If an old quote attributed to former major league patriarch Connie Mack stating, “Pitching is 80 percent of winning baseball,” is correct, then Ponte Vedra baseball fans have to be optimistic about their team’s chances for the 2018 season.
The Sharks open their home season on Thursday, March 1 when they host two-time state champion Bolles at Sharks Park. The team is hopeful that this year’s experienced pitching rotation will replicate the staff from the state championship squad in 2013. Despite posting a minuscule team batting average of .242 — easily the lowest average in Ponte Vedra baseball history — the 2013 Sharks won the 5A state championship with a pitching staff that was “off the charts” in talent.
This year’s team can boast of a potent 1-2 combination that would make the 2013 group proud. Senior Kevin Faulkner, a Jacksonville University commit, and Junior Tony Roca have been nearly perfect in each of their appearances to begin the 2018 season. Roca worked four hitless innings, while striking out six in four innings of work in the Sharks’ season opening 4-3 victory over Bishop Kenny. Faulkner took the mound last Friday, Feb. 23 against a 7-0 Valdosta team and gave up a lone single, while also fanning six batsmen in his four innings of work. Unfortunately, the Sharks were unable to hang onto the 1-0 lead after Faulkner finished his stint on the mound and fell to an undefeated Valdosta team 3-1.
In 2017, Faulkner accumulated seven straight victories before suffering his only loss in a hard luck 2-0 defeat to Paxon in the first round of the regionals. Roca flourished on the mound throughout his sophomore season for the Sharks. He capped his season by coming in relief to shut out a heavy hitting Clay County in six-and-one-third innings of work, and picked up the victory in the marathon 10-inning district championship. Faulkner and Roca net a combined won-loss record of 12-2 in 2017 and posted an ERA of less than 1 earned run per game.
Beginning his 10th season as the Sharks manager, coach Tom Stanton is hopeful of finding some pitching depth, particularly early in the season, when his two aces are not on the mound.
While the dynamic duo has not given up a run in their eight combined innings of work, the Sharks do have some pitching concerns. Eight other pitchers that have seen action on the mound have given up 15 runs, 15 walks, 14 hits and have hit seven batters in only 11 innings.
Stanton and his pitching coach Elliot Warford — a former Shark great and Furman pitching stalwart — are hopeful that Brody Maynard, currently sidelined with a “stinger” injury will join the already deep pitching staff shortly. Maynard, one of seven left-handed pitchers on the staff, appeared in seven games last year as a sophomore and posted a very respectable ERA of 2.19.
Although the Sharks' hitters have gotten off to a slow start to begin this season, Stanton is confident that he has enough experienced players returning to soften the loss of Eric Aleman, Quinton Brehm and Jack Hahnemann, a trio that all batted above .300 last year.
Headlining the list of returnees is centerfielder Jacob Young. A starter since his sophomore season, Young has swatted a healthy .380 in his two years of varsity action, good for fourth place in Shark baseball history. Young, who will play his college baseball for the defending NCAA championship Florida Gators, has also swiped over 40 bases during his career.
The Sharks will also return to their lineup their leading hitter from last year’s nine in junior Carter Page, who sported a healthy .352 batting average. A .333 hitter last season for the Sharks, Zach Chappell should provide a steady bat and will also see plenty of work as a pitcher.
The biggest holes to replace in the lineup will be on the left side of the infield at third base and shortstop, where Brehm and Aleman previously called home. Stanton has moved the versatile Young into the infield this year where he can be a fixture at either second base or shortstop.
The Sharks are hopeful that sophomore Matt Barnhorst, a late season call up in 2017 who nailed down a starting berth at second base, will recover shortly from an injury and regain his spot in the lineup.
Competition for spots in the infield for playing time currently exist for sophomores Alex Ortiz and Porter Jordheim, and much improved junior Sebastian Rothman. After three games into this campaign, it appears that Roca, when not pitching, has nailed down the first base job.
While many area schools have flourished from transfers, that has not been the case over the past decade at Ponte Vedra. However, Stanton has welcomed the addition to this year’s team of junior catcher Mason McLeod, a transfer from South Carolina. Although McLeod is off to a slow start at the plate, the junior has been solid on defense and has displayed an accurate and strong throwing arm.
Rarely has Stanton begun the season with a freshman in a starting role, but such was the case for this year’s season opening victory over Bishop Kenny with Cody Nelson penciled into the starting lineup.
“With Cody taking over the leadoff spot, this gives us the opportunity to move Jacob Young into the third hole where he can knock in some runs,” added Stanton.
Chappell, Page and Thomas Barnhorst all started several games in the outfield last year, which gave Stanton the luxury to move Young into the infield.
Despite the 1-2 start this year, Stanton has very few concerns for this year’s Shark squad.
“I think our talent level is really good but if I do have a concern, it’s that we need to create a better familiarity with our new crop of catchers and our pitching staff,” he said. “We still have some things to do to get better, as everybody feels good about themselves early, but it’s in May when we want to be playing our best.”
It is likely that in addition to a large crowd anticipated for the upcoming matchup with Bolles, a number of major league scouts could be in attendance to watch a possible pitching duel between either the Sharks’ Roca or Faulkner and preseason 1st team All-American Hunter Barco of Bolles.
Those who cannot make the 6 p.m. game can watch the contest live on Facebook by typing in PVHS Broadcasting.