Blue Raiders Ready to Play, Sights Set on Biggest Goal in Baseball

Photo by Will Carter / Sports Editor

Story by Will Carter / Sports Editor

Every player, every coach and every team sets a goal before the season starts. From the number of stolen bases to earning a postseason berth, a target is placed at the end of the road with the intent of hitting a bullseye. The Blue Raider’s desire last season was to make the Conference USA tournament. And they did, something the program had not done since 2015. 

As the new season quickly approaches, the team has a larger goal: a trip to Omaha, the most sacred of places to play college baseball. 64 teams reach Regionals in the postseason, 16 teams then advance to Super Regionals but only eight teams get a chance to play in the College World Series. Middle Tennessee hopes to be one of them. 

“Last year we made a big step in the program because we made it to the conference tournament, but that isn’t our goal,” Blue Raiders head coach Jim Toman said.  “Our goal is to make it to Omaha, and play in the postseason.”

“The first thing we have to do is take it one game at a time, but we have to have the urgency to make it to a regional.”

The task will not be easy, especially as a team playing the level of competition the C-USA provides. Last season, C-USA finished sixth among conferences based on the Ratings Power Index (RPI) with four Power Five conferences rounding out the top-5. 

Veteran experience is a prominent factor in a team’s success, and the Blue Raiders’ roster has plenty. In the middle of it all are JT Mabry and Fausto Lopez who are entering their third season together for Middle Tennessee at second base and shortstop, respectively.  

“I like the group of guys that we brought back,” said Mabry, a junior from Chesterfield, MO.  “We’ve been together for around three years now, so we know each other well. It’s a great group of guys on and off the field.”

JT Mabry loads up to blast the incoming pitch. Mabry led the team with six home runs last season.
Photo by Will Carter / Sports Editor

Mabry and Lopez were key contributors last season. At the plate, Mabry knocked an average of .277 with six home runs and a .404 slugging percentage, all of which are career highs. Lopez hit an average of .283 with a slugging percentage of .389 and a team-high 15 doubles. He also led the Blue Raiders in runs with 39 and was ranked no. 23 nationally for stolen bases with 23. 

Their mindset for the season coincides with Toman’s: pursue the postseason. 

“We want to get back to the conference tournament, and get a little farther than we did last year,” Mabry said.  “Hopefully, we win the whole thing.”

“The main goal is to get back to the conference tournament,” said Lopez, a senior from Brooklyn, NY. “We’re good enough to compete, so we just have to go out there and prove it.”

Aside from their offensive production, it is their chemistry that helps the Blue Raiders on the diamond defensively. The duo combined for 42 double plays last season, and Mabry set another career-high with a .967 fielding percentage. Their success in the game comes from time spent together on and off the field. 

“We work together every day,” Mabry said.  “He’s (Lopez) one of those guys that you feed off of from seeing how hard he works.”

Another reason the Blue Raiders broke into the conference tournament last year was because of stellar performances from the bullpen. Coming in at second in C-USA in ERA (4.07), hits allowed (413), batting average allowed (.244) and first in earned runs (201), Middle Tennessee was a force. Returning to the bullpen in major roles are Zach Keenan, Peyton Wiggington, Trent Seibert, Jaden Hamm, and Eriq Swan, but there are some new faces, like Jack Julian, that could see considerable time as well. 

“For us veterans to come back, it’s only going to go up from here for the younger guys,” said Keenan, a senior from Suwanee, GA. “We have the old guys, but then Swan throws really hard. Hamm and Jack (Julian) throw really hard as well, and they have really good curveballs and sliders.”

“The combination of those three with some younger guys will be big for us.”

Zach Keenan pushes downhill to blow one by the awaiting batter.
Photo by Will Carter / Sports Editor

Toman realizes the strength of the bullpen, but he is hopeful everyone can provide an advantage along the way. 

“The first six or seven pitchers we have are probably the strongest because that’s what we were strongest at last year, but we do have some older position players too,” Toman said. “I don’t know what group is going to be our best between pitchers, hitters, and fielders, but I hope they all can help us win.”

While pitching was a bright spot for the Blue Raiders, hitting the ball was a struggle for the majority of the season. In C-USA alone, they were a bottom three team in all of the major batting categories: batting average, runs, hits, RBIs and slugging percentage. Mix a Covid-riddled summer and 2020-2021 season with non-favorable weather, and you get a recipe for those troubles. 

“Last year it was hard on the hitters because a lot of them didn’t get to play in the summer because of Covid, and then we had to be masked up during the fall,” Toman said. “We were testing twice a week, and we battled snow for the first few weeks last year.”

Nonetheless, Toman went searching for a new hitting coach at the close of last season. Before fall camp started, Toman and the Blue Raiders landed on Jordan Getzelman, an assistant for the Milwaukee Brewers, to be the next hitting coach. The addition of Getzelman and a more normal preparation period has the Blue Raiders primed to improve on their numbers at the plate from a year ago. 

“We’ve had a more normal fall and better weather this year,” Toman said. “We’ve swung the bat well, and there’s some guys that have gotten a lot better since last year.”

With C-USA being as dominant and well-rounded as it is, it is important to face some high-profile competition before conference play begins in March. Strength of schedule is also a determining factor in a team’s RPI. Toman understands that need, so he built their schedule on those premises. The Blue Raiders open the season this weekend in North Carolina against St. John’s and UNC Wilmington for two games each. The next weekend they will travel to South Carolina to face Illinois, Ball State and Rutgers. Rounding out their schedule of Power Five teams are Alabama, Auburn and Vanderbilt. While it may seem like a tall order, Toman emphasized the importance of playing teams of that nature. 

“We’re playing teams just like our conference teams, so it’ll help us when we get there,” Toman said.  “The pitching in conference play won’t shock us because you’re facing top-50 teams early in the season.”

“If we win some of them, our RPI is gonna be good. Our strength of schedule is going to be really good.”

In college baseball, all roads lead to the College World Series in Omaha. Between their veteran leadership, promising young talent, and gritty competition, the Blue Raiders have the foundation for success that right-hander Zach Keenan believes can take them there.

“Last year we made the conference tournament, so at the minimum we want to make a regional and make our way up from there,” Keenan said. “We have a very well-balanced team. We have experience, arms, hitting, fielding, and young guys. We have guys that can do it all. In my five years of being here, this is the team to do it.”

Only time will tell if the Blue Raiders have what it takes. Until then, they will set the bar high and stay focused on the ultimate goal: punching their ticket to the College World Series. 

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