Bucs discover unexpected power at plate

Joe Avento • Feb 27, 2013 at 7:10 PM

So much for a lack of power.

The East Tennessee State baseball team began the season expecting to take it one base at a time, not anticipating a whole lot of offensive fireworks.

Then the season began and the home runs started to come.

Through eight games, the Bucs have gone deep 14 times, tying them with Mercer for first place in the Atlantic Sun Conference. They’ve also jumped out to a 6-2 record.

“It sort of surprises me,” ETSU coach Tony Skole said. “It’s not necessarily our philosophy, but I give a lot of credit to our kids. We do have a physical team. We’re not all big and tall young men, but we have some strong kids. Even the smallest guys on our team are physical and can run the ball out of the yard if they get the right pitch.”

The Bucs have hit at least one home run in every game. This comes a year after they hit 53 homers, but lost two of college baseball’s top power hitters in Matthew Scruggs (20 home runs) and Dylan Pratt (16) to graduation.

Clinton Freeman has been the main power source this year. The junior first baseman, who played at David Crockett High School, has six round-trippers. He’s also batting .483 and has been intentionally walked six times.

Freeman was the Louisville Slugger national player of the week after the Bucs’ opening three-game series against Penn State, during which he went 8 for 10 with three home runs, a double, a triple and drove in five runs while scoring seven.

“Nothing really surprises us about Freeman,” Bucs senior center fielder Andrew Green said. “He’s a really hard worker. He takes pride in his hitting. He’s always up in the cage.”

Freeman has also excelled on the mound. In five scoreless relief appearances, he’s earned two wins and two saves.

“His ability and his aggressiveness to attack hitters and throw three pitches for strikes is phenomenal,” Skole said. “He’s been so good. He’s such a hard worker.”

Green, meanwhile, has provided a bit of pop as well with two home runs and a .344 batting average. As a leadoff hitter and the fastest player on the team, he was expected to get the team’s station-to-station offense moving by stealing bases and putting pressure on opponents’ defenses.

At this point, however, he has as many home runs as stolen bases.

“I would love to get more stolen bases, but I really haven’t had that many opportunities to run,” Green said. “Whatever I’m doing, as long as we’re winning, we’ll just keep playing like that.

“I will get going whenever I get a chance to. The stolen bases will come. If I keep hitting for power and average and we keep on winning, that’s all that matters.”

Green needs 21 more steals to break the ETSU career record of 75, set by Tony Martin from 1980-83.

“We have to get Andrew running,” Skole said. “He is so fast, but he doesn’t have that base stealer’s mentality yet. We have to prod him along and get him going.”

Cleanup hitter Derek Niesman, shortstop Chris Riopedre and catcher Mason Hershey each have a pair of home runs as well. Niesman is tied with Freeman for the team lead with 11 RBIs.

In the second game of the season, Niesman gave future opponents something to think about if they plan on pitching around Freeman. After Penn State issued an intentional walk to Freeman, Niesman blasted a three-run homer.

“Derek has always been very good with runners in scoring position,” Skole said. “He’s a senior and doesn’t get flustered and he undertstands what it’s like to have good at-bats. He’s really helped Clinton, providing him some protection.”

One of Riopedre’s blasts was a game-winner in the ninth inning against Seton Hall.

The Bucs had a six-game winning streak end Tuesday night with a 9-7 loss at Tennessee. They had the tying runs in scoring position in the ninth inning, but couldn’t finish the job.

“I feel like we have a lot of confidence even after a tough loss at UT,” Green said. “We played our worst game of the year and still had a chance at the end. That tells me we have a lot of fight in our young team.”

The Bucs are back in action Friday at Thomas Stadium to start a three-game series against Marist. Game time is 3:05 p.m. Saturday’s game is set for 4:05 p.m. while Sunday’s is scheduled for 1:05 p.m.

Fourteen of ETSU’s first 15 games were scheduled at home.

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