Western Michigan baseball is preparing for a season unlike any before, with 40 MAC games, four-game weekends, and no Mid-American Conference tournament.
WMU went 9-6 before the 2020 season was cut short by the COVID-19 pandemic, which was second-best in the MAC. The Broncos were recently picked to finish sixth in the conference by the preseason coaches' poll.
The Broncos return the entirety of its 2020 roster that ranked in the top 15 in the nation in scoring at 8.6 runs per game and stolen bases with 35. Add in the return of 2019 Second Team All-MAC shortstop Drew Devine and you have a loaded offense.
“It definitely increases the competition for at-bats, there’s no question about it,” said head coach Billy Gernon on the depth of the lineup. “What helped was when the MAC went to four games on the weekends. The fact that we don’t have midweeks (means) we’ll be spending a lot more time scrimmaging and doing things like that, polishing up skills. When you have four games on the weekend, it allows for guys to feel involved and get opportunities.”
The offense starts with Blake Dunn, who was named MAC Preseason Player of the Year by D1Baseball among many other accolades he has earned in his collegiate career. Dunn has hit .338 with seven home runs and 22 doubles in 108 games at WMU, producing a .883 OPS. His 47 stolen bases rank fourth in Bronco history.
“What makes Blake so unique is that you can’t just fight his power, or you can’t just fight his speed, you can’t just fight his good eye at the plate, you can’t fight his toughness because he’s willing to take a hit-by-pitch,” Gernon said. “He is a very well-rounded offensive player. His walks were high -- I think he was third or fourth in the Cape Cod in walks (Dunn was tied for fifth in the Cape Cod League with 22 walks in the summer of 2019), so he’s shown a great eye against the highest level of pitching in the country.”
With last season being cut short, many players got more playing time in summer leagues than they did in the regular season. Gernon said he was happy the players got to play over the summer and liked some of the performances, though he noted the differences in a wood bat league.
“One, it’s experience, and two, it’s confidence, the balancing factor is it’s wood (bats), so they’re pitching against wood and teams aren’t going to hit as high as (they would with aluminum),” Gernon said. “Dane (Armbrustmacher) was rewarded with an All-Star selection. (Hayden) Berg was not going to play, he was redshirted (in 2020). When he jumped in the Northwoods and did well against that level of competition, it just validated the recruit that we got.”
Armbrustmacher had a 1.41 ERA in 38 ⅓ innings, striking out 35 batters. His performance was highlighted by a five-inning no-hitter on Aug. 21. Berg struck out 30 batters in 21 2/3 innings with a 2.03 ERA. He started and won the Michigan Pod championship game, allowing just one hit and striking out nine batters in six innings.
Those two figure to be prominent pitchers for the 2021 Broncos, who will be led on the mound by 2019 second team All-MAC honoree Brady Miller and Easton Sikorski, who had a 2.13 ERA in 25 ⅓ innings in 2020.
“They compliment each other, 1-A and 1-B,” said Gernon of Miller and Sikorski leading the pitching staff. “Jack Huisman’s going to work his way into the rotation and then as we get closer to MAC (play), we’re going to have to identify a fourth starter, and right now that’s one of four or five different guys.”
Gernon continued, “Our pitching may not be what drives the train, but is going to possibly feed off of the offense and the defense and our pitching is good. It’s solid.”
The schedule will include more MAC games and more home games than WMU is used to, and Gernon said he and the team are excited to play more at home.
“We have 24 home games, that might be more than we had in 2018 and 2019 combined,” Gernon said. The Broncos played 28 home games those two years. “It’s great to play at home, our field is beautiful, we get to hit last here, last time I checked, and that’s a benefit too. We’re extremely looking forward to that.”