Photo by Anthony Fiorella / MTSU Sidelines
Coming out of the hard freeze of winter, baseball fans everywhere are slowly starting to come out of hibernation.
In Murfreesboro, it’s been nearly eight months since fans saw the Blue Raiders take down Louisiana Tech at Reese Smith Jr. Field to cap off the 2017 campaign.
Fast forward to January and baseball season is only a month away for Middle Tennessee.
As we prepare for the return of our long-lost cousin known as spring, here is a preview of the top five opponents that the Blue Raiders will share the diamond with this season.
Middle Tennessee will travel to and play host to three SEC teams this season, giving them excellent opportunities to build a resume.
After their season-opening series against Western Illinois, the Blue Raiders hit the road for their first mid-week game of the season against the Alabama Crimson Tide.
Although they finished dead last in the SEC West last season (19-34-1, 5-24-1) , the Tide put together a 14-10 record against non-conference foes.
After handing the Tennessee Volunteers one of only four non-conference losses last season, Middle Tennessee will face the Vols twice in 2018.
The teams will square off in Knoxville on Feb. 27 after the Blue Raiders finish the annual Mule Mix Classic tournament at home.
The Raiders will meet the Volunteers once again in the final game of the Tri-Star Classic Tournament at Smokies Stadium in Kodak, Tennessee, on March 4.
Tennessee is entering the Tony Vitello-era after firing Dave Serrano last season, and just like their rival Alabama, they were successful against non-conference competition last season with a 20-4 record.
After dropping both games against powerhouse Vanderbilt by a combined score of 38-9, Middle Tennessee will look to rebound against their mid-state rival.
The last time MTSU defeated Vanderbilt was in March 2016 when they beat the fifth-ranked Commodores 7-4 at home.
The ‘Dores return to Murfreesboro on April 3. MTSU will end the two-game season series season against the 2017 Clemson NCAA Regional Champions at Hawkins Field on May 15.
After being swept by Southern Mississippi in the last three straight series against them, will this be the year MTSU finally breaks through?
After losing both corner infielders in Dylan Burdeaux and Taylor Braley to the MLB Draft, the meat of their order will lose quite a bit of firepower.
Southern Miss returns preseason All-Americans in outfielder Matt Walner (.345, 19 home runs) and pitcher Nick Sandlin (10-1, 2.16 ERA), and they are riding the momentum of one of the best seasons in program history.
The Golden Eagles ended the regular season as the 25th-ranked team nationally and hosted an NCAA Regional Tournament game. Their 50-16 record last season set a school-record for highest winning percentage, and it marked the program’s first 50-win season ever.
MTSU will visit Southern Mississippi in late April in search of their first win against the Golden Eagles since 2014 when they won in Hattiesburg by a score of 13-1.
Riding a streak of 24 straight NCAA Tournament appearances, head coach Wayne Graham’s Rice Owls will come to Murfreesboro for a three-game set starting on April 13.
Rice defeated Southern Miss by a score of 5-4 in last season’s C-USA Tournament Championship to give the Owls their 11th conference title under Graham.
Offensively, Rice appears locked and loaded to have yet another dominant season. They return one of the best catchers in the nation to the middle of their lineup in Dominic DiCaprio (.366, six home runs). Infielder Ford Proctor (.311, four home runs) also returns to the top of the lineup.
Last season, the Raiders defeated the Owls only once in three chances in Houston, ending MTSU’s hopes of a conference tournament berth.
MTSU’s 9-8 win in the final game of the year over Louisiana Tech was one of their best performances of 2017, as it gave them their only series win against a winning team last season.
— MT Baseball (@MT_Baseball) May 20, 2017
The Raiders will begin their month of May on the road against LA Tech in a three-game series starting on May 4.
The Bulldogs finished fifth in the conference last season after going 36-20 overall, and joined Southern Mississippi as one of only two C-USA teams to plate over 400 runs last season.
MTSU and Louisiana Tech finished second and third in the conference in offense respectively last season, and each has another shot to fill the park with echoes of metal “tings” again this season.
The only other series win of the season for MTSU last season was over fellow conference bottom-dweller Marshall.
Although one could say these teams were non-contenders last season, both show promise for improvement in 2018. Middle Tennessee assistant Tim Donnelly (former Marshall assistant) would have the best opinion on each side, as he recruited nearly all of the players that will partake in this series.
On the MTSU side of things, Donnelly’s 2018 enrollees LHP Peyton Wigginton and OF Myles Christian are expected to make a huge and possibly immediate impact in turning things around for the boys in blue.
Donnelly has helped develop what are now star players on Marshall’s squad, such as redshirt junior OF Shane Hannon (.342, 33 runs batted in).
The two up-and-coming programs face off in a three-game series in Murfreesboro, beginning on April 6.