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College baseball: After 15 road games, Minnesota West slides into home

WORTHINGTON -- Already 15 games into the season, the Minnesota West Bluejays baseball team is set to play its home opener today against Rainy River. The first home game of the season signifies the beginning of what head coach TD Hostikka calls th...

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Leading the Minnesota West baseball team this spring are (front, from left) Naythan J. Arroyo Borrero, Pedro A. Perez Sanchez, Gustavo Landin, Carlo Zorola, Jose A. Martinez, Luis J Hernandez Rosado, (back row) Jeremie Garcia, Cory Apperson, Sam Wankier, Izak Davenport, Jahn Muriel, Eric Dominguez and Eric W. Alicea Pachero. (Tim Middagh / Daily Globe)

WORTHINGTON -- Already 15 games into the season, the Minnesota West Bluejays baseball team is set to play its home opener today against Rainy River. The first home game of the season signifies the beginning of what head coach TD Hostikka calls the second part of their season after opening with a trip to Florida that saw the NJCAA Division III outfit face off with Division I and Division II competition.

“We scheduled a very tough non-conference schedule,” Hostikka said. “We moved up a bracket in Florida and were the only Division III team. Everybody else was one or two divisions higher than us. Last weekend, we traveled to a Division I team in Preston, Iowa -- Southwestern Iowa Community College.”

The Bluejays, who stand at 3-12, went 1-3 against Southwestern Iowa last weekend, picking up a 6-5 win in the first leg of the Sunday doubleheader. Second baseman Pedro Perez batted .468 in the weekend series and looks to be a major contributor to the squad as the season progresses.

“He is leading our team in batting average,” the coach said. “He’s not where he wants to be and not where I want him to be, but he is coming along. He’s a very strong kid.”

Returning only four players from last year, none of whom were regular starters, the Bluejays feature 34 freshmen and will often play with lineups entirely composed of first-year players.

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“We were all freshmen in the lineup on Sunday, when we beat the Division I team,” Hostikka said.

Despite the turnover, Minnesota West will not alter its aggressive style of play from years past. After finishing first in the country in stolen bases and seventh in batting average in 2016, the plan of attack remains the same in 2017 with a squad whose strength is its speed.

“We have incredible team speed, but we have to get on base first to utilize that speed,” Hostikka said. “We have to be able to move those guys around. We have to bunt, bunt for singles, put pressure on the defense. And that’s what we’re set up to do.”

As well as Perez, some position players to watch for the Bluejays include third baseman Carlos Zorola, first baseman Luis Hernandez and right fielder Rey Torres.

Hostikka says Zorola, a freshman from Mexico has a good glove, a good arm, a good demeanor on the field and will hit well. Hernandez, is naturally a left infield player, but Hostikka wanted to find a place for him in the lineup and he has played well at first.

“We wanted his stick and we wanted his baseball ability,” the coach said. “He can really catch the ball, so we moved him to first base. He’s a big target, he can pick it really nicely.”

The right fielder, Torres, has the strongest arm in the outfield, according to his coach, and showed some pop with the bat in Florida, hitting a 425-foot home run.

On the mound, the Bluejays feature a trio of solid starters in Eric Alicea, Naythan Arroyo and Jose Martinez. Alicea has two wins this season, 2.73 ERA, and has notched double digit strikeouts twice.

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“He’s going to start off any weekend for us,” Hostikka said.

Arroyo, a  left-handed freshman, has an 86-88 mph fastball and has good offspeed pitches as well.

Martinez has a 91-mph fastball, but his coach says his greatest asset is his even-keeled demeanor.

“He had bases loaded in the bottom of the sixth -- he walked a batter, hit a batter and there was a fielding miscue,” Hostikka said. ”He struck out the next two batters and induced a pop fly and walked off the field like he had just thrown three ground ball outs.”

The Bluejays won 25 games in 2016, and have set their sights on some team goals for a squad that the coach says is deeper than the 2016 version, and hope they can improve that total.

We want to have a higher team batting average and steal some more bases,” Hostikka said. “Whether or not we increase our win total, that remains to be seen.”

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