By: Jack Patterson
MTN Sports Reporter
After winning two out of three games in a tough road series matchup against the University of Alabama-Birmingham Blazers this past weekend, the Middle Tennessee State University Blue Raiders look to build off this momentum for their next series matchup. The team is riding on even higher spirits after defeating the Tennessee Tech Golden Eagles on Tuesday night. This weekend, the Blue Raiders square off against their big rival, Western Kentucky, in a crucial home series.
One thing that has been a major contributor to the team’s recent success is the team pitching in the past few games. At the start of the season, the overall pitching reputation was a bit shaky for the Blue Raiders. Over the past week, however, the improvements and adjustments have been visibly showing. Blue Raiders pitching coach, Jerry Meyers, described how the team in general is always trying to make adjustments, but will focus on something from a pitcher’s last outing if it worked well. “Just from week to week, whether it be (Zach) Keenan or (Peyton) Wigginton, if there is something from their last outing or over the last couple outings that they want to focus on, we try to make an adjustment,” said Meyers. Both Keenan and Wigginton had very strong outings last weekend at UAB, which is something coach Meyers made note of. He explained that with Keenan being one of the older pitchers on the roster, his rocky start to the season is just something to learn from and not let it affect his game play. “Nothing really changed. The Old Dominion game didn’t change how he (Keenan) was going to pitch. That was a perfect storm in a bad way, but it was one of those deals where an older guy has to just handle that, and he did. Whether or not its incentive to do better, for the most part I think he just stayed even keeled. It
was good to see that that didn’t phase him in terms of getting him off track. He knows the expectations of having to be consistent,” he said.
On top of the need for the team’s consistency in pitching, Meyers emphasized how equally important creating more depth in the team’s pitching is. Going off of this, in their game against Tennessee Tech, James Sells made his first collegiate level start and pitched a masterpiece, striking out eight batters and only giving up one hit with no runs allowed in over six innings of work. Meyers described how this is helping the team build that crucial depth that they need. “We knew from day one that we had some inexperienced guys. So, finding that depth was going to be key in who that may be. He (Sells) is a part of our depth equation, but we need more depth. We need to be able to go, if not ten, then maybe eight or nine deep to where we don’t have to play hybrid roles or be so cautious about how many pitches a guy has in relief and have these things not factor in since we have more depth,” he described.
Coach Meyers went on to emphasize the importance of not only continuing to lean on the main pitchers that have had recent success for this weekend, but also how the expectations are still the same for the inexperienced, younger pitchers to step up. “I think each game will dictate the complexion of it. We will lean on the guys we have been leaning on and expect guys that haven’t been in as many situations that if we put them in there, that they can help hold the lead or keep the score where it is to help us come back offensively,” he said as his final thoughts.
As previously mentioned, this season has had its ups and downs for the pitching staff, more specifically for Zach Keenan. The Old Dominion game that coach Meyers mentioned was Keenan’s last outing before his one at UAB. In the UAB outing, he pitched four innings and gave up 12 hits with eleven earned runs, a rough day for any pitcher. But Keenan showed his maturity, as the senior pitcher’s very next outing was a thing of beauty. He tossed seven shut out innings while only allowing two hits and zero runs. He described how this will help the team and himself carry confidence and momentum into this weekend’s series. “It was great to come back because after the outing I had against ODU (Old Dominion), it definitely wasn’t a good one so to say. I just feel like the team needed it and I needed it for myself for a little confidence and now we’re playing at home again against our rival. The 100 miles of hate is a real thing,” said Keenan.
Because the UAB game in which he threw his gem was a low scoring affair, Keenan described what his mindset was as his outing progressed and the confidence he was feeling afterwards. “After the third or fourth inning, I’d say I was starting to get into a grove, and I just had to keep going with it. I realized it was going to be a low scoring game, it was just one of those atmospheres. We really weren’t hitting it well, but I knew that I had my best stuff, and they weren’t going to be hitting it well. I looked up at the scoreboard and I thought to myself ‘wow, that was definitely one of my better outings,’” he said. Further, Keenan talked of how this confidence will be a major help going into his start on Friday night against WKU. “I just have to go out there again with the mindset of ‘it’s just another Friday night.’ WKU’s offense is not a bad one so I just have to keep doing what I do. Locate some pitches and get out of tough spots ‘cause its not going to be a walk in the park. It never is, especially in rivalries. So, I just have to keep doing my thing,” he described.
As far as Keenan’s adjustments he has made recently, he described them as more of pitching style adjustments rather than a mindset adjustment. He described how his mindset and his week-to-week preparation is usually always the same, but there are always things to work on from a pitching standpoint, specifically pitch selection and adding a new pitch to his repertoire. “This year we put an emphasis on trying to implement a new pitch, my curveball. I started throwing it last year again, I threw it in high school, took it off for a couple of years and then I brought it back. It really wasn’t a factor last year. In bullpens I try and work on it and try to implement it in games, but it’s mainly just been a three-pitch mix of fastballs, sliders, and changeups,” Keenan said. He went on to describe how his favorite pitch to throw depends on certain situations. There are times when his changeup is his go to because he feels the most confident in it as far as what the count is or where the location needs to be. He said that the same went for his slider, and because his fastball is not overpowering, he depends mostly on pitch location. “I don’t really overpower people with my fastball, so I have to be able to spin it (the ball) well and locate. It also depends on their lineup and when to pitch in or away for a lefty or righty (batter),” said Keenan.
Keenan’s final thoughts were on what he was going to be looking for during his start in the series, which was something unrelated to anything regarding strategy or a specific focus. “The only thing I am looking for is a lot of fans to be there. I hope a lot of people show up because it’s going to be a big game. We are 3-3 in the conference right now, towards the top of the rankings and if we can have a good weekend right here, we will put ourselves in a good position for the year, so we’re just going to go out there and play how we always play, and we will need a lot of fans behind us,” he said.
The first pitch of this three game home series matchup vs WKU starts at 6:00 p.m. CST on Friday night as Keenan and the rest of the Blue Raiders squad look to build off their recent momentum and success and climb higher in the Conference USA rankings.