Baseball Midseason Report

Baseball Midseason Report

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By Ken Ryan

Despite a tough first half schedule that included a slew of quality opponents, close losses and a couple significant injuries, the Milwaukee Panthers have plenty of confidence they can still be a factor in the Horizon League championship race.

At 5-4 in conference play and 15-16 overall, the season has certainly been a bit of a roller-coaster ride to this point for the Panthers.

“We had some painful losses in the final at-bat in a three week period against some of the better teams in the country,” said head coach Scott Doffek. “But it is what it is.”

Among those heartbreakers were defeats at No. 25 Kansas State and at No. 14 Arkansas, two series that were part of a 15-game opening slate against nonconference opponents played in road or neutral sites. The Panthers fared just 4-11 in those contests, a stretch highlighted by the team’s first win against Minnesota since 1998.

“We’ve played some very quality opponents early on,” added junior outfielder Sam Sivilotti. “We’re definitely battle-tested.”

After opening up Horizon League play by dropping two of three games at Illinois-Chicago, the Panthers returned home to win their first seven home contests of the year, extending their school-record home winning streak to 20 games.

“At home we’ve played very well but we need to take that on the road,” said senior first baseman Ben Long.

With the Panthers sweeping host-Bradley this week after a demoralizing series loss to Butler, Milwaukee is headed in the right direction. They will take that momentum into an important four-game road swing April 23-25 at Youngstown State, a club currently tied with Milwaukee at 5-4 in league play, and at Cleveland State, a club Milwaukee swept in three games in Milwaukee in early April.

What follows is a breakdown of the Panthers thus far and what is to come in the season’s second half.

Offense

Entering 2010, the Panthers had lofty expectations for what their lineup could do. While the team hasn’t hit on all cylinders, their statistics are still impressive. The Panthers are batting .330 as a team and have managed to score six or more runs in half of their games.

Sivilotti has been a force for Milwaukee, posting a sensational .453 batting average and .533 on-base percentage, leading the team in both categories and placing in the Horizon League’s top three overall in those statistics.

“Up until this year, I had limited action,” he says. “Playing everyday has allowed me to put together quality at-bats and repeat them, which is what it takes to be successful.”

Meanwhile, outfielder Tim Patzman continues to be a star for the Panthers in his senior season. He ranks fourth in the Horizon League in batting average at .413, third in on-base percentage at .475 and seventh in slugging percentage at .624.

Long, bouncing back from an injury-shortened 2009, leads Milwaukee with 33 runs batted in, good enough for seventh in the league. His six homers also lead the team, including three in a March 6 win over SIU-Edwardsville, a feat he says he had not accomplished in any level of baseball prior.

Rounding out the Panthers’ leaders are Dan Bucholz, who trails only Patzman in total hits and shortstop Cole Kraft is batting .333 with a Horizon League-fifth 12 doubles.

Sivilotti believes the best is yet to come.

“If we continue to understand how it fits together, we’ll start to get in a groove,” he says “There is no reason we shouldn’t lead the league offensively.”

Pitching/Defense

Lead by top starters Chad Pierce and Kyle Schmidt who have accounted for more than 40 percent of total innings pitched by Milwaukee hurlers, the Panthers starting pitching has been solid despite injuries to Eric Semmelhack and Jordan Herbert, the team’s third and fourth starters.

“At the top Pierce and Schmidt have given us a chance to win each time out,” says Doffek.

Pierce, in his first year in active duty after sitting out as transfer from Arkansas, leads the Panthers with a 2.91 earned run average and with 37 strikeouts.

“It’s nice to be able to go out and pitch every week,” he says. “It’s my job to be an anchor for this staff.”

As Doffek notes, the injury strain on the rotation has had a ripple effect on the bullpen, which has been at least partially responsible for blowing five seventh inning leads this year.

But as Milwaukee returns those on the mend, their prospects should only get better. Herbert was limiting opponents to a .245 batting average, the second best mark on the club, over 24.2 innings of work.

Behind the pitchers, the Panthers know they must play better defensively..

Milwaukee has had 15 multi-error games, with Paul Hoenecke (14) and Kraft (12) making the most miscues.

Catcher Shaun Wegner has been a bright spot, throwing out a league-high nine attempted base stealers.

The Stretch Run

The season’s closing schedule sets up favorably for the Panthers. After their four tilts in Ohio, the club will close with 10 of 14 in conference play at home, including three at Henry Aaron Field against first-place Valparaiso, sprinkled around two games at Miller Park against nonconference foe Northwestern.

“We have to go into each weekend focused no matter who the opponent is,” said Pierce. “At different times our pitching or offense has carried us. We just need to put it all together.”
 

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