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‘Super offensive’ ETSU baseball team begins Pennucci era; two infield spots manned by Dobyns-Bennett products

JOE AVENTO, javento@johnsoncitypress.com • Feb 15, 2018 at 8:48 PM

JOHNSON CITY — When Joe Pennucci describes his East Tennessee State baseball squad as “offensive,” it’s not a bad thing. It’s actually a term of endearment.

“It’s an offensive team,” Pennucci, the Bucs’ first-year coach, said.

“I don’t think it’s much different than what we’ve had in the past. It’s super offensive. We’re hoping to improve defensively and try to continue to compete on the mound, throw some strikes and get our offense back on the field.”

The Bucs open the season today at Thomas Stadium when they begin a three-game series with Northern Kentucky. It will be the first game as ETSU’s coach for Pennucci, who was hired when longtime skipper Tony Skole left for The Citadel.

“For me, it’s just exciting to be able to get on the field,” Pennucci said.

“We’ve had intrasquads, we’ve practiced, we’ve done all those things. We just need to play. It’s less about me and more about our players. “Everybody’s healthy, and that’s the most important thing.”

Pennucci’s new team will rely on the bats, especially in the early going as an inexperienced pitching staff tries to find its way.

With four of the top five hitters returning, he should have plenty of offense.

Two of the four infield spots are manned by Dobyns-Bennett products. Shortstop Chris Cook batted .350 and led the team with 22 doubles while hitting 10 home runs. Christian Bailey hit .337 last season, and Pennucci says he’s one of the best defensive first basemen he’s ever coached.

Also back are Hunter Parker, who hit .351 to lead the team, and right fielder Aaron Maher, who hit .324 and tied for the team lead with Cook by scoring 62 runs. Parker made a name for himself with several highlight-reel diving catches last season, while Maher also made five appearances as a left-handed pitcher, going 2-0 with a 1.23 ERA.

The Bucs will have to replace some pieces, including catcher Hagen Owenby, who led the team with 13 home runs and 51 RBIs.

Pennucci came to ETSU from Stony Brook, where he was the recruiting coordinator and helped the team make numerous NCAA regionals over the past 12 years. His team made the College World Series in 2012.

He took over an ETSU team that went 30-29 last year, 9-15 in the Southern Conference.

With the offense seemingly in good hands, the Bucs’ fate could come down to whether the pitchers will be able able to get anyone out. ETSU’s team ERA was 5.61 last year, seventh in the nine-team SoCon.

Ryan Simpler, who went 6-4 with a 3.99 ERA, is the most experienced pitcher on the staff.

“Coach (Micah) Posey, our pitching coach, has done a really good job with them,” Pennucci said. “They have a really good plan. I think if we compete and continue to throw strikes, we’ll be OK. We’ll be able to stay in games.”

The season-opening series continues Saturday at noon and Sunday at 2:30 p.m. The weather forecast for the weekend includes the potential for a lot of rain.

“We’ve been thinking about doing a rain dance to make it stop,” Pennucci said.