Opening weekend is on the schedule, starting Friday for the University of Hawai'i baseball squad, as the Rainbow Warriors start big with the No. 6 NC State Wolfpack coming to town. A first-ever meeting between the programs, the series runs Feb. 17-19 at Les Murakami Stadium. Games on Friday and Saturday begin at 6:35 p.m. HT, while Sunday's first pitch has moved to 12:05 p.m. HT due to NCSU travel concerns.
The Rainbow Warriors and Wolfpack will meet for the first time on Friday, as Hawai'i is coming off a tie for fourth place in the formidable Big West, finishing with a 23-30 record. Meanwhile, NC State is coming off a 38-22 finish, ending the season as an NCAA Regional host before falling to eventual College World Series Champion Coastal Carolina.
The Rainbow Warriors will begin the season as a tale of two facets of the game in their personnel. UH returns the vast majority of its position players, but UH fans will see a nearly completely new pitching staff. Coming back in 2017 for UH are eight starters from last year's campaign.
The 'Bows must fill the gap left by leading hitter (.352 avg., 9 doubles, 23 RBI, 28 runs) and defensive anchor, shortstop Jacob Sheldon Collins. That responsibility goes to freshman Dustin Demeter, who has quickly proven his skills at this level after finishing his prep career at Dos Pueblos High School (Calif.) as an All-CIF SS and All-State performer, hitting .374 with 12 doubles, six homers, 28 RBI and 28 runs.
The other gap in the lineup will be the replacement of steady defender Matt LoCoco in the outfield. However, the 'Bows return three outfielders from a year ago and have added the talents of four more in a hotly contested lineup. Sophomore Ethan Lopez is a serious contender for the role after hitting a team third-best .302 in his rookie campaign, seamlessly transitioning late in the season from second base to right field. Meanwhile, senior Marcus Doi has likely hemmed up left field, batting .273 last season.
Sans the two graduates, Hawai'i returns four of the top six hitters from a year ago, highlighted by the second go-around for sophomore catcher Kekai Rios. A member of last year's Johnny Bench midseason watch list and All-Big West honorable mention, the Kahalu'u, O'ahu backstop started in 48 games and finished second on the team and ninth in the BWC with a .331 average – the best average for a catcher since Matt Inouye in 2006. Rios also chipped in eight doubles, 18 RBI and 23 runs, in addition to 19 runners caught stealing.
A familiar face will be holding down first base, as junior Eric Ramirez has only missed one start in his two seasons with the 'Bows and batted .261 with team highs of 12 doubles and 29 RBI a year ago.
As for the pitching staff, the 'Bows were hit hard by graduation, but recruiting proved fruitful in the face adversity. The 12 pitching newcomers serve as the foundation for a 37th-ranked (Collegiate Baseball) class – one of the strongest recruiting groups over the past ten years for UH. Setting the standard for the staff will be UH's lone returning starter, senior right-hander Brendan Hornung. He held a 4-7 record and 3.11 ERA through 16 starts, pacing the team with 74 strikeouts a year ago. Hornung projects to be the day one starter for Hawai'i. Four relievers return to the bullpen for UH to start the year – RHP Isaac Friesen, LHP Patrick Martin, RHP Kyle Mitchell and RHP Casey Ryan.
One newcomer already locked into his role is junior left-hander Dominic DeMiero, who will begin the campaign with Saturday duties. He not only received all-conference honors, but also ABCA/Rawlings All-Region first team recognition last year at Bellevue College, where he logged a 7-2 record and 2.74 ERA, striking out 79 batters in 88 innings.
The Rainbow Warriors' third starter is not written in stone to start the weekend, as depth is no issue for the 'Bows. Meeting the formidable Wolfpack for the first time, the third starter's identity will take shape as the weekend progresses.
Taking into consideration the conference schedule awaiting UH this year, which features three Big West squads ranked in the major top 25 polls, NC State sets the tone for the season against an always-tough slate of opposition. However, the Rainbow Warriors relatively inexperienced pitching staff will have its hands full against one of the top returning offenses in the nation.
Although the Wolfpack are projected at fourth in the ACC's Atlantic Division, NCSU hit a stout .303 as a team last year with 411 runs, an average of 6.85 per game. Aiding the effort, the Wolfpack collected 128 doubles, courtesy of five hitters going into double figures in the stat. NCSU also rung up 57 homers last year, but 15-bomb hitter Chance Shephard is gone with graduation, plus Preston Palmeiro's 20 two-baggers and team-high 55 RBI won't be back, departed for a seventh-round draft pick.
However, leading hitter and second baseman Evan Mendoza is back for his junior year after hitting .362 with 33 RBI and 31 runs. Also back in the mix, junior outfielder Brock Deatherage batted .317 with 20 extra base hits, bringing home 39 RBI and 45 runs, pacing NCSU base thieves with 14 steals.
On the mound, the Wolfpack lose one starter in Ryan Williamson and will likely be without ace Brian Brown (7-3 last year). NCSU is projected to break in a new group of starters this weekend, but a staple of the program's staff is velocity, and this group is no different. Left-handed senior Sean Adler will open things up on Friday, a Southern Cal transfer who went 0-1 with a 6.94 ERA last year, striking out 26 in 23 innings. Coming up Saturday, junior lefty Cody Beckman was 2-0 in 16 relief appearances with a 6.05 ERA, fanning 23 batters in 19 innings. Rounding out the rotation, junior utility righty Tommy DeJuneas went 2-3 with a 6.37 ERA, striking out 27 in 30 innings last year.
On average, the NCSU staff allowed 4.7 runs per game in 2016.
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