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A-State registered a 28-27 record a season ago for its first winning season since 2014 (32-27). Additionally, last season’s mark along with 2016’s record of 29-29 mark the first time since 2004 (29-28) and 2005 (33-23) that the Red Wolves have had back-to-back seasons of .500 or better winning percentages.
The Red Wolves return 18 lettermen from a season ago along with Coulton Lee, who redshirted a season ago. A-State also has two players that redshirted last season as freshmen, along with 15 newcomers on the squad.
Arkansas State opens at home for the second straight season and fifth time in the last six seasons with Illinois State representing the opponent twice after traveling to Jonesboro to begin the 2015 campaign.
Tyler Zuber became the highest A-State player drafted in the MLB June Amateur Draft in 2017 when the Royals selected him in the sixth round.
A-State vs. Illinois State In Depth Series History
A-State is 3-7 all-time against the Redbirds with the first matchup happening to begin the 1949 season with Arkansas State dropping a 5-4 contest. The series didn’t resume until 1974 when Illinios State won two games at New Orleans by scores of 6-0 and 3-2.
The two teams played seven times in 2014 and 2015, both times in Jonesboro. The Redbirds took three of four in 2014 before A-State won two of three to begin the 2015 season. In 2015 the Redbirds shut out the Red Wolves 3-0 in the opener before A-State swept a Saturday doubleheader by scores of 13-4 and 11-5. The teams were supposed to play a Sunday doubleheader, but it was cancelled due to the threat of inclement weather.
Seniors Bryan Ayers, Coulton Lee, and Jeremy Brown have seen some action against the Redbirds in their careers. Ayers tossed four scoreless innings in relief Feb. 21, 2014 against Illinois State with four strikeouts, while Lee made three appearances in the 2014 series and one in the 2015 series. He allowed one earned run in 1.2 innings across the three appearances in 2015 before tossing four shutout innings in his lone appearance against the team in 2015 with five strikeouts. Brown only had one hit in 12 at-bats against Illinois State in 2015, but the one hit, his first collegiate hit, was a big one as it was a grand slam in the second game of a doubleheader on Feb. 14.
Current St. Louis Cardinals shortstop Paul DeJong played for Illinois State in those two series against A-State. DeJong played catcher and second base in both series. He went 3-for-12 with one RBI in 2014 before going 6-for-13 in 2015 with four RBI and two long balls.
A-State has played every team currently in the Misouri Valley Conference that sponsors baseball. A-State is 24-48 against Southern Illinois and 22-42 versus Missouri State to mark the two most common opponents. A-State has played Valparaiso the least with a 2-0 mark against the Crusaders with both matchups coming to begin the 1948 season with no meetings since then.
The Red Wolves will play two more squads from the MVC this season with a three-game series at Missouri State and a home-and-home midweek series versus Southern Illinois.
A-State in Season Openers
The Red Wolves are now 36-34 in season openers after last year’s 6-0 win over NYIT. Bryan Ayers tossed six scoreless innings and stuck out 10 to earn the victory, while Justin Felix hit a two-run homer and Derek Birginske and Jeremy Brown posted a RBI each.
Head coach Tommy Raffo is 6-3 in season openers with wins over Texas State, Southern Illinois, Bradley, Miami (Ohio), UAB, and NYIT. The losses are to Auburn, Lamar, and Illinois State. The Red Wolves have currently won two straight season openers.
A-State has opened at home in five of those openers under Coach Raffo with a 4-1 record in those contests. A-State is 1-2 in road season openers under Raffo and 1-0 at neutral sites.
Arkansas State’s longest win streak in season openers is eight from 1964 to 1971, while its longest losing streak is seven from 1976 to 1982.
The Red Wolves swept NYIT last season in four games to mark its first season-opening sweep since a three-game sweep of Miami (Ohio) in 2014. The four-game sweep was the first four-game series sweep to open the season in program history and the first time the team won the first four games of the season since the team swept Bradley in three games and beat Memphis to begin the 2014 season.
The four-game sweep of the Bears was the first four-game sweep for A-State since 2010 when the team swept Wisconsin-Milwaukee in four games.
The Red Wolves were selected to finish fourth in the Sun Belt Conference’s West Division with 36 points, ahead of Little Rock (27) and ULM (11). Louisiana was chosen to win the division with 68 points and nine first-place votes, while UT Arlington followed with 56 points and two first-place tallies. Texas State was picked ahead of A-State in third with 51 points and the final first-place vote.
South Alabama was the unanimous choice to win the East Division with 72 points and all 12 first-place votes, while Coastal Carolina followed with 59 points. Georgia Southern was third with 43, followed by Troy (41), Georgia State (20), and Appalachian State (16).
South Alabama’s Travis Swaggerty was chosen as the Preseason Player of the Year, while Troy’s Andrew Crane was the Preseason Pitcher of the Year. No Red Wolves were named Preseason All-Conference.
A-State finished 28-27 last season for its first winning season since 2014 and was 13-16 in league play to earn the seventh seed in the SBC Tournament. A-State went 2-1 in the conference tournament to become the only squad in the Sun Belt to win at least two games in the last eight conference tournaments.
A-State scored 40 runs between the final game of the regular season against Little Rock (19-2 win) and the first game of the SBC Tournament versus Georgia State (21-4 win). In the win over Little Rock, the team tallied 18 hits, drew nine walks, and tied the school record with eight hit-by-pitches. Alex Howard, Justin Felix, and Jeremy Brown each had three RBI in the game. In the win over Georgia State, the 21 runs was one shy of the most scored in a SBC Tournament contest (22 by Jacksonville in 1994). Howard hit a three-run homer in the game, while Drew Tipton hit the team’s only grand slam of the season.
Those two high-scoring affairs happened after A-State played an 18-inning game with Little Rock that ended with a Justin Felix walk-off single May 18. The 18-inning game is the second longest in school history after a 22-inning contest against Murray State in 1960 that ended in a 9-9 tie due to darkness. Felix tied the school record with four walks in the game, a feat he also accomplished on Feb. 19 against NYIT. Jake Bakamus also tied that record with four walks in the game against Little Rock. Grant Hawkins and Alex Howard set the school record with nine at-bats each in the game, while Garrett Rucker struck out five times to tie a school record.
Prior to the Little Rock series, A-State shut out Ole Miss 5-0 behind seven strong innings from Bryan Ayers in front of a record crowd at Tomlinson Stadium of 1,188. This marks the second straight season A-State beat Ole Miss in Jonesboro and was also the first shutout of the Rebels in school history.
A-State set a couple of school records last season as a team with the first being positive as the team was hit by 100 pitches. Jake Bakamus set the school record with 24 of his own and tied the school record with 45 for his career. The other team record wasn’t as positive with the pitching staff setting the walks record for the second straight season with 281, just one more than the 2016 staff.
Joe Schrimpf left A-State as its all-time leader in career RBI with 146. He passed Todd Baumgartner’s 139 on May 6 of last season against UT Arlington with his 140th.
Tyler Zuber became the highest draft pick in the MLB June Amateur Draft in school history when the Kansas City Royals chose him with the 180th pick in the sixth round. He was the first Sun Belt player taken off the board and his 2.06 ERA was the fourth best in school history with at least 50 innings pitched in a season.
Garrett Rucker tied the school record for triples in one game with two at Northwestern State Feb. 26 and shares the record with four other players. Rucker also tied the single-season record for strikeouts (65) along with Elliot Jacobs.
Grant Hawkins stole 19 bases in 2017 to give him the 12th most in a single season in school history.
258 and Counting for Raffo; New Faces on Staff
A-State head coach Tommy Raffo has a career record of 258-256-1 as he enters his 10th season at Arkansas State. The 258 wins are the third most at the school behind J.A. “Ike” Tomlinson and Bill Bethea.
Raffo has a completely new staff to assist him this season. Rick Guarno joined the staff as an assistant coach and recruiting coordinator with his most recent stint at UT Martin. Guarno played seven seasons of professional baseball before getting into coaching.
Rowdy Hardy is the team’s new pitching coach and comes to A-State from New Mexico Military Institute in Roswell, N.M. He played six seasons of professional baseball before getting into coaching.
Volunteer assistant Craig Massoni rounds out the staff and he just concluded his playing days after five seasons of professional baseball.
Breaking Down the Red Wolves
The 2018 version of the A-State baseball team features from nine different states and two more from Ontario, Canada. A-State has 17 Arkansans to lead the way with five players each from Missouri and Tennessee.
There are 20 upperclassmen on the roster with 10 seniors and 10 juniors, while there are two redshirt sophomores who are also draft eligible. The team has 11 freshmen, including Conrad Ray and Blake Wynn, who redshirted a season ago.
All in all, there are 15 newcomers with nine true freshmen and six JUCO transfers that are all in their junior year of eligibility.
A-State lost 10 lettermen from last season’s team and returns 18.