Last season, McNeese State had the pitching depth to become a contender for the first time in coach Terry Burrows’ tenure. As it turned out, it was also the first time the Cowboys didn’t have the hitting to do so.
McNeese (24-30, 17-16 Southland) finished with a winning record in conference play before going two-and-out in the SLC tournament.
“Everyone says pitching and defense wins games. There’s no doubt about that,” said Burrows, entering his sixth season as head coach. “But in this conference you have to be able to score runs.”
With the bulk of last year’s pitching back this season and some new arms tacked on, the Cowboys will try to continue improving in the runs allowed department in 2013.
The question mark will be the offense, but Burrows said he thinks a combination of new faces and more experienced returners will provide a positive answer, beginning with this weekend’s season-opening series against Towson at Cowboy Diamond.
Burrows said a perceived lack of offensive punch is why McNeese was picked eighth in the 10-team conference by coaches and sports information directors.
“I don’t think too many people recognize we can be pretty doggone good,” Burrows said. “We pitched it well but couldn’t score. I think we’re going to surprise some people offensively.”
The light-hitting perception was reality for last year’s squad. The Cowboys were at the bottom of the league in just about every major offensive category: batting (.239), slugging (.319), on-base (.318), runs (202) and RBIs (170).
Burrows said he’s counting on a pair of junior college transfers in the heart of the order to turn that around — designated hitter Lucas Quary and left fielder Jackson Gooch.
Gooch, a native of Ladner, British Columbia, hit .415 with 18 home runs and 72 RBIs using a wood bat for Lamar (Colo.) Community College.
“He’s a special kid,” Burrows said. “It’ll be something to see. He’s had some adjustments to make. Facing Division I pitching is definitely different. But he can hit with power.”
Quary is expected to double up as the closer when he overcomes shoulder stiffness that kept him off the mound this week. In the meantime, LSU transfer and Rosepine native Sam Peterson will get the ball to finish games.
Setting the table atop the batting order are center fielder Andrew Guillotte and right fielder Skylar Barrentine.
Guillotte hit .210 last year, but Burrows has seen an improved approach from the sophomore this offseason.
“We wanted to lead him off last year, but being a freshman he kind of took his lumps,” Burrows said. “He had a good fall and a good spring, so he’s going to lead off. It’s been a long time since we’ve had guys who can hit 1 and 2, and hopefully we have that if these guys can do what they’re capable of doing.”
Junior Taylor Drake returns as the starter at third, and Matt Henry will again get the call behind the plate.
Connor Lloyd will play shortstop full-time after splitting time at second base last year. Righty Michael Sullivan and lefty Chayse Merion might platoon at first, and Burrows said he plans on playing Tyler Klouser, Hans Ask and Phillip LeBleu at second base in the season’s early going.
Burrows will see just how much depth he has in the starting pitching rotation during the season’s first month.
Expected Friday night starter Michael Clemens is out until mid-March with a broken hand, moving Blake Ware and Jason Gibson up a day from their anticipated spots.
Burrows said Barbe High grad Bryce Kingsley and junior college transfer Michael Desabrais are his top two options to start on Sunday.