Friday afternoon will mark the beginning of a three-month gauntlet of a schedule for LMU baseball as they begin a three-game College World Series qualifier against the University of California, Santa Barbara. Between now and May, the Lions will play 54 games, including 12 games against opponents from the Big Ten, Pac-12 and Southeastern Conference (SEC), and 13 games against teams that reached the NCAA Tournament last season.
Notable non-conference matchups for the Lions include a three-game series at Arizona State University, four games at Washington State University and home matches against the University of Tennessee, the University of Washington, the University of Michigan and the University of Southern California.
In the West Coast Conference (WCC), they will be looking to improve their position in the conference standings over last year’s sixth-place finish. LMU finished one game behind the University of San Francisco with a final conference record of 13-14. The Preseason Baseball Coaches’ Poll projects the Lions to finish in seventh in the WCC and 37th in the nation, so they’ll have plenty to prove. The top four teams at the end of the regular season qualify for the WCC Championship Series, with the winner earning an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament. The University of San Diego is projected to finish atop the conference despite missing the WCC Championship a year ago.
LMU will look to Preseason All-WCC senior infielder Phil Caufield to be the cornerstone of the lineup. Caufield batted .309 — and .379 in WCC play — on his way to a first team All-WCC selection as a junior in 2016. He also scored 27 runs and stole eight bases last season.
Sophomore outfielder Niko Decolati returns for his second season after a breakout freshman year in which he finished third on the team in batting average, hitting .306. Decolati was selected to the Freshman All-WCC team, with a .306 batting average in 2016, as well as 33 runs batted in (RBIs), four home runs, six doubles and two triples. He was second on the team last year in multi-hit and multi-RBI games, and was the only Lion to record five RBIs in a game.
On the mound, LMU returns left-handed reliever Kyle Dozier, who led the team last season with a .84 earned run average (ERA). The team also returns its entire starting rotation save for pitcher J.D. Busfield, who made a team-high 13 starts for the Lions a year ago. This year, the starting rotation will likely consist of senior right-handed pitchers Blake Redman and Tyler Cohen, junior right-hander Cory Abbott and senior left-hander Brenton Arriaga. Sophomore right-hander Codie Paiva also started one game last season, and could be used as a fifth starter. Last season, LMU posted a team ERA of 3.83, good for third in the WCC.
Continuity is key in any sport, and the Lions have the good fortune of returning a large portion of their notable roster from last season. The pieces they lose, however, are big ones. With Busfield and offensive leader Cassidy Brown no longer with the team, the pressure falls on the young shoulders of Decolati and the experience of Caufield, along with the remaining pitching staff to pick up the slack. For LMU, how they perform under this pressure will ultimately be the difference between the projected seventh-place finish, or a shot at the WCC Championship Series.
This is the opinion of Tim De Vries, a sophomore mechanical engineering major from Lake Oswego, Oregon. Tweet comments to @LoyolanSports, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.