Raider strengths start up the middle

Those big eyes from new Raiders back in the fall are getting focused with their season kicking off Friday.

“The first three weeks of September, saw a lot of big eyes, a lot of insecurities in the freshmen. It was a pretty good eye-opener,” Three Rivers coach Stacey Burkey said. “And as the fall progressed into October, seeing those same guys who were a little bit wondering if they belonged or not. It was really neat to see their progression through the fall. We finished really well in October.”

The Raiders return six sophomores, among them their leading home run hitter in Nick Fakouri.

Fakouri, who will catch and be a designated hitter, led the team with nine home runs, 18 doubles and a .391 batting average.

Freshman Tate Vestal is a switch-hitting catcher who walked onto the Arkansas football team last year, decided baseball was a better way to go and worked out for the Raiders last summer before they picked him up.

“Keeping him and Fukuri in at the same time will be a little bit of a challenge,” Burkey said.

Starting from the catcher spot, Three Rivers is expected to be strong up the middle.

Roberto Mejia and Zane Wallace return as middle infielders with the middle infield addition of freshman Andrew Lara is solid defensively, as well.

Wallace hit .270 last season with four doubles and 15 RBIs while Mejia hit .321 with nine doubles, four home runs and 25 RBIs.

Freshman Alex Cauley is expected to start in center field and bat leadoff.

“Really made some big strides there,” Burkey said.

Returning Sophomore Brenton Tidd and sophomore transfer Chris Vervoordt should be solid RBI contributors at first base and will add a right/lefty combo for the Raiders. Tidd had four RBIs in 25 at-bats as a freshman.

Freshman Yancy Poorman gives Three Rivers a versatile third baseman who can play second and shortstop, as well.

In the corner outfield spots, there will be a mix of about five different guys between returning sophomores Kyle Clayton, Palmer Campbell and Zac Salyers, and freshmen Bryan Montanez and Hunter Gray.

Clayton and Campbell each hit four home runs last year while Salyers had a .417 on-base percentage in 29 at-bats.

Campbell will also pitch some and will start Game 4 for the Raiders this weekend.

“Pitching wise we are pretty deep but we have got a few guys on the shelf that are just not quite ready now,” Burkey said, adding that he’ll have 11 healthy arms for the opening weekend. “I’d like to be able to throw three guys each game, but we’re probably going to have to stretch one or two guys four innings.”

Poplar Bluff alum Sam Pierce is one of four lefties and is expected to come out of the bullpen.

“He might spot start occasionally and he’ll be a good go-to guy in the bullpen,” Burkey said.

Ellington’s Cameron Brewer was throwing well early in the fall, but his velocity decreased dramatically near the end of September and Burkey said he had to be shut down. Brewer didn’t need surgery and has progressed through a throwing program. Burkey said he’s looked good, but his pitch volume needs to build up a little more. He could be used to get an out this weekend, but Burkey said he’d prefer to wait another week.

“Our pitching staff is going to be pretty durable once we get a few more guys added back in soon,” Burkey said.

Kieren Hall, who pitched for the Australian national team, will start on the mound in the season opener.

“He’s got fastball, slider, changeup. A good live arm,” Burkey said.

Chad Donze will start Game 2 with Noah Stone starting Game 3.

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