The task of replacing former shortstop T.J. Baumet is not an easy one for coach Alex Marconi. Neither is filling two spots in the Cardinals' weekend rotation. But Marconi's job was made a bit easier this winter by the development of sophomore T.J. Weir.
When Ball State opens its season this weekend with three games in Spartanburg, S.C., Weir will start the first two games as shortstop. Then, on Sunday, he will be the Cardinals' starting pitcher.
Weir said he knows Marconi has to strongly believe in him to put just one player into such an important pair of roles. Weir said some of that has rubbed off on him as well.
"It gives me a good amount of confidence knowing that the coaches are willing to put me in a pretty serious role to start the season off," he said.
While it is not uncommon to have two-way players in college, they generally are not asked to play a premium defensive position, like shortstop, as well as being a starting pitcher. But Marconi and the Cardinals have experience with an infielder also serving as a member of the weekend rotation. For three years, Kolbrin Vitek was a two-way threat for Ball State before being taken 20th overall by the Boston Red Sox in the 2010 MLB Draft.
As was the case with Vitek, Weir will pitch on Sunday to ease the stress on his arm. On those days, freshman Elbert Devarie will play shortstop. Marconi will also have to make sure Weir gets enough rest during the season to keep up with the demands of being a two-way player.
"The trick is to allow him to do that but also not beat himself up too much so that we're in May at the [Mid-American Conference] Tournament and he's running on fumes," Marconi said. "He's a big, strong kid so he should be able to handle that."
As a freshman, Weir was a utility infielder and pitched out of the bullpen. He hit .236 in 106 at-bats and went 1-1 with a 6.75 ERA in 12 appearances on the mound, totaling 20 innings.
Marconi said he was impressed with Weir's fastball-curveball combination last year, but that it just didn't produce enough outs. During the fall, pitching coach Jeremy Plexico worked with Weir to lower his arm slot so that he throws more three-quarters, mimicking his throwing motion at shortstop.
Both Marconi and Weir said they are pleased with the results of the changed delivery. Weir said he hasn't lost any velocity off his fastball, which usually sits in the upper-80s, and has added more movement.
"It was something that we were thinking about, playing around with in the fall and winter," Weir said. "We were just going to see how it worked out and it's been playing pretty well."
If Weir is able to control his fastball from the new arm slot, Marconi said he is confident it will lead to much more success from the right-hander.
"I think he'll get a lot of mishits, a lot of swings and misses, just based on changing the arm slot and the ball moving," Marconi said. "It's not a drastic change. We just lowered him a little bit, that's all."
In addition to the mechanical change, Weir said he thinks he is mentally prepared to take a step forward this year thanks to the experience he gained a year ago. After a year of watching how Ball State's veterans handle themselves, he is ready for his expanded role.
"I'm kind of over the whole awe factor of college baseball," Weir said. "It's a totally different atmosphere as far as experience. Just one year under my belt helped a lot."
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