Baseball’s back: Lions looking to build off strong finish to 2018

HANCOCK — After struggling through their Spring Break trip to Florida where they went 2-8 last season, the Finlandia Lions baseball team continued to find ways to lose games until a four-game set with Maranatha Baptist was cancelled in late April.

From that point forward, the Lion finished strong. They split with Wisconsin-Superior on April 22 and followed that up with three wins in four outings against Northland College. In the CUNYAC Championships, the Lions continued to play well, defeating Lehman and Baruch while going 2-2 in the tournament.

Manager Evan Brandt hopes that means that his team is ready to turn a corner this season. They are 1-5 through six games in Florida this season, but the Spring Break trip is not always the best measuring stick for the season.

“I think we are in a good place coming off of our late run last year,” said Brandt. “We still have a lot of work to do. Compared to last year, I like where we are at, but there is so much more to do, especially with the new conference.”

Finlandia has changed conferences this year. They are playing in the Wisconsin Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (WIAC), and the best thing about playing in that conference is that the WIAC is strictly made up of teams from Wisconsin, including several satellite schools from the University of Wisconsin system to make up a seven-team league.

Basically, the good news is that it means a far better travel schedule.

“It helps us because of travel,” said Brandt. “It really increases our strength of schedule, compared to the past. This is probably the best strength of schedule we have ever had.”

The Lions are ready to spend the season on the road. They are used to experience, as there is still so much snow on the ground locally, that it is not likely they could play here until late April at the earliest.

Still, Brandt’s Lions welcome the challenge.

“That is no stranger to us,” he said. “Our guys actually like that. They look forward to that… I think that is fun for the guys.”

Offensively, the Lions return most of the top talent. Most of that is due to the return of Joey Krug for his senior year. Krug stands 6-foot-0, 235 pounds, and is a dual threat, playing either third base or pitcher, while also being able to hit for power whenever he wants to.

“He means a lot to the program,” Brandt said. “I guess you can say, on the players’ side, he’s the face of the program for our boys. (He) does everything we need him to do.”

Krug, a Santee, California, native, hit .330 last season with five doubles, three home runs and 19 RBI. His slugging percentage was .484 and he was the only Lions player to appear in all 28 games the team played.

Joining Krug in the infield defensively and also at the plate are Brian Doyle, Nick Geiser and Jean Pimentel, three juniors who should give Krug the kind of protection he needs to be successful at the plate.

Doyle, a Reisterstown, Maryland, native, was brilliant in 2018, hitting .304 with five doubles and four RBI. He also walked 11 times, which helped set things up for the rest of the lineup.

Geiser, a Rome, Pennsylvania, native, struggled early in the season, getting only three hits in his first eight contests, but once things clicked for him at the plate, he was a tough out, finishing with 11 hits over his last 14 games for a .219 average. He had four doubles and knocked in 10 with three walks.

“(Nick), as a freshman, struggled a little bit,” said Brandt. “He likes to see pitches. I think that gets into trouble a little bit.

“He’s an athletic kid. He’s strong. He has good pop in the bat. His swing is perfect.”

Geiser has found a home for himself at first base, which makes things interesting for the Lions, as he can use his athleticism to get to throws from his teammates that perhaps a bigger, heavier player (a more typical-sized first baseman) cannot get to.

Another player on a similar path to Geiser, at least at the plate, is Pimentel, an Altamonte Springs, Florida, native. Pimentel hit .214 with five doubles and eight RBI. He also walked 10 times and was hit by pitch four times.

Krug stands at the top of the rotation for Brandt’s team. In six starts last season, he went 2-4 with a 2.57 earned run average (ERA) and 37 strikeouts in six complete games.

Senior Brandon Teichman, a San Diego, California, native, went 3-2 in six starts last season with a 5.46 ERA and 22 strikeouts.

Two new faces in the rotation for the Lions include juniors Ashton Knutson and Patrick Coles.

Knutson, a Necedah, Wisconsin, native, stands 6-foot-5 and has the ability to throw from several arm slots, which can make life difficult at the plate for opposing hitters.

Coles, who hails from Jensen Beach, Florida, took 2018 off after a successful 2017 campaign that saw him start two games and appear in four as a pitcher, with a 3.86 ERA with 10 strikeouts. At the plate, he was equally dangerous, hitting .317 with six doubles and nine RBI.

Brandt is really excited about inserting Coles back in the lineup.

“Our starters are three seniors and a junior,” Brandt said. “Patrick came back out this year, so that is huge. Those four are experienced and they have been through college baseball. Giving them six days’ rest is going to be cool.”

With the schedule setting up the way it is, the bullpen could see advantages in that the younger pitchers will have a better sense of their rest schedule.

“I think it will actually be more beneficial for our bullpen,” said Brandt. “The young kids now know that, ‘Hey, I’ve got time to recover. I can go out there and throw.’ Which is something that we have not been able to do in the past.”

The Lions will finish up their Spring Break trip on Wednesday and then head to Milwaukee to face the Milwaukee School of Engineering on the weekend. Then they have a week off before a four-game set with Wisconsin-Oshkosh.

Brandt is really excited to see what his team is made of in 2019 with deep roster and a more favorable schedule in terms of travel.