Boston College vs. Northern Illinois
Friday: 4 PM
Saturday (DH): 2 PM, 5 PM
Sunday: 3 PM
There's something about a baseball Opening Day that other sports simply can't compete with. Maybe it's because the game is America's Pasttime. Maybe it's because there's unbridled hope and optimism. Or maybe it's just because, after a long winter wherever you are, it's the first true sign that spring and summer are on the horizon.
Despite a tepid and mild winter, Boston College heads south for its first matchups of the 2016 season in a four-game series with the Northern Illinois Huskies. A representative of the Mid-American Conference, they'll serve up the first balls against the Eagles, who are looking for their first trip to the ACC Tournament in the Mike Gambino era. And although there's much to be had between now and 50-plus games from now, it's the first glimpse into the team we hope the Eagles can become.
Record: 22-33 (10-17 MAC) in 2015
Last Time Out: After finishing in a tie for fifth/last place in the MAC West with Eastern Michigan, the Huskies missed the MAC Baseball Tournament. The MAC hands out conference tournament slots similar to the ACC, where the top two slots are guaranteed for divisional winners with the remaining spots to the top eight finishers regardless of division. NIU finished tied for 10th, better than only Buffalo.
Around The Horn
NIU is a team that wasn't particularly great at the dish last season. As a team, they hit only .252, a full 16 percentage points less than BC while playing in a conference not nearly as competitive. Overall, they had less hits, less runs, less homers, less RBI, and a smaller slugging percentage. They had a comparable on-base percentage compared to BC, but that doesn't change that last year, NIU wasn't a team that would've competed well against ACC-style competition.
That said, the Huskies brought back their top five hitters from last year, including Stephen Letz, who had a team best .310 batting average, and Brian Sisler, who had 14 doubles and 32 RBI while hitting .309. A third hitter, Tony Brandner, hit .304 last year.
The Huskies will be facing a Boston College pitching staff that's entering 2016 with substantial hype. Mike King (1-5, 3.03 ERA last season) is touted by his coach as a legitimate Friday starter in the ACC, no small feat considering who he's up against, and scouts will be taking a close look at him throughout the course of the weekend. After King, BC will turn to Jesse Adams for the first game of the Saturday doubleheader (2-3, 3.05 ERA) before finishing with Jacob Stevens, a freshman. More than likely, Thomas Lane, another freshman, will get a shot at the Huskies lineup on Sunday in the series finale.
It's the first game of the season, so we're not really sure what we're going to get out of either team. It'll be interesting to see how the pitchers do against live bats from another team, but at the same time, this is a lineup they could conceivably dominate. Outside of King, who could be turning in must-watch performances for the season, Adams is going to be a great case study as a lefty, and Stevens is a freshman - which is always fun to try and predict.
BC's first options out the pen are likely Justin Dunn and John Nicklas, and we've already discussed them at length.
Just as a reminder, Luke Fernandes is out for the time being after undergoing Tommy John surgery in the offseason.
On The Bump
NIU will throw Joe Hawks, William Anderson, Aaron Rumfield, and Ryan Olson against the Eagles. Of those four, only Olson was on the team last year, and he went 2-3 in 14 appearances (five starts) with an 8.46 ERA. So, again, there's a lot of unknown opportunities for the Boston College lineup.
If there's an area for growth for NIU, however, it's in their pitching staff. Last year, opponents hit .283 against the Huskies, who had a team ERA of 5.35 compared to an opponents' 3.44. They gave up 353 runs, nearly 100 more than their team scored while surrendering only 70 more hits than they had offensively.
NIU really struggled last year with balls hit in play. Giving up 116 doubles, their team BABIP was .317. A normal BABIP hovers somewhere around .300, so they're slightly above the mean. That means if the BC lineup is as deep as touted, NIU will need to work in order to avoid going deep into innings.
As for the Eagle lineup, this is going to be something fun to watch. With Chris Shaw gone, BC is now touted as incredibly deep, with the 7-8-9 hitters just as hard to get out as the 1-2-3 hitters. They lose substantial pop off the bat, but they'll be able to manufacture runs.
Of the Eagle bats returning, only Logan Hoggarth is a .300 hitter, but seven had on-base percentages of .325 or higher. That means NIU, who walked as many guys as they struck out last year (or thereabouts), is going to have their hands full.
One thing to note for the Huskies is that if they get a lead late in the game, they have one of the game's best closers in Andrew Frankenreider. Nine saves and 40 strikeouts from a year ago, he was an All-Star in the Cape Cod Baseball League. He throws in the high-80s with an explosive 3/4 arm delivery.
There really isn't a ton to be looking at this weekend. It's the first weekend of the season, so there isn't a whole lot to speak of at this point. The first weekend is usually filled with big level teams beating up on little guys or northern teams heading south in some capacity. A sneaky good game will be Florida Atlantic heading up to #17 Mississippi State.
In ACC play, Miami hosts Rutgers, while Florida State opens up with Rhode Island.
The defending national champion Virginia Cavaliers are on the road to start their season against Kent State in Myrtle Beach.
The teams are playing at Camelback Ranch, the Spring Training home stadium of the Los Angeles Dodgers and the Chicago White Sox. Camelback Ranch is in Glendale, Arizona, which is going to be substantially nicer than if either BC or NIU hosted this series.
So even though DeKalb, Illinois will have temperatures this weekend into the 50s during the day, and even though Boston will have temperatures steadily increasing from 40 to 50 from Friday through to Sunday, it's not going to compete with Glendale.
Temperatures will be between 80 and 90 over the weekend, with dry conditions, breezy winds, and absolutely no chance of rain. I'm officially angry.
Where In The World Is Boston College Baseball?
(sung to the tune of "Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?" and yes, it actually lines up with Rockapella, which makes this fantastic)
BC and NIU are playing on the big diamond at Camelback Ranch, a 13,000-seat stadium built in the middle of a joint complex between the Dodgers and White Sox and opened in 2009. The stadium goes 345 feet down the line, 380 feet to the power alleys, and 410 feet to dead center field.
Music To Listen To As You're Throwing Out Your First Pitch
John Fogerty - Centerfield. Ahhhhhh...a true classic. Warms my heart to have this indicating baseball is back.
Random Fact(s) of the Week
Second-year NIU head coach Mike Kunigonis has ties to Boston College. As a Massachusetts native, he served as a volunteer assistant coach from 2008-2010 at Virginia Tech. That team was coached by former BC head coach Pete Hughes and assisted by (you guessed it) Mike Gambino.
Even though Los Angeles is only 370 miles from Glendale, the Dodgers didn't take up spring training in the Cactus League until 2009, the last "western" team to abandon playing in Florida. That's because the franchise had historic ties to the Florida area, having settled the first ever spring training there in 1948 while still headquartered in Brooklyn. The Dodgers almost moved in 2001 and again in 2006, eventually deciding to leave after a lucrative offer from Glendale.
In their first year in Glendale, Camelback Ranch didn't sell Dodger Dogs. People weren't happy. I hope this means Dodger Dogs are available for the BC-NIU game because they're simply amazing.
This is the first game of an 11,000-plus mile road trip for the Eagles to start the season. They won't play at home until the 16th game of the season, on March 15th, against Holy Cross. NIU will play even more road games, not playing at home until April 1st against Miami (Ohio). They'll play only 18 games at home in DeKalb.
Any other season, I'd take a conservative approach to opening weekend and say a 2-2 split would be good. But I think there are elevated expectations on the Eagles this year, and I'm buying in. So I'm expecting at least 3-1 and hoping for a four-game sweep. This is the perfect first matchup for BC, a good team who should improve and be able to experience growing pains against a team they're still going to be able to beat.
Against other teams, growing pains can cost you victories, but I think the Eagles, behind their pitching, should be able to put up some wins this weekend.