Feb. 12, 2014
By JACK BOGACZYK
HUNTINGTON, W.Va. – The closer is ready to open.
Marshall’s 2014 baseball team has only two seniors on a 32-player roster, and one of the veterans is expecting – and is expected – to lead the Thundering Herd against an upgraded Conference USA alignment.
“It’s been hard, being indoors so much,” said Ryan Hopkins, the Herd’s bullpen closer, of the frigid weather. “I’m excited. I can’t wait to get out and play. I’m sick of being inside.
“At the beginning of the year, they say a down-south team (has an advantage), but I don’t think it matters so much. At the beginning of the year, all teams are always going to make mistakes. More than ever, everybody is ready to go, ready to get out here and get it started because we’ve been inside for forever now. This winter never ends.”
The Herd will get that opportunity Saturday, when it is scheduled to face Georgetown at noon in the opener of a four-game trip to Winston-Salem, N.C. Hopkins’ lone fellow senior among the Herd, Josh King, gets the Opening Day start. Marshall plays Towson at noon Sunday, then finishes Monday afternoon in a doubleheader with host Wake Forest.
The season-opening games have been pushed back one day by weather.
The 6-foot-2, 245-pound Hopkins has been designated as Coach Jeff Waggoner’s closer. Last season, when King’s six saves led the Herd, Hopkins went 4-2 as a setup man, with a superb 2.54 ERA in 29 games. The Sardinia, Ohio, right-hander had 34 strikeouts and only 13 walks in 39 innings.
“Ryan’s a great leader who we can expect to lead us at the back of the bullpen,” Waggoner said. “He’s a hard thrower, and we’re counting on him to lead us in the late innings. He’s going to be the one we need to finish games for us.”
Throwing primarily fastballs and sliders – most often his “out” pitch – and an occasional changeup, Hopkins said he is ready for that job.
“Relief, to me, is pretty much all the same role,” Hopkins said when asked if he’d change his approach as the closer. “You basically come in and rely on your defense, more than starters do. You usually have less of an arsenal of pitches than a starter.
“When I go in, basically my mindset is get ground balls, weak contact, let my defense make plays for me -- and they were really good at that last year and that’s why I had success. My mindset is basically the same on that as it was last year.”
Hopkins, 22, is entering his third Marshall season. He moved to the Herd after pitching in 2010 for Tennessee Tech, then sat out 2011 under NCAA transfer rules. As an MU sophomore (2012), Hopkins was 1-3 with a 4.93 ERA in 19 games, including three starts.
Now, he’s ready to finish as a leader – in more ways than one.
“I feel that way, especially being in the bullpen,” Hopkins said. “I feel there’s a lot in the role to having experience -- coming in in certain situations -- than at other positions. I have to know how to set batters up, what to throw when, how to get out of those situations.
“I feel like I’ve been able to kind of coach the younger guys some already, and I hope that that will continue on throughout the season, helping the younger bullpen pitchers. I think they can learn a little from me. I’ve been there a time or two.”
He progressed under former Marshall pitching coach Joe Renner, and now is working with new pitching coach Josh Newman, the former Major Leaguer (Colorado, Kansas City) from Wheelersburg, Ohio. He joined the Herd last summer from the Ohio State staff.
“The timing of the pitching coach change, for me, is good,” Hopkins said. “Renner was more mechanics-oriented, and at that time in my career, that’s exactly what was needed, and so for three years I got to work with him and fine-tune my mechanics.
“I’m to the point now, mechanically, where I can pretty much be my own pitching coach. Whereas Coach Newman has less emphasis on mechanics and he’s been to the Major Leagues, he knows the little stuff to teach you, and he does that.
“There are different things to learn from both, and it’s been good for me to learn both aspects. Coach Newman knows a lot about calling pitches, the situational stuff, the work off the field, how to prepare because he’s been there at a high level.
“Mechanically, coach Newman hasn’t changed anything with me. He’s helped me a lot realizing situations and understanding how to pitch to hitter. He’s really good at that, bringing stuff I’d never realize or think of.”
Hopkins and his new pitching coach also have something else in common. Both were All-Ohio linebackers in high school, Hopkins a 2008 honorable mention Division II pick at Western Brown in Mount Orab, Newman a Division IV first team selection in 1999 at Wheelersburg.
Renner played a significant role in Hopkins’ move to Marshall after pitching for an Ohio Valley Conference title team at Tennessee Tech.
“He coached one of my summer teams while I was in high school, so I was familiar with him and when I decided to transfer, I got my release signed and I had no place to go,” Hopkins said. “But I knew Coach Renner, I’d worked with him before, and we worked really well together.
“Coach Waggoner and he decided to make me an offer. I did my research on Marshall and I knew Marshall was pumping guys out to the pros, and Coach Waggoner was one of the best at developing players. That’s exactly what I needed, so Marshall was my first call and it happened to work out so I didn’t have to look very long.”
Hopkins said his goal – “ever since I started playing” -- is to be selected in the MLB Draft in June, or at least have the opportunity to play pro baseball. He’ll have the chance to show his stuff against a C-USA that has gotten much stronger in baseball, losing three teams but gaining seven for a 13-team alignment in 2014.
Marshall was picked to finish 12th in the preseason coaches’ poll, but one thing hasn’t changed from last season’s nine-team standings. Only the top eight make the C-USA Tournament in late May at Southern Mississippi.
“I think it’s the same mindset for us, no matter what changed (in C-USA),” Hopkins said. “I know some good programs have come in, but I don’t exactly know how good. Basically, we have to win now.
“Instead of one team not making the tournament, it’s five teams, so the urgency is probably higher because before you just had to not finish last and you got in. It’s tougher now.”
Hopkins, an environmental science major, said he’s been trying to savor his last season with the Herd – whether he’s been shivering during the few outdoor workouts or pitching from the portable mounds indoors at Gullickson Gym.
“That’s kind of been the experience for me so far,” Hopkins said when asked about savoring his senior year. “I am approaching it differently. You learn to appreciate things that you might have overlooked in the past.
“Like something in practice, it might just hit you, ‘I might not get to do this much longer, this might be my last go-round.’ There are a lot of little things you take for granted. Before, I kind of didn’t like practice. This year, I look forward to it because next year at this time I might be working somewhere every day. I’m trying to appreciate the game more.”