When John Casey’s sons were growing up, Tufts’ baseball coach told them about Red Sox infielder Lou Merloni.
A perennial journeyman whose frequent trips between Triple-A and the majors became known as the “Merloni Shuffle,” he would have had a great career if he never had to play four days in a row, Casey explained to his sons. But the Red Sox needed guys who could make plays day after day.
So do the Jumbos.
One of those sons is Brian Casey (LA ’07), a captain in 2007 who played for four years under his father and is now in his fifth season as an assistant coach, specifically dealing with the infielders. Together with former catcher Bob Kenny (LA ’05), they make up an energetic duo, serving as living proof that Casey’s system works.
With 10 freshmen on a young roster that graduated five regular starters, assistants like Brian Casey and Kenny are a commodity, especially with the season-opener rapidly approaching.
“We’re the connection to those guys, it’s positions that we’re familiar with because we played it while we were here, so certainly we have an idea of what it takes to get ready for those positions,” Brian Casey said. “That makes it easier to talk to those guys, prepare them the way we want them to prepare.”
In his seventh year as a coach, Kenny, one of the best defensive catchers in Tufts history, will have his work cut out for him with the current crop of backstops. Senior Matt Collins will likely not see time behind the plate this season while recovering from Tommy John surgery, and sophomore Nick Cutsumpas is not listed on the Jumbos’ roster after tearing his ACL. The duo started 36 of 39 games last season at catcher.
Freshmen Nick Barker, Carter Bidwick and Bryan Egan are the three catchers who will travel with the team down to Virginia and North Carolina for spring break, each of them with a shot to take over the starting job on a team that hasn’t been this young since 2008, according to Kenny and Brian Casey.
Kenny, for his part, caught a couple of batting practices during his freshman year spring trip in 2002, then wound up starting the Tufts’ third game against St. Andrews. He never lost the spot.
“Once we’re outside and it gets going for real, that’s when you see their true colors,” Kenny said. “We’re hoping that the freshman experience sort of wears off quickly on the trip. Two, three games to get the weight off the belt, then we need them to jump to almost sophomore status to get where we want them to play.”
With the season opener days away, how unsure is John Casey about his opening day lineup?
“About as sure as whether I can walk on the moon,” he said. “Do we have a lineup down? I have about 10 sheets of paper with about 50 lineups.”
The only two guarantees are senior co-captain infielder Sam Sager and junior outfielder Eric Weikert, who will be positioned, in some order, in the heart of the lineup. Sager, a four-year starter in the infield and two-time All-NESCAC selection, hit third for 34 out of 37 games last season, logging a .333 average and a team-high 33 RBIs, 27 walks and 15 multi-hit games.
Weikert, on the other hand, came on strong during his sophomore campaign, finishing with 20 RBIs and a .280 average while spending the bulk of the season in the No. 6 spot, though he also saw nine starts in the cleanup spot, three at No. 3 and two at No. 5.
Other than that? John Casey expects to shuffle the order throughout the Jumbos’ spring trip, saying that they will probably play three different lineups in the first three games.
“There’s just not a lot of games under guys’ belts outside of those two guys, so guys are going to have to go out and earn it,” he said. “We’re just trying to figure out how guys fit, then we’ll worry about in what order they’re hitting.”
Besides Sager and Weikert, only junior outfielder Nate Izzo – a transfer from Boston College last season – and classmate Tom Howard saw action in at least 22 games for Tufts in 2011. They hit .258 and .273, respectively.
A Crowded Rotation
Things are clearer in the rotation as far as names go, but, as with the lineup, Casey still hasn’t named his opening-day starter.
Tufts leaves for its annual 10-day, 11-game spring break trip without a No. 1 for Friday’s season opener at Lynchburg.
Seniors Dave Ryan and Kevin Gilchrist and sophomore Christian Sbily are all in the mix. Expect them to, in some order, start Tufts’ first three games, including a March 18 afternoon game at Washington & Lee and a March 19 date with Guilford.
“We’ve been having great competition between three guys, so we’ll have to see how someone throws tomorrow, then we’ll make our decision,” Casey said.
Gilchrist started last season’s opener against the Hornets, giving up two earned runs in seven strong innings, striking out one and walking three. With an 8-1 record last spring, Ryan led the Jumbos in wins and innings pitched, while Sbily was strong in 14 appearances out of the bullpen.
Lynchburg currently sits at 11-4, including a perfect 5-0 at home, buoyed by the hot bats of juniors Dan Savage (.471 average, 13 RBIs), Brock Shiflett (.386 average, 15 RBIs) and Michael Del Buono (.373 average, 16 RBIs, two homers).
The Jumbos will likely see one of the Hornets’ top three starters on Friday, though Lynchburg should be resting its best for Saturday’s Old Dominion Athletic Conference doubleheader at Eastern Mennonite.