Blue Raider offense sees improvements under first-year coach Donnelly

Photo by Brent Beerends / MT Athletic Communications

2017 was not one of the top years in Blue Raider baseball history, as the team finished the year with a dismal 24-31 record and missed the Conference USA tournament for the second consecutive season. While the Blue Raiders struggled on the mound with a 7.58 team earned run average, the one thing they could count on was their ability to score runs.

Last season under hitting coach and recruiting coordinator Scott Hall, the Blue Raiders recorded a team batting average of .266 with 18 home runs and 214 runs batted in. While these aren’t poor numbers in the eyes of most baseball fans, they aren’t great numbers either. This ultimately led to Hall’s departure.

Looking for someone to bring a new attitude to the offense, the Raiders hired 2016 C-USA Assistant Coach of the Year Tim Donnelly to fill the same position.

Donnelly came to Middle Tennessee with a wealth of experience.  After a career as a college player at Hardin Simmons University, Donnelly began his coaching career as a hitting coach and recruiting coordinator in 2005. This included a stint at Marshall for the past ten seasons. His most notable season was in 2016, where the Thundering Herd hit .285 as a team and clubbed 60 home runs.

The man that you see standing in the third base coach’s box at Reese Smith Field has helped MT take a huge step forward as one of the better offensive teams in C-USA.

“We wanted to be more of a team that drove the ball coming into the year,” Donnelly said. “All of these guys were already great hitters, so we wanted to free them up a little bit, and (it made for a great year).”

MTSU’s offensive production was one of their strongest assets. Not only were they near the top in the conference in a host of categories, but the Blue Raiders also one ranked among the best teams in the nation in several categories.

Middle Tennessee ended 2017 with eight players that hit .300 or better. The Blue Raiders also saw improvements in hits (606, 2nd in C-USA), home runs (46, 8th in C-USA), runs scored (363, 8th in C-USA), slugging percentage (.439, 5th in C-USA), on base percentage (.375, 6th in C-USA) and stolen bases (42, 8th in C-USA).

Their team batting average of .306 was good enough for 24th overall in the country and they landed just outside the top 20 with in hits. Their marks in doubles, runs and slugging percentage also ranked them inside the top 60 in the country. These numbers not only prove that the team is better than they were last year, but also that the program as a whole is trending in the right direction.

“We were head and shoulders better then we were offensively last year,” said Blue Raider head coach Jim McGuire. “We almost tripled our home run total, and stole double the amount of bases (than last year). There’s a lot of good things offensively that we did this year.”

With improvements in almost every category this season offensively, it’s hard to imagine that the Blue Raiders could possibly get any better offensively next year under Coach Donnelly. With that being said, his track record certainly points toward that being a reality next season.  In his last few seasons at Marshall, Donnelly helped the Thundering Herd improve their team average from just .242 in 2014 to .286 just two years later.

The Blue Raiders had six players with at least 30 RBI and ranked second in C-USA with their .306 team batting average . They also saw junior Aaron Aucker hit double digit home runs this season, making him the first Raider to do that since the same year.

Individually, the biggest player that saw an improvement at the plate under Donnelly this season was Aucker. In 2016, the designated hitter finished with a .250 average and only one home run with 16 RBI. 2017 saw Aucker hit an impressive ten home runs (15th in C-USA) to go along with a .359 average (7th in C-USA) and 41 RBI (27th in C-USA) en route to a first-team all-conference selection.

“When I got here, the biggest thing with Aucker was the inury bug,” Donnelly said. “Hitting-wise he has all the tools, so we wanted to keep him healthy. We told him to go ahead and hit for power, because we needed it. He did a good job of it, and I’m happy for him.”

Donnelly has seen a number of his former recruits go in the MLB Draft, including Drew Saylor, Andrew Davis and Corey Bird to name a few.  After signing two top 50 classes at Marshall, Donnelly is off to a good start at MTSU.

Offensively speaking, Donnelly has reeled in five primary position players, all of whom have a .300 career average or better.

“I really like the (position players) coming (in this recruiting class),” Donnelly said. “They all bring a little bit different of a dynamic then the players we have here now. I want to get back to the Blue Raiders of old. I’d like a team with a lot of big, physical kids.”

Donnelly’s father, Rich, has attributed a lot to his son’s abilities as a coach. Rich has spent over 30 years at the Major League level, most of which have been under long-time manager Jim Leyland. He’s won a World Series and most recently helped guide the United States to a gold medal in the World Baseball Classic.

With a baseball bloodline that runs in his family, Donnelly has always looked up to his father and has learned a lot from him.

“I’ve taken a lot from(my father),” Donnelly said. “He’s been really successful in his career. The biggest thing with my dad having done what he has is being able to call him after every one of my games or his games and talk about different situations and plays. That’s helped me tremendously.”

In the coming seasons under Donnelly’s guidance, fans can expect MTSU hitters to continue to swing for the fences. The Blue Raiders have set the bar high and will look to continue to achieve the level of excellence they had at the plate this season.

Follow MTSU baseball reporter Anthony Fiorella on Twitter at @A_Fiorella74 for more coverage.

To contact Sports Editor Rusty Ellis, email sports@mtsusidelines.com.

For more sports stories, follow us on Facebook at MTSU Sidelines and on Twitter and Periscope at @Sidelines_Sport.

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