Baseball Bucs get to work with some holes to fill

Joe Avento • Updated Jan 24, 2020 at 6:05 PM

East Tennessee State baseball coach Joe Pennucci briefly summed up his goals as his team officially opened preseason practice on Friday.

“Throw strikes, stay healthy and hit good pitches,” said Pennucci, entering his third season at ETSU. “If we do that we’ll be fine.”

The Bucs got to work on a rainy afternoon, hitting in the batting cages inside the Minidome before heading out to Thomas Stadium for some defensive work.

ETSU has some holes to fill from last year’s team that went 34-21, including 22-9 at home. The Bucs have only one returning .300 hitter and have lost two of their top three pitchers, but their coach likes what he has seen.

“I like the energy about these guys,” Pennucci said. “The energy and the effort is in the right place. I think the program is going in the right direction. I like the way these guys go about their business.

“What that results in? I don’t know. But I enjoy being around them every day and I feel that their work is good.”

The Bucs open the season Feb. 14 when Toledo pays a visit to Thomas Stadium to begin a three-game series.

Senior catcher Jackson Greer led ETSU in all three triple crown categories last season with a .314 batting average, 10 home runs and 42 RBIs to earn first-team all-conference status. He’s already leading this year’s team in hype.

“We’re ready, man,” Greer said. “It’s going to be a year. It’s going to be a show. We got a very veteran lineup coming. We got Landon Knack as our Friday guy. Good luck with that. He throws 97. We’re ready to rock and roll.

“I really like what I see. We got the bats to swing it, baby. You better get ready. It’s going to be a show like never before.”

Outfielder/catcher Ben Jackson is back after missing last season with an injury. He was on the Southern Conference’s all-freshman team after hitting .279 two seasons ago.

The Bucs will be missing some key pieces from last year. Cullen Smith, the team’s second-leading hitter, transferred to Arkansas and two of their top three starting pitchers — Micah Kaczor and Daniel Sweeney — have graduated. The two departed starters combined to go 13-5 and pitch almost 180 innings last season.

Sweeney is now Pennucci’s director of baseball operations.

The team’s ERA last season was 3.48, more than two runs lower than it was the previous year.

Landon Knack, a hard-throwing senior righty from Johnson City, will be the undisputed leader of the pitching staff. He was 9-4 with a 2.60 ERA last season and is scheduled to be the Friday starter in weekend series.

At one point, Knack had a 21-game winning streak going, dating back to Walters State, where he won 13 in a row.

“That was something,” Knack said. “I’ll never have anything like that happen for the rest of my life. That was special. That was really fun to do, but the pressure of that is gone.”

Finding out who will take the other two starting spots on the weekends, in addition to the weekday starting positions, is one of Pennucci’s main goals.

“When you lose two out of three guys, you have to kind of mix and match,” Pennucci said. “I think the way you replace them is to see who can kind of compete and get after it and win a job. I think that’s what we’re up against.

“I don’t know how many times I’ve ever seen the same lineup when you started in February that ended in May. That goes for the rotation, too. I think you’re constantly making adjustments and you’re constantly making moves.”

Johnson City Press Videos