O’FALLON, Mo.- Though the year has changed, the Rascals pitching staff is comparable to 2016 and looks to pick up right where they left off towards the end of last season’s campaign. As a staff, the hurlers lowered their ERA every month and return three members of the starting rotation and five bullpen arms from the final roster that advanced to the Frontier League Championship Series. This week’s positional preview will focus on the potential starters and how many options former pitcher and current manager Steve Brook has.
The Rascals 2016 FLCS top pitcher in Tim Koons returns for his fourth year in O’Fallon and is currently 3rd all-time in games started for the club with 50. Since making his professional debut out of Oakland University on June 21st, 2014, Koons has held a 21-11 record with a 4.24 ERA. The right-hander set the Frontier League record in win percentage by going 11-0 in 2015 and had his best game on the 4th of July against the Florence Freedom in Kentucky tossing a one-run, nine strikeout complete game. One year later in a bigger spot, such as game two of the Frontier League Championship Series, Koons pitched the best game of his career taking a perfect game into the seventh inning and a no-hitter into the eighth inning. All of this coming with no room to breathe in a 1-0 game, the Rascal finished the game with his first career complete-game shutout and struck out a career high ten.
Along with Koons, southpaws Austin Warner and Dan Ludwig return for their second year with the Rascals. Warner was signed on June 29th and became one of the most electric rookie pitchers in the league. After being used as a long reliever in July, Warner was officially placed in the starting rotation on August 6th and showcased his skills by winning four consecutive games allowing just six earned runs in 23 2/3 innings. The rookie from Bellarmine University also made himself known in the Frontier League by recording a pair of eleven strikeout games on August 19th against Windy City and in game one of the divisional round against the Southern Illinois Miners. Overall, Warner finished the year 5-2 with a 4.00 ERA in eight starts and 13 appearances.
Warner wasn’t the only hurler to join the Rascals starting rotation towards the beginning of August as Brook traded first baseman Willi Martin to the Southern Illinois Miners in exchange for southpaw Dan Ludwig. The Naperville, Ill. native made his Rascals debut on August 10th and threw 5.1 innings of scoreless baseball to record his first Rascals win, eighth overall, against the Florence Freedom. He went on to start four more games during the regular season for his new club and his final three is a stretch he wants to remember as he went 2-0 allowing just four earned runs in 23 1/3 innings including a complete game against Gateway on August 24th.
Aside from Koons, Warner and Ludwig, three other members on the roster made at least one start. Left-hander Lucas Laster started a pair of games before moving to the bullpen and eventually leaving the team due to an injury in June. In 2015, Laster was named to Baseball America’s Top Independent League Prospects list and is in the hunt to get back to his successful ways.
Josh Wright made ten starts, scattered throughout the year and finished with a record of 3-2 with a 5.36 ERA. The right-hander also made five appearances out of the bullpen and was known for his sharp 12-6 curveball. Despite only making one start, Reese Gregory is the only other current arm who has started a game in a Rascals uniform.
Moving on to the eight new arms that Brook has brought in, four of them have starting experience. Southpaw Hector Hernandez is the most experienced out of them all having made 141 appearances, 91 starts in affiliated ball and reached as high as Triple-A with the Arizona Diamondbacks organization. The experienced arm first broke into professional baseball in 2009 when he was drafted in the 10th round out of the Puerto Rico Baseball Academy at the age of 18. In 576.1 innings, Hernandez has a record of 32-30 with a solid ERA of a 3.89. However, Hernandez has only started nine of his 38 games over the past two years after starting 78 of 93 to begin his career so it is up in the air to see how he will be used.
The other three arms are former Chicago Cub minor leaguer Jordan Brink, Pacific Association hurler Chris Cummins and Middle Tennessee State standout Nate Hoffman. Brink was an 11thround draft pick by the Cubs in 2014 out of Fresno State University and made 19 appearances, five starts with a record of 3-2 and a 3.94 ERA. All five of his starts came with the Arizona League Cubs and when he was with the Eugene Emeralds (Class-A Short Season, Brink was only used out of the pen.
Southpaw Chris Cummins has started 29 games in his four year professional career spanning over four different leagues. He has made appearances in the American Association in 2012 and 2015, Florence Freedom of the Frontier League in 2014, Pecos League in 2015 and last year made 16 starts with the Pittsburg Diamonds of the Pacific Association and went 7-7 with a 3.35 ERA.
Nate Hoffman is the lone arm on the staff that hasn’t appeared in a professional game and he looks to follow in the footsteps of Warner and Koons in the fact that their first professional action came with River City out of college. After transferring to Middle Tennessee State from Madison College in 2015, Hoffman earned a spot on the Second Team All-Conference-USA by compiling a 4-1 record with a 3.61 ERA. As a senior, Hoffman garnered one more award, C-USA pitcher of the week on April 1st, but nine starts into his season he went down with an injury and wasn’t able to continue as the teams ace.
The Rascals season begins on May 12th as they host the Normal CornBelters at 6:35 p.m. Tickets start at just $5 and to get an entire view of the schedule and to purchase tickets visit http://rivercityrascals.com/tickets/individual/.