Florida Atlantic’s 4-0 start, which included a pair of convincing wins against preseason No. 15 Mississippi State, was one of the big stories of college baseball’s opening weekend. It was a loud statement on the field, but it was even more impressive given what the Owls have gone through off the field.
Head coach John McCormack didn’t make the trip to Starkville with his team because his doctors told him he couldn’t risk getting an infection less than three weeks removed from his last chemotherapy session. In August, a tumor was discovered in McCormack’s parotid gland, in his right cheek next to his ear. It was cancerous; he had surgery in October and has gone through 30 treatments of radiation and 12 rounds of chemotherapy.
“It has absolutely wore me out,” McCormack said. “I’ve had to do everything through a feeding tube. The radiation focused on my mouth and my throat—it’s awful. The last radiation I had was Dec. 24, and the next two weeks were the worst. My mouth was literally bleeding.
“I have not missed one practice, but I’ll tell you, it’s been difficult. I come to work, I do what I have to do, then I go home and go right to bed.”
McCormack watched the Week 1 games via online video feed, and he couldn’t have been more proud of the way his players and assistant coaches handled themselves. Especially since his cancer wasn’t the only difficult blow this team has had to absorb in the offseason. Starting catcher Kevin Abraham was dealing with arm soreness all fall, and doctors eventually discovered a tumor in his right arm, near his bicep. He was diagnosed with Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma in early December. He’s no longer with the team or even enrolled in school, and his battle really struck a nerve with the other players.
“At one point—and this is when I started crying—he asked the doctors, ‘When can I play baseball again?’ The doctor said, ‘Whoa, we’ve got to get this tumor checked out. You may lose your arm. Baseball’s not even on the radar right now, let’s just get you healthy.’”
McCormack said he keeps in constant contact with Abraham, who is staying positive. He’s halfway through his chemo sessions—three down, three to go—and then must go through some radiation. But Abraham has a strong support network through his teammates and his coach, who knows exactly what he’s going through.
Without Abraham, FAU has little experience behind the plate, where sophomore Gunnar Lambert (who had five at-bats last year) moved from third-string catcher last year to starter this year. The backup catcher, Tyler Frank, was converted from the infield in December; he hadn’t caught a game since his freshman year in high school. “He had a few passed balls, a few lapses, but surpassed all of our expectations for the weekend,” McCormack said.
And that’s the thing about adversity: Sometimes, it can bring out the best in a team—even extreme adversity like the Owls have dealt with.
“I think it’s brought everybody a little bit closer together,” McCormack said. “They really care about each other, they play for each other. We have a core group of guys that have been playing together a long time. Stephen Kerr, Esteban Puerta, C.J. Chatham— those guys have played together a long time, previous to them getting here.”
FAU’s core group of six or seven upperclassmen in the lineup provide leadership, but they also provide significant offensive punch and defensive stability. Chatham at short and Kerr at second have a rapport that goes back a long way, making them one of the top double-play tandems in college baseball. Kerr is the quintessential on-base machine at the top of the lineup, and Chatham is a talented run producer who hits for average and racks up doubles. Chatham is also the team’s best prospect, a premier athlete with serious defensive gifts.
“C.J. is remarkable. He has a perfect blend of wanting to do well, but more importantly, wanting to win. He really, really wants to win, really wants to do things to help the team win, even though it’s his draft year,” McCormack said. “He’s big into that, which is nice—not all the time does that happen when you get to your junior year. This guy is a plus-plus defender, plus range, plus athleticism, and he’s hit the whole time too.”
Puerta, the imposing first baseman, can also really hit, and he came into his own as a redshirt sophomore last year. He batted .305/.432/.487 with seven homers in 2015, and he’s off to a torrid start this spring, going 10-for-16 (.625) with a homer, two doubles and eight RBIs over FAU’s first four games in Starkville. He’s worked hard to improve his pitch selection, and has learned to lay off breaking balls in the dirt while punishing mistake pitches.
“Ever since he came back from summer ball, his at-bats have been so much better, he’s swung at good pitches,” McCormack said. “He’s an engineering major, very intelligent. There’s a certain way guys got him out last year, and at least his first four games, he laid off those pitches. There were times he understood Mississippi State was pitching around him, and he took his walks. In the past, early in the count, he’d look for too good a pitch. He wants to be so precise, he’s looking at millimeters instead of general areas. He’s opened that up a little bit.”
The top six or seven hitters in FAU’s lineup make this offense very formidable. Senior center fielder Billy Endris was a force in the No. 2 hole during opening weekend, going 7-for-16 with six RBIs. He’s a sterling defensive center fielder who commands an outfield that became depleted after projected starting left fielder Jared Shouppe went down with a torn ACL. Two other seniors, OF Christian Dicks and 3B/OF Brett Lashley, bring abundant experience, and Dicks has significant home run power (he tied for the team lead with eight home runs last year).
And junior Sean Labsan’s emergence as a hitter has helped lengthen the lineup. Labsan was a 15th-round pick out of high school as a pitcher, and he logged just 74 at-bats over his first two collegiate seasons. The Owls have always been intrigued by his raw power, but he had a tendency to swing and miss often early in his career. Now he’s showing a more mature approach, and he’s started all four games at DH, going 5-for-14 (.357) with two doubles.
Labsan spent much of last season as a midweek starter, where he was an effective weapon against a stout in-state schedule. He had minor labrum surgery in the summer but has recovered quickly, and he was able to throw two innings in the first weekend. At full strength, he pitches at 89-91 from the left side with a swing-and-miss breaking ball, and he figures to factor into the rotation at some point when he builds up strength.
In the meantime, FAU will go forward with a nice group of weekend starters who throw strikes and compete but lack overpowering stuff. Senior lefthander Brandon Rhodes is a consistent bulldog on Fridays with good command of an 85-88 fastball, a very good changeup and solid breaking ball. Redshirt sophomore righty David McKay was an intriguing prospect out of high school who was derailed by Tommy John surgery, but he has recovered from that and now works in the 88-91 range with a very good breaking ball and adequate changeup. And juco transfer Marc Stewart is an ultra-competitive mid-80s sinker/slider guy who has all the savvy you’d expect from the son of a minor league pitching coach.
The biggest arm on the staff belongs to 6-foot-5 junior righty Colyn O’Connell, a juco transfer who fits best in the bullpen, potentially as the closer. O’Connell can reach 95 mph and is working on tweaking his breaking ball to get more swing-and-misses on it. FAU’s other big guns in the bullpen are converted catcher Cameron Ragsdale, max-effort fireballer Mark Nowatnick and left-on-left specialist Devon Carr.
Ragsdale is a tenacious competitor who relies primarily on his outstanding changeup—which is why McCormack calls him a “Trevor Hoffman-type guy.” Carr mixes a mid-80s fastball with a good breaking ball and solid changeup, and his breaking ball makes him very tough on lefties.
“Mark Nowatnick has one thing in mind: Throwing as hard as he possibly can,” McCormack said. “He’ll get up to 94, got a little bit of a wrinkle.”
It’s not a lights-out pitching staff by any means, but it performed very well against Mississippi State and South Dakota State this weekend, posting a 2.75 ERA. Even if the staff is average, FAU can win a lot of games and compete for another postseason berth thanks to hits outstanding lineup.
The Owls weren’t projected as a regional team in the preseason after losing stars Brendon Sanger and Ricky Santiago plus weekend starters Drew Jackson and Kyle Miller. But after one week, the college baseball world has taken notice of Florida Atlantic.
“They feel good about themselves,” McCormack said. “The message was, “Hey, what we did this past weekend was fabulous, but we’ve got to put that away now. We’ll take it out at the end of the year, the committee will look at it, but right now it doesn’t mean anything, we’ve got to move on.’”