Hounds like depth on diamond

Greyhound third baseman Danny Martinez tags out Brett Scherer during a Saturday scrimmage at Greyhound Field. (Freedom Newspapers: Kevin Wilson)

By Dave Wagner: Freedom Newspapers

PORTALES — Eastern New Mexico University’s Mark Wallace is glad to finally have a set position.

An infielder most of his high school career at Alamogordo, Wallace has moved from left field as a freshman to center field as a sophomore to first base last year.

This season, he’s ticketed to return to first as the Greyhounds prepare to open the 2005 campaign on Friday against Sul Ross State at Alpine, Texas.

“It’s nice to be back at first,” Wallace said. “I like it. You get to handle the ball a lot.”

Wallace had his best season for the Hounds in 2004, hitting .346 with 37 runs batted in. He’s one of three fourth-year seniors on the squad, along with shortstop Josh Kuchta and pitcher Trevor Davis.

Phil Clabaugh, beginning his 14th season at the helm, said the Hounds have experience at a number of positions and better depth than in the past. ENMU went 19-27-1 last year, including 8-13-1 for fourth in the then-five-team Lone Star Conference South Division.

“Right now the strongest part of our team is our ‘whole,’” Clabaugh said. “I continue to see that as a strength with this team. They’ve been a good group to be around.

“We were blessed with good weather in January. We got in a lot of good work.”

Clabaugh had to do some shuffling last year because of an early season-ending knee injury to catcher Brian Green and the absence of infielder Mike McDuffie, who sat out in 2004 because of a team violation after batting .311 the previous year as a freshman.

“We’ve got several kids returning who have been through it before,” Clabaugh said.

Green, who was injured in the first inning of the first game last season when he landed wrong trying to come down with a throw at home plate, appears to be ready to return to catching duty, Clabaugh said. Senior Brett Scherer (.322 last season), who filled in most of the season behind the plate, is ticketed to return to his more natural position, third base.

McDuffie, who split time between first and third as a freshman, could see action at both positions behind Wallace and Scherer. Kuchta (.352), a Clovis High graduate, and senior Bryan Moore (.344, 26 stolen bases) return up the middle. Transfers Micah Bernhardt and Jose Meza give the Hounds infield backup.

Juco transfers Gerald Juarez and Tyler Brown, both juniors, should give the team some depth behind the plate. In the outfield, juniors Justin Gee (.299) and Gilbert Alvarado (.280) have plenty of experience while junior Ryan French, a juco transfer from Carlsbad, is expected to get the start in center.

Outfield backups include sophomore Marcus Walton, a transfer from New Mexico JC, and freshman Derrick Kennedy.

The question mark is on the mound. ENMU appears to have two solid starters in junior Kelly Crain (5-4, 4.86 ERA) and Davis (3-5, 6.29, two saves), but the Hounds are unsettled behind them.

Clabaugh said Scherer will get a shot as a starter this year, along with Kuchta (0-0, 7.27 ERA in 8 2/3 innings) and Wallace, who hasn’t pitched since high school.

Wallace said he’s willing to do what it takes.

“I just want to help out and have the kind of year (offensively) that I had last year,” he said. “I just want to help the team win as many games as we can. The goal for the team is to win the South.”

Any chance for that to happen, Clabaugh concedes, comes down to pitching. He said sophomore righthander Josh Brazell has shown promise in the fall and early spring, while others who will get a look are junior lefty David Swinconos, sophomore right-hander Keith Balderaz and possibly freshman right-hander Kellen Smith.

“The key to our staff is how many strikes we can throw,” said Clabaugh, whose pitchers walked 227 and hit 33 batters in 363 2/3 innings last spring.

The 56-game schedule includes four-game series against the other 11 LSC teams, including the six North squads.

With most games compacted into weekend series, pitching depth will be tested, but Clabaugh likes the new format.

“It gives us 44 games without scheduling (anyone else) and that’s really beneficial to us, especially where we are,” he said, referring to teams’ reluctance to travel to eastern New Mexico from Texas or Oklahoma. “Everybody wants to play, but they want to play at their place.

“It’s going to be a challenging schedule, to say the least.”