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The Raiders are showing they’re capable of matching up with anyone in the nation. Though their record is just 4-4, they’ve notched wins over three ranked teams: No. 10 Mississippi, No. 19 Oklahoma State and No. 9 East Carolina.
All three were NCAA tournament teams last year — as were the Raiders, who finished 39-17 overall, won the Horizon League for the third time in four years and finished eighth nationally in producing runs at 7.8 per game.
“Anytime we play the, quote-unquote, bigger teams, we like to step up for that challenge,” Sogard said. “We know we’re not going to win all of them, but it teaches us what our weaknesses are and what we need to work on.”
Sogard, who is in his first year as coach after being in charge of the pitchers the last two seasons, has a good handle on what he has among position players. The Raiders — a unanimous pick to win the league again — return six of eight starters, though they’ll have to replace conference player of the year Gabe Snyder.
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Right-fielder Peyton Burdick is batting .414 and hit the team’s first three home runs this season in three games in Greenville, N.C., last weekend. He had a monster year in 2018 with a .347 average, nine homers and 65 RBIs.
“Peyton probably would’ve been the player of the year in the conference if it wasn’t for Gabe Snyder,” Sogard said. “Gabe had one of the best years ever in the Horizon League (.359 average, 15 HRs, 73 RBIs), and Peyton was right behind him. It’s not surprising that he hit three home runs last weekend. He’s starting to get into a groove.”
Third-baseman Seth Gray, a Springfield Shawnee product, leads the team with a .429 average — a big jump from last year when he batted .267. Designated-hitter Zane Harris, a second-team all-league pick in 2018, and catcher Brandon Giltrow (Lakota West), who is in his third year as a starter, are both hitting .350.
Shortstop Chase Slone, another first-team all-league pick, will anchor the infield, while the speedy J.D. Orr will cover plenty of ground again in the outfield.
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“I feel like we have more depth than normal — 12 or 13 guys who could be in the lineup every day,” said Sogard, whose team is scheduled to play its home opener at 3 p.m. Friday against Canisius.
The pitching is somewhat suspect after having lost a few stalwarts. But seniors Zane Collins and Bear Bellomy are expected to have big years, and Sogard wants to follow the Major League model of relying heavily on his bullpen.
“In a perfect world, I’d like to have a seventh-inning guy, eighth-inning guy and ninth-inning guy,” Sogard said. “The last few years, I think we haven’t used as many pitchers as we could, and that’s something I’d like to change — bring different looks for different teams.”
One thing that won’t change is the Raiders’ penchant for stealing bases. They were eighth in the nation last season with 110 thefts while getting caught just 18 times.
“We have guys who have been in the system for a while, and we still have the speed we’ve always had. We’ll continue to be aggressive on the bases,” Sogard said.