CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- The 2014 college baseball season is the finish for longtime coach Cal Bailey, but it is the starts that have him excited.
The 70-year-old coach, who has spent 37 years at West Virginia State and will retire at the end of this season, has eight position players who started at least 25 games in 2013. Those players -- four seniors, three juniors and a sophomore -- combined to start 333 games last season for the Yellow Jackets, who were a preseason pick to finish third in the inaugural season of Mountain East Conference baseball.
"It's a little bit different," said Bailey, who takes a 1,029-466 career record into his final season. "We've been rebuilding for about three years. We can put eight guys in the lineup who started at various spots last year. We have options."
The key to the offense is designated hitter Jack Hudson, a first-team all-West Virginia Conference and second-team All-America player last season. The South Charleston native led State with a .392 batting average and 10 homers. He drove in 37 runs in 48 games (46 starts).
"He can hit, hit, hit, hit and hit," Bailey said. "He can play positions, too, which he'll probably have to with our schedule. He's got a good arm and will pitch in relief."
Catcher Tyler Payne (45 games and 41 starts) and first baseman Andrew Pickering (started all 48 games) hit eight and seven home runs last season, respectively. Hudson, Payne and Pickering accounted for 25 of the team's 42 long balls last season.
Senior Noah Blackhurst (.352, four homers and 33 RBI in 48 starts) is back at second base, and he'll work up the middle with sophomore shortstop Josh Kiser. Senior Eric Craft (48 starts, .322, three homers and 33 RBI) will man third base again. Pickering, Blackhurst and Craft give Bailey three senior infielders who he penciled into every starting lineup in 2013.
Juniors Zach Cloxton (25 starts) and Cody Smith (32 starts) are back in the outfield, where they might be joined with speedy Bluefield State transfer Sean Williams.
Bailey has experience on the mound, too. Senior Devin Bowles and junior Tyler Thompson were second and third on the team in innings pitched last season. Bowles started 10 games and finished 4-3 with a 5.98 earned run average in 52 2/3 innings. Thompson compiled a 7-0 record in 14 appearances (nine starts) with team-best 2.65 ERA. Thompson also led State with 48 strikeouts.
Josh Falbo, who played at Hurricane High School, is the team's "ace reliever," Bailey said. He appeared in 43 games last season.
Bailey figures he'll need to learn how to handle his pitching staff with four-game weekends in the Mountain East. The schedule is heavy on Saturday-Sunday doubleheaders, which will force Bailey to dip deep into his bullpen to manage the workload of his relievers.
"The problem is you play four games and then you don't play again until the next weekend," Bailey said. "Five days of practice and classes and then you turn it up again. It's kind of like football, going one time a week and then you wait until the next week. I'm just unfamiliar with that kind of baseball."
Bailey, at least, has an experienced roster to help him through the transition and his final season. The roster is loaded with 10 seniors and five juniors.
"The thing is you play four 7-inning games and your starters aren't going to complete every game," Bailey said. "You're going to have to have short relievers, you're going to have to have two or three closers. It's going to be a new experience for us.
"We'll try to piece it together and see what nine play the best together and go from there."
W.Va. State opens the 2014 season Sunday with a doubleheader against Glenville State at Calvin L. Bailey Field in Institute.
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