SACRAMENTO, Calif. - The Sacramento State baseball team returned to campus Thursday as it prepares for the 2016 season, which opens just two weeks from Friday at Auburn before a series at another Southeastern Conference (SEC) power, LSU, the following weekend.
The Hornets return seven starting position players and two starting pitchers. Among the returners are a pair of former freshmen All-Americans in junior pitcher Sam Long and senior utility Chris Lewis, who will be looked upon to lead the squad after losing several veteran players following the 2015 season.
"We all get along really well and I think we will definitely have some improvements on the offensive side this year," Long said. "We also have a lot of good pitchers back and some good new guys coming in. I'm excited to get going."
Long put on roughly 15 pounds of muscle in the offseason in preparation for his third collegiate year. He enters his junior season with a stellar 2.92 career ERA after going 6-4 last season with a 2.81 ERA and a Western Athletic Conference (WAC)-leading 0.85 WHIP. He has been named as a top collegiate prospect on D1baseball.com's College 300 going into the 2016 season.
He also becomes a veteran leader of the Hornet pitching staff after learning from 2015 MLB signees Brennan Leitao, Ty Nichols, and Sutter McLoughlin over the last two years.
"Those guys definitely taught me a lot in terms of how to go about my business," Long said. "I like to mess around but when it comes down to working hard I try to lead by example and get my work done. Hopefully guys recognize that and strive to get better every day."
Lewis ended his 2015 season in much the same way as he did in 2014 - tearing the cover off the ball at the WAC Tournament. He hit .421 with a homer and 3 RBIs in the tournament after hitting .500 with 7 RBIs and 5 runs scored in being named the WAC Tournament MVP in 2014. He looks to build off that momentum as one of just five seniors on the 2016 roster and the only senior that has spent his entire collegiate career at Sacramento State.
"I think we have some good arms and good bats and are looking good for the upcoming season," Lewis said. "We worked hard and a got a good feel for each other in the fall and worked hard in the weight room all winter. We want to win our conference and go on to a regional and hopefully move on from there. We need to take things one game at a time and be playing our best baseball at the end of May."
Sacramento State has 17 total returning letter winners this season and 12 newcomers, with just two freshmen and 10 new transfers. Among the other top returners is junior pitcher Justin Dillon who, along with Long, will look to lead the Hornet pitching staff that lost three of five starters from last season.
The squad will have a new look in the bullpen as well after McLoughlin, the all-time WAC saves leader who also set the program record for career ERA, was drafted last June. Sophomore Ryan Smith will be among the team's top returning bullpen arms after he had three saves and a 2.33 ERA last season.
The team lost its top offensive leaders from last season in Nathan Lukes and Scotty Burcham but returns Lewis and sophomore first baseman Vinny Esposito as two of its top RBI men and power hitters from last year. Among the 10 transfers joining the program this year, five are position players that will have a chance to help lead the team offensively.
Defense is also a key area for the Hornets, who are led in that department by junior catcher Gunner Pollman. Named to the Johnny Bench Award Watch List in the preseason, Pollman led the WAC in runners caught stealing last year while also managing a Hornet pitching staff that ranked third in all NCAA Div. I 1.09 WHIP. Sophomore Bronson Grubbs was superb in the outfield with just one error all season and several highlight reel catches as a freshman.
The Hornets open with a three-game series at Auburn, which was a 2015 NCAA Tournament team, and remain in the south for a pair of games at Northwestern State before a series at LSU. The Tigers were ranked No. 1 for most of the 2015 season and reached the College World Series. LSU is ranked as high as No. 5 in the country in the preseason USA Today Coaches' Poll.
The Hornets open their home schedule March 4-6 with a four-game series against South Dakota State at John Smith Field. Sacramento State also hosts perennial postseason contender Cal Poly for a three game series to open a home stand in which the team will play 12 home games over 16 days through the first weekend of April, including the start of conference play vs. North Dakota March 24.