Even as his team struggled to find wins in a rugged Southland Conference schedule last season, UNO baseball coach Ron Maestri knew one thing: The Privateers needed to figure out how to win close games.
And they needed to get better offensively.
After losing 22 games by two runs or less in 2014, Maestri figured a re-tooled lineup with more explosive bats could turn a team that finished 11-38 into one that could be competitive in the SLC.
“When you’re losing that many close games and you’re only scoring three or four runs, it’s obvious what we needed to do,” Maestri said. “We made sure to go out and add some guys to the lineup, and it’s really helped us here in the early part of the season. We just have to see if those guys can keep it up.”
The Privateers begin their conference schedule Friday when they travel to Sam Houston State for a three-game weekend series. Maestri believes his team is prepared to improve upon their paltry 2-28 conference record from last year because of the team’s improved lineup.
Through 13 games, the Privateers are fourth in the Southland in hits and fifth in runs, and they’ve already recorded as many double-digit scoring games (two) as they did all last season.
They’ve done all this with a completely rebuilt infield and a few additions to the outfield, creating a balanced lineup that’s produced seven different players (with at least 25 at-bats) that are currently hitting .250 or better.
“Having guys that can hit up and down the lineup is the biggest change for us, because now everybody is a threat,” Maestri said. “Now that we have so many guys that are good hitters, we can put runs on the board and not have to depend on our pitching to keep us in it.”
The biggest surprise amid the new, balanced lineup for the Privateers has been the play of first baseman Jonathan Coco. After finishing his first three seasons with no better than a .274 batting average, the former Shaw standout is hitting .353 through 13 games.
Maestri said Coco’s willingness to swing to all fields has been a big reason for his early-season hot streak.
“He’s been on fire, and it’s really because he’s been so patient at the plate,” Maestri said. “I always tell him that he’s capable of sending it to the opposite field when he waits for the right pitch, and he’s done a really good job of that this year.”
Another much-needed addition the Privateers made during the offseason was the signing of freshman pitcher Shawn Semple from Swedesboro, New Jersey.
Maestri said Semple has been “outstanding” in his first few starts on the Lakefront and much of his success has come from his calm presence on the mound.
Through his first three career starts, Semple is 1-1 in 16.1 innings. He has allowed 11 hits and two earned runs while striking out 16 batters.
“He’s been so great for us, and he just makes the game easy for everybody else,” Maestri said. “Pitchers have the advantage during this early part of the season while it’s still cold, but he’s been our best starter so far this year, no doubt.
“We’re going to trust him going forward because he’s earned it with the way he’s played. If he keeps it up, with the way we’ve been hitting, we should be in a good position once we get deeper into our schedule.”