingston said. ... The top 2017 draft prospect is SS Kevin Merrell (.320, 22 RBIs in '16), a preseason all-conference pick (and Steinbrenner High alumnus). ... Don't look for former unanimous first-team all-conference C Levi Borders in Friday's lineup. Borders redshirted after missing the last 41 games of '16 with a mysterious bacterial infection, and remains sidelined. ... The freshman class includes four bay area players: INF Nick Cerelli (Plant), INF/OF Anthony Gonnella (Riverview), RHP Carson Ragsdale (Bishop McLaughlin) and C Jordan Santos (TNXL Academy, Tampa Catholic).

[Last modified: Monday, February 13, 2017 5:28pm]


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