Eastern Illinois baseball coach Jason Anderson is optimistic about this season.
Anderson enters his third year as the head coach and each season the Panthers have improved. Coming into his first season, the Panthers had a 13-win season. EIU improved it by two games in 2016 with 15 wins. Then in 2018, EIU won 21 games and finished 12-18 in the Ohio Valley Conference.
Anderson is looking for the team to make another jump this season and the Panthers were picked to finish eighth in the OVC preseason poll.
"When I came in and started the process, we wanted to continually improve and this year is a year where a lot of guys that started off as freshmen and sophomores those two years ago are now seniors," Anderson said. "We have a good amount of returners that have put up good seasons. This is a year that we are pretty excited about."
EIU started the season at Louisiana-Monroe this past weekend and went 1-2. The Panthers dropped both games on Friday, each by a run, and picked up a 6-5 win on Sunday.
If the Panthers are going to take another step forward, the pitching staff has to improve. Last season the Panthers had the worst earned run average (8.15) in the conference. After the first weekend, the Panthers found a way to minimize the damage better as they have a 4.93 ERA in 27 1/3 innings pitched.
"Pitching is really key for us. We feel confident in our offense since it was in the top 40 last season," Anderson said. "Pitching and defense really let us down last year. We are excited about the arms that we have. We have guys that are returning that have made strides and have freshmen and junior college players that are impressive."
Anderson hasn't settled on a rotation yet because the pitchers will have plenty of opportunities to prove themselves before OVC play starts on March 16 with a home series against Jacksonville State. EIU has weekend trips to Memphis, Georgia State and Ole Miss with weekday games against Missouri and Mississippi Valley State added in there.
This past weekend, Will Klein, Carson Haws and Alex Stevenson got the three starts. Klein only went 2/3 innings, but Haws went five innings and struck out 10 batters while only giving up one run and walking three. Stevenson gave up three runs in 4 1/3 innings. Michael Starcevich came out of the pen and pitched 4 2/3 scoreless innings in one game with six strikeouts. Dustin Wilson pitched three scoreless innings in relief and Brent Stephens gave up one run in three innings of work.
"The rotation early will be a mixed bag and we will see a lot of names on the mound to see what they can do early," Anderson said. "The first couple of week isn't going to be how we finish. We want to get some guys out there and see them develop."
The defense also has to be stronger behind the pitching staff this season. EIU committed 78 errors last season, the second-most in the OVC. Out of the 493 runs EIU allowed last season, 438 were earned. EIU did lead the OVC in double plays with 67
This past weekend, EIU only allowed one unearned run, but still had six errors combined in the three games.
"We think we've improved tremendously on the defensive side," Anderson said. "We didn't cover enough ground and didn't throw enough strikes. We (led the conference) in double plays, so if we got to it, we made the plays. We didn't cover enough ground in the outfield."
Offense wasn't much of a worry last season. EIU finished with 375 runs and 83 home runs. The team batted .279 and the Panthers have plenty of those same players back. Second baseman Jimmy Govern, outfielder Joseph Duncan and designated hitter Dougie Parks were all named to the All-OVC Preseason team.
"It's the same exact guys and we didn't lose anybody," Anderson said. "They have developed and put the work in and dedicated themselves. (Our lineup) brings some good balance. We have some speed guys and power guys. We feel like the lineup is pretty balanced and works the count and we get guys on base and guys can drive it in the gaps. I feel like we have guys that can win in a variety of ways rather than just hitting a home run."
Govern batted .335 with 11 home runs and 50 RBIs. Duncan batted .331 with nine home runs and 57 RBIs. Logan Beaman batted. 280 with 37 runs scored and Matt Albert hit .273 with 16 home runs and 52 RBIs. Frankie Perrone slugged 11 home runs.
Parks was the focal part of the offense. He hit 18 home runs and drove in 57 RBIs. He batted .300 and slugged .613 and had a .411 on base percentage.
"He's just made tremendous improvements. He's one of the most underrated guys out there and he's a good third baseman. He was all-region," Anderson said. "He's really the guy that's comes in there and has taken the program in the right direction with his work ethic and success. He works as hard as anybody I've seen and he's great for our team."
EIU opens a three-game series against Memphis on Friday.