Jan. 24, 2014
WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. -- With the season-opening weekend only three weeks away, Purdue baseball began official preseason practice Friday evening with a variety of drills and a scrimmage indoors in the Mollenkopf Athletic Center.
The Boilermakers get their 2014 season underway on Valentine's Day in Knoxville, Tenn., participating in a three-team tournament hosted by the University of Tennessee. Purdue's first two games of the season will be against Nebraska-Omaha before taking on the host Volunteers twice as well.
This year marks the first time since 2008 that the Boilers will not be opening at the Big East/Big Ten Challenge in the Clearwater-St. Petersburg area of Florida's Gulf Coast. Purdue's 2008 team opened with a three-game series at Baylor. The Boilermakers will be visiting Lindsey Nelson Stadium in Knoxville for the first time since posting a midweek win there on the 2003 spring break trip. During Doug Schreiber's 16-year tenure as head coach, Purdue also opened its new season in the state of Tennessee in 1999, 2000 and 2004.
Thanks to college baseball's uniform opening day of Feb. 14, southern schools may be able to practice outdoors sooner, but cannot play an official game until their northern counterparts have the same opportunity. The Boilermakers will travel south for all six of their nonconference weekends. It's a challenging pre-Big Ten slate that also features trips to Rice (Feb. 21-23), Missouri State (Feb. 28-March 2), LSU (March 7-9), San Diego State (March 14-17) and Southern Illinois (March 21-23).
Purdue has three seniors on its 2014 roster -- Conner Hudnall, Steve Maniago and Sean McHugh -- the program's fewest since also having three in 2011. Hudnall and McHugh are among the seven returning position players who got a chance to be regular starters a year ago.
The 2011 team relied heavily on the contributions of its large sophomore and junior classes on its way to winning 37 games. The Boilermakers' prospects this season could hinge heavily on a large sophomore class. Though they've all been part of the program since the fall of 2011, Gavin Downs, Connor Podkul, Kyle Upp and Kyle Wood are all sophomores eligibility-wise due to redshirt seasons. Together they join a group of 10 true sophomores who lettered last year to essentially form the core of the team.
Kyle Johnson, Jordan Minch and Wood represented Purdue on the 2013 Big Ten All-Freshman Team. All three also played in high-level summer leagues before returning to campus for their sophomore seasons. Johnson will be expected to anchor the outfield in center. Minch and Wood, along with Podkul, are now the program's most experienced starting pitchers.
With graduations leaving holes to fill at first base, shortstop and left field, there could be some position transition for junior Brandon Krieg, Wood and Hudnall. Krieg made 35 of his 41 starts at second base last season, but played shortstop in high school and again in the fall. Wood could start the year at first base, with Hudnall moving in from the outfield when Wood starts on the mound. Jack Picchiotti and Cody Strong each started games at five different positions last season, providing some defensive flexibility. But look for the sophomores to be at catcher and second base, respectively, to begin the year.
The corner outfield spots as well as bullpen roles should provide the most opportunities for newcomers to earn playing early in the season.
Mike Lutz and Tim McElroy each made over 20 relief appearances last season, something no other freshman in program history had done prior. Fellow sophomores Eddie De LaRiva and Patrick Kenney each pitched in 14 games last season, beginning with closing out a season-opening win against Connecticut.
While Purdue holds its full team practices inside Mollenkopf, the indoor hitting facility at Alexander Field continues to provide current Boilers a baseball-specific place to improve and perfect their skills throughout the late fall and winter months. The sheer size of Mollenkopf lends itself to continue the preseason practice regimen that Purdue has utilized for many years, allowing for a more full-field atmosphere for scrimmages and larger team drills.
Three opponents on Purdue's 2014 schedule -- Indiana, Louisville and LSU -- all reached the 2013 College World Series. Baseball is Rice's most successful athletics program. The Owls have made 19 consecutive NCAA Regional appearances dating back to 1995. Missouri State won 40 games and an earned a Regional berth as recently as 2012. San Diego State is coached by MLB Hall of Famer Tony Gwynn. Tennessee is now in its third season under successful college head coach Dave Serrano.
Every college baseball team begins a new season with the goal of being among the eight teams to go to Omaha for the College World Series. And Omaha could bookend Purdue's 2014 campaign even without a deep run in the NCAA Tournament. Nebraska-Omaha is the Boilers' season-opening opponent as one of two first-time foes (San Diego State is the other) on the regular-season schedule. Purdue also aims to return to the Big Ten Tournament this season after seeing its streak of five consecutive berths snapped in 2013. TD Ameritrade Park in Omaha is serving as the host site of the Big Ten Tournament for the first time this year.
On Feb. 12, the Big Ten Conference office will release the top six teams in the preseason coaches poll as well as three players to watch from all 11 squads.