The 2013 Bowling Green Falcons quietly ran through the Mid-American Conference regular season with a 13-14 record and earned the sixth seed to the MAC Tournament. Once the tourney began, though, the Falcons got white-hot and stormed their way to BGSU's first MAC championship and NCAA tournament berth in 14 years.
This year's edition of the Orange and Brown returns to the field this week with virtually the entire championship team intact. The only key players lost from last year's roster are designated hitter Matt Pitzulo and closer Nick Bruns. So, the operative question is simple: can Bowling Green become the first team other than Kent State to repeat as MAC champions in more than a decade? Nobody else other than Kent State has repeated since BGSU did it in the 1998 and 1999 seasons.
Despite their middling regular-season record, the Falcons ended the 2013 season ranked in the top half of the MAC in both batting average (5th, .275) and earned-run average (3rd, 3.83). BGSU's most glaring weakness last season was in fielding.
The team ranked last in the MAC with a .950 fielding percentage. They committed 107 errors, and only one other MAC team had more than 91. They also gave up 90 unearned runs, 17 more than any other team in the league. If there is one bright spot, it was that they allowed only 35 stolen bases in 71 attempts, easily the best caught-stealing percentage in the MAC.
Provided that Bowling Green's pitching and hitting numbers don't regress, their fielding will be a huge key to their chances of success in 2014. If they could cut their unearned runs by a third, or even a quarter, they could vault from the middle of the pack to the top of the standings.
Outside of fielding, perhaps the biggest concern for the 2014 Falcons is who will replace Bruns as the de-facto closer. Bruns saved just six games last year, but that number belied just how good he was. He went 6-2 with six saves and a 2.59 ERA in 53 1/3 innings. He allowed only 46 hits, including just six for extra bases, and put up an excellent 1.20 WHIP. He also had a great 2.5 strikeout-to-walk ratio. Bruns' contributions helped BGSU outscore opponents 45-18 in the ninth inning or later.
Seniors Ethan McKenney and Ben Singer are likely the front-runners to fill Bruns' role. McKenney's WHIP (1.31) and K/BB ratio (1.75) weren't quite as good, but he was able to strand those extra runners and finished with a MAC-best 1.99 ERA. In his 21 appearances, he went 3-1 with two saves. Singer had a very good season in 2013 with a 2.75 ERA in 39 1/3 innings. Only four of the 41 hits he allowed were for extra bases, and none were triples or home runs. He was also the victim of poor defense, as he allowed nearly as many unearned runs (10) as he did earned (12).
BGSU's top two starters return from 2013 to resume their roles at the top of the Falcons' rotation. Mike Frank started 16 times and threw three complete games on his way to a 5-8 record and a 3.87 ERA in 2013. His K/BB ratio was better than 3:1 (80/25), and he allowed only 90 hits (.233 AVG) in 102.1 innings. He does want to cut down on the home runs allowed, though, as he gave up seven gopher balls last season. Cody Apthorpe posted a 3.86 ERA in 17 starts and 88.2 innings. He went 5-5 but was often a victim of BGSU's defense. He allowed only 38 earned runs and 26 more than were unearned. He walked 31 (while striking out 49) and gave up 107 hits, but he allowed only two home runs.
There's no obvious candidate to be Bowling Green's third starter. Trevor Blaylock started 10 games in 2013 but went 0-8 with a 6.40 ERA. Brett Fitzwater started six times and went 2-2 with a respectable 4.68 ERA in 25 innings. It should be noted that McKenney started 13 games during the 2012 season (1-9, 7.65), so he's an option. The competition could also be opened up to some of the Falcons' freshman pitchers. The solution to this problem will be another key issue for the 2014 Falcons, but if they can solve it adequately, they should be near the top of the MAC in pitching once again.
The four primary offensive threats from the 2013 are all returning for 2014.
First baseman Jeremy Shay led the team with a .330/.417/.524 slash line in 191 at-bats. He scored 35 runs and drove in 38, and over one-third (23 of 63) of his hits went for extra bases, including six home runs. Catcher T.J. Losby was almost as good. His slash line was .327/.387/.445 in 211 at-bats. He matched Shay with six home runs and drove in 39 runs while scoring 31. He also struck out just 21 times for an average of just one for every 10 at-bats.
Outfielder Patrick Lancaster and infielder Brian Bien are great complementary pieces. Both batted close to .300 in 2013 (Lancaster .296, Bien .295) and had solid on-base percentages. Lancaster drove in 26 runs, and Bien scored 30. The pair also combined for 14 stolen bases in 20 attempts, and they were the top two players on the team in that category.
Several other position players have significant starting experience, so even the loss of Pitzulo shouldn't hurt much. In fact, Pitzulo started (only) 34 of 55 games and was ninth on the team with a .246 AVG. There's no reason here to think that there will be any significant regression in the BGSU offense, and it could be better, especially if one of the incoming freshmen provide a new spark.
In total, this is a talented team with a lot of veteran presence. Their run through the MAC tournament should provide a lot of confidence as they open the season, and they ought to be better than their 13-14 MAC record from a year ago. Can they repeat? They'll need to play better defense and find a solid replacement for Bruns, but the opportunity should be there.
Bowling Green opens the 2014 season on Friday in Nashville, Tenn. against Belmont. They also have trips to Murray State, Dayton, Georgia Tech and High Point before their spring series in Florida. Their first home game is March 18 against Eastern Michigan, and the first official MAC game of the season is March 21 at Ball State.
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