When outsiders look at his baseball team, Kenny Thomas knows they have two losses in mind.
How will USC Aiken replace Bradley Key and Ashley Farr, key cogs in the Pacers offense a year ago?
"I'm sure people look at our team and see we lost Farr and Key and think we're not very good," said, Thomas, who is in his sixth year. "But I think we're very good top to bottom."
Thomas will look to prove naysayers wrong when USC Aiken begins its season at 4 p.m. today against Lincoln Memorial at Roberto Hernandez Stadium. Senior right-hander Steve Dunham is expected to get the start.
The Pacers are seeking their fifth-consecutive 30-win season. Last year, USC Aiken finished 30-26, but just 12-18 in the Peach Belt Conference. Thomas admits it's taken awhile to turn the program around since his arrival in the summer of 1999.
"It's been a long 5 years," he said. "It's been a lot harder than I thought when I took this job. But we've made strides.
"We just have to get over the hump. Hopefully, this is our year."
To get USC Aiken to the Peach Belt's pinnacle, Thomas first must find a way to replace the production of Farr and Key. Last year, the pair combined to hit 23 of the team's 42 home runs and recorded 110 of the team's 321 RBI. Key also hit a team-best .388, while Farr was the team's fourth-best hitter (.352).
"Obviously, it's very difficult to replace two hitters like that," Thomas said. "They were both very good offensively.
"But I feel we're a better offensive team than we were a year ago. Do you want a lineup with two guys who hit .380 and the rest hit .250? Or do you want nine guys who hit around .300?"
Junior catcher/first baseman Robert Davis is the team's top returning hitter (.364, five homers, 51 RBI). Senior second baseman Daniel Quartararo hit .362 with four homers and 30 RBI.
Dunham (4-9, 3.14 ERA), the team's No. 1 starter last year returns, along with senior Derek Claussen (5-5, 4.57) and sophomore Peden Rucker (4-2, 3.80). Junior closer Nick Wandless (5-1, 2.98, 4 saves) also is back.
Southpaw Bobby White, a senior transfer from South Carolina and former North Augusta standout, will get a start this weekend. However, Thomas said he's not locked into the starting rotation.
"I really don't know we have a 1, 2, 3," Thomas said. "We're not going to send a guy out there who's an unbelievable stopper. We're going to use our entire staff."
CONFERENCE: Peach Belt
COACH: Kenny Thomas, sixth year (156-121)
2004 RECORD: 30-26
2004 POSTSEASON: None
RETURNING STARTERS: C Bob Hatcher (Sr., .252, 3 HR, 17 RBI); 1B Robert Davis (Jr., .364, 5 HR, 51 RBI); 2B Daniel Quartararo (Sr., .362, 4 HR, 30 RBI); OF Zach Cooper (So., .273, 5 2B, 29 runs); OF Brandon Barenie (Sr., .234, 6 2B, 19 BB); DH Chris Sheehan (Jr., .250, 2 HR, 14 RBI); RHP Nick Wandless (Jr., 5-1, 2.98 ERA, 4 saves); RHP Steve Dunham (Sr., 4-9, 3.14 ERA, 93 K, 27 BB); RHP Derek Claussen (Sr., 5-5, 4.57 ERA, 31 K, 34 BB)
PLAYERS TO WATCH: 1B Matt Tripp (Sr.); 3B Steven Kinney (Jr.); 2B Ben Tankersley (Jr.); LHP Bobby White (Sr.); OF/P Scott Wandless (Fr.)
KEEP AN EYE ON: Dunham. The senior right-hander fell short in the luck department last year, despite a solid ERA and great strikeout-to-walk ratio. He's due for plenty of wins and should get them if he continues to pitch well.
NOTES: The Pacers have won 30 games for four consecutive season. ... USC Aiken lost its top power duo in Bradley Key and Ashley Farr, who combined for 23 of the team's 42 home runs and recorded 110 of the team's 321 RBI.
OUTLOOK: The Pacers should be fine on the mound, but can this team score runs? Opening conference series against USC Upstate and Columbus State the first two weeks should provide the answer.
- Chris Gay