TAMPA — Without prompting, University of South Florida baseball coach Lelo Prado set the tone for this season’s expectations.
“It’s time for this program to finish the job and get to a regional,’’ Prado said. “I won’t accept anything less.’’
If USF’s first NCAA regional appearance since 2002 is in the cards, the Bulls will rely upon their ace.
Sophomore right-hander Jimmy Herget, last season’s Big East Conference rookie of the year, is no longer a fresh-faced surprise. He can’t sneak up on anyone. He’s a key ingredient for USF. That’s a role he embraces as the Bulls open Saturday at the UNF Best Bet Classic in Jacksonville.
“I’m not thinking about last year,’’ said Herget, a Jefferson High product who was 6-2 with a 1.72 ERA. “I’m thinking like it’s a clean slate and I’m a freshman again. I want to come out and battle and basically try to prove to them why I’m the Friday night starter. Hopefully, I can go out there and get that first win every Friday.’’
Last season, Herget hoped to become a spot starter, perhaps a key part of the bullpen. But once he received an initial opportunity, once he proved he could throw strikes and not give in against the highest competition, Herget became a fixture on the mound.
“He’s a competitor,’’ Prado said. “He loves the challenge. A lot of guys don’t want to pitch against the good teams, but Jimmy Herget wants the ball against the top teams we play.’’
That fearlessness was noticed by his teammates.
“When he’s on the mound, you’re confident playing behind him,’’ USF shortstop Kyle Teaf said.
“He’s a bulldog,’’ Bulls pitcher Lawrence Pardo said.
This season, an even larger bulldog.
When he arrived at USF, the 6-foot-3 and rail-thin Herget was about 150 pounds, maybe. Now he’s up to 165.
“I just ate more, as much as I possibly could,’’ Herget said. “Tons of Muscle Milk and protein shakes. Tons of peanut butter-and-jelly sandwiches. It was a battle. I’d get five pounds up, go to bed, wake up and I’d lost seven pounds. … But I feel good.’’
Herget also should feel fresh. After his 94 innings of work as a freshman, Prado shut him down, prohibiting him from playing any summer ball. At first, Herget said he was mad. Eventually, he understood.
He didn’t pick up a baseball for six months — the longest stint of pitching inactivity in his life — and hopes that will add to his stamina and effectiveness.
“He’s bigger and stronger … and that’s a good and bad thing, because he’s throwing the ball a little harder,’’ Prado said. “He’s going to think he can just rare back and throw it by guys. When he’s good, he’s a pitcher (with just 27 walks last season). I’m hoping he continues that streak.’’
Prado said he expects USF to be led by its pitching, but he also believes the offense will be much improved with Teaf, second baseman Nik Alfonso and first baseman Buddy Putnam potentially leading the way, along with sophomore catcher Levi Borders and freshman right fielder Luke Borders, the sons of former major-leaguer Pat Borders.
The Bulls (36-22 last season) seemed in good shape for an NCAA regional bid, but they lost six of their final 10 games, including an abysmal finish at the Big East tournament in Clearwater. USF surrendered a seven-run lead against Connecticut, falling 8-7 on a walk-off wild pitch, then was eliminated by Rutgers 2-1.
The new-look American Athletic Conference — with the likes of UCF and Houston added to the mix — figures to be a more difficult challenge.
But Prado, entering the final year of his contract, has established the narrative. For USF, it’s the NCAA regional or bust.
Much of the burden will rest on Herget’s right shoulder.
“I’m ready,’’ Herget said. “I’m excited. I think we’re going to have a great year.’’
The wintry weather in the Northeast has played havoc with USF’s opening-weekend schedule.
The Bulls were scheduled to open a three-game home series against Maryland-Eastern Shore tonight. But USF’s opponent had to cancel because it couldn’t travel.
Instead, USF will participate in the University of North Florida’s Best Bet Classic at Jacksonville. Saturday, USF faces Liberty at noon and Richmond at 3 p.m. Sunday, USF meets host UNF at 3 p.m.