AC News Service
LUFKIN, TX (Press Release)- One more win.
That's all the Angelina College Roadrunners needed in May of 2015 to advance to the national baseball tournament in Grand Junction, Colorado. The 'Runners were the surprise team of the '15 tourney, advancing to the championship game before finishing as runners-up – the farthest any AC baseball team had ever reached.
Plenty of reasons to feel proud, and still…one more game.
The experience of getting so close wasn't lost on head coach Jeff Livin, who during Thursday's team photo shoot said the focus in the months afterward revolved around doing whatever it takes to take that one more step.
"I've thought about that last tournament game every day," Livin said. "Not a day goes by. We used it to address a lot of what we wanted during the off-season.
"The big shoes to fill are the three starting pitchers we had, who were all sophomores. John King, Jacob Howell and Aaron Graham toward the end of the season were shut-down pitchers. We haven't filled those shoes so far, but we also haven't played our first game yet."
However, Livin offered a reminder that in the 2015 season's opening months, those three hadn't shown lights-out abilities just yet. Those were three players who grew stronger as the season progressed, something Livin hopes will transpire again in 2016.
"This team is kind of like some of our others from the past, when we walked into the season with questions about our pitching staff," Livin said. "We had guys step up and develop into great pitchers, and the hope is that we have more guys like that on this season's roster.
"We didn't necessarily see the command of the ball during the fall season that would have helped me sleep easier before now, but we know the talent is there. We've got some guys who have the ability to become that sort of shut-down pitcher."
Livin mentioned some of the veterans, including sophomore Carson Lance, who "possess the type of fast ball that could make him some money someday." Elijah Rodriguez, another member of the 2015 tournament team, was the team's standout arm throughout the fall and early spring after spending time as a middle reliever last season. Newcomers Baily Holstein and Grant Cox, according to Livin, have also been throwing the ball effectively.
As for the all-important bullpen?
"We're going to pick and choose from whoever's not starting," Livin laughed. "We don't really have a set closer, but we have people who will likely evolve into that position. Kevin Roe will continue in a reliever capacity this year, and Brett Rogers is a submarine-style pitcher who can throw in the late innings as well."
In all, the team lists 13 pitchers on the roster. Livin said there'll be time for those hurlers to prove themselves throughout the pre-conference portion of the season.
As for the team's offense, the Roadrunners are bringing back Chris Estrada, a 1st Team All-Conference selection who hit .335 and led the team in RBI with 29; and Mitch Henshaw, who earned Honorable Mention honors, hit .279 and drove in 26 runs. According to Livin, those two vets will get plenty of bat help, including Daniel Lingua and Chris Rios.
"The offense is going to be really exciting," Livin said. "Coach (Adam) Massiatte has done a great job with these guys as far as their hitting approach, and we have a chance to score a lot of runs. We're physical, we can drive the ball and we have a good approach.
"I'm an old Texas Rangers and Houston Astros fan, and I watched the Rangers for years and years trying to outscore everybody. It didn't really work. We hope to outscore teams, but we'll also focus on holding them down through pitching and defense."
Livin said the team's defense will be an asset.
"We'll be solid," Livin said. "Chris Estrada is a gifted, brilliant third baseman, but he's moved from third to shortstop as some other guys develop for a spot at short. We have a newcomer, Nathan Miranda, who arrived after Christmas, and he shows some signs of playing well. Antonio Lima has also done a great job and is getting even better. The outfield is as good defensively as any I've ever coached.
"Everything is there to be a good defensive baseball team."
One of the most important defensive positions is stationed right behind the plate. Livin in 2015 had the luxury of two sophomore catchers; this season features new faces behind the masks.
"It's looking good at that position," Livin said. "Mitchell Andrews transferred here from Sam Houston State and is looking good. C.J. Pye redshirted last year and he's picked up his game quite a bit. We picked up another young man, Roberto Malinowski, from Texas A&M-Corpus Christi, and I think he'll do very well behind the plate.
"I don't see any part of our defense as being a liability."
The pieces are beginning to fall into place as the team revs up for the season opener on Saturday. Giving Livin hope in taking the next step is a roster filled with quality players.
"I really like our versatility and depth," Livin said. "We can fashion a lineup filled with players all up and down the roster. For example, Jacob Finke, one of our redshirts last year, hit in the 10th hole in the fall and hit over .400. He drove the ball all over the park.
"There are so many ways we can manipulate the lineup for different results."
The Roadrunners open their 2016 campaign Saturday at McLennan College. AC will take on the Highlanders in a pair of seven-inning doubleheaders scheduled to start at noon. The team's home opener is scheduled for 2 p.m. on Friday, Feb. 5 against Cedar Valley.