First-year coach Jordan Bischel previews 2019 baseball season

Central Michigan baseball coach Jordan Bischel calls out to his team at practice on Feb. 11 at Turf Bay in the Indoor Athletic Complex.

A lot has changed in the past eight months for the Central Michigan baseball team.

For starters, now-former coach Steve Jaksa "retired" and Northwood University's Jordan Bischel was brought in to lead the program.

Star players Michael Brettell, Dazon Cole and Daniel Robinson all left school early to pursue a professional career in baseball.

Regardless of the culture change from Jaksa to Bischel, there are 56 games of baseball to be played. It all begins at 7 p.m. Feb. 15 against Troy in Alabama.

"I know how much time these guys have put in," Bischel said. "In some ways, it's a long season, but it's a short spring. By the end of May, the season is already over. I know how exciting it is for the players to finally have that chance to get out there and compete."

Bischel's starting rotation consists of senior right-hander Pat Leatherman, junior left-hander Tyler Hankins, junior right-hander Cameron Brown and junior right-hander Zach Kohn.

In the 2018 season, Leatherman helped anchor the Chippewas with a 2-5 record, 3.51 earned run average, 77 strikeouts and just 17 walks in 11 starts. He tossed 59 innings. Hankins was 2-5 with a 4.60 ERA in 12 starts before sustaining a back injury in early May.

"He's got a ton of experience and is a fifth-year guy," Bischel said of Leatherman. "We call him 'Grandpa Pat.'"

Sophomore right-handed pitcher Logan Buczkowski and senior left-hander Jack Collins are the two closers in Bischel's bullpen.

If the Chippewas had a lead by one run in the ninth inning as of tomorrow, Bischel said he would go with Buczkowski. However, CMU plans to pick the hot hand and evaluate matchups when choosing between both closers throughout the season.

Buczkowski, in the 2018 season as a freshman, threw 38.2 innings in 18 appearances. He boasted a 2-1 record and 6.05 ERA while obtaining a 53-to-38 strikeout-to-walk ratio.

"Logan struggled to find the strike zone at times (last season), but he clearly has some ability to miss bats," Bischel said. "I think he's going to grow a lot this season."

In the outfield, Bischel said junior Zach Gilles and senior Jacob Crum will play every day in center and right field, respectively. The left field spot will be a rotation between sophomore Gaoshua Williams, sophomore Chase Rollin, senior David Cole and senior Ty Rollin.

However, Williams is expected to see the most time in left.

As for the second base, shortstop and third base positions, those spots will be controlled by four returners – junior Zach Heeke, sophomore Zavier Warren, senior Jason Sullivan and Chase Rollin. Heeke and Rollin are expected to get the most time at third base, while Warren and Sullivan fill out the middle of the infield.

"Those guys have played a ton of baseball and will continue to play," Bischel said of his infield.

Senior Blake Cleveland, sophomore Griffin Lockwood-Powell and senior Evan Kratt are all set to spend time at first base, catcher and designated hitter throughout the season. 

Central Michigan senior outfielder Jacob Crum tosses the baseball at Turf Bay in the Indoor Athletic Complex on Feb. 11.

When Bischel took over at Northwood in 2014, the Timberwolves hit just eight home runs in the previous season. During the 2018 season, Northwood launched 46 home runs and posted a 46-13 overall record.

Under Jaksa one season ago, CMU belted 12 home runs. Of those hits to go over the fence, four came off the bat of Lockwood-Powell. Bischel hopes to increase the home run and extra base total by putting an emphasis on doing damage and driving the ball with authority.

"I expect we will have a lot more extra base hits, and Griff is a guy who already has a little bit of a track record doing that," Bischel said. "We have a lot of guys capable of driving it in the gaps who are finally finding that swing to make it happen."

Lockwood-Powell was only able to take 167 at bats in 2018 due to a lingering injury. He also spent most of the campaign as the designated hitter due to the health setback. The slugger logged a .311 batting average, four dingers and 36 runs batted in.

Bischel said Lockwood-Powell had offseason hip surgery in late June and is finally back to full health.

"He's totally healthy now," Bischel said. "He missed a quite a bit of the fall, but he's ready to go. He's going to catch, play first base and (designated hitter). He should be a real impact player for us."

Following a 29-30-1 mark under Jaksa in 2017, Bischel plans to bring the merriment into baseball this season.

"I don't know if it's different from before, but we are putting pride in enjoying the experience," Bischel said. "You only get four years to do this. Before you know it, it's over.

"It will fly by on these guys."