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The Wilson Tobs’ Coastal Plain League opener is still two weeks away but the summer collegiate baseball team will play a pair of exhibition games in Fleming Stadium before launching CPL play at home Thursday, May 31, against the Peninsula Pilots.
The Tobs will host the Fuquay-Varina Twins on Sunday, May 27, and the Catawba Valley Stars on Tuesday, May 29. Both opponents are members of the Carolina-Virginia Collegiate League.
For the Tobs front office personnel and fans, the 2018 season can’t get here fast enough. The team lost 37 games last season — the most in the club’s 21 seasons in the CPL — and was never really a factor in the playoff race. But with one move in the offseason, expectations for the 2018 season high.
“It’s easier to say we’re going to have a better season than last year because we’ve got a coach who’s won and knows how to get the job done,” said Tobs general manager Mike Bell.
Bell, of course, is referring to Bryan Hill, who will begin his second stint with the Tobs. Hill was the Tobs pitching coach in 2012 who was promoted to interim head coach when head coach Jason Immekus left in midseason. However, Hill did not return to the Tobs for the 2013 season. Instead, he got the job as head coach in Edenton and ended up as the CPL Coach of the Year. Hill’s four seasons with the Steamers rank among the best in league history as he directed them to three East Division titles and the Petitt Cup championship — something that has eluded the Tobs throughout their history — in 2015.
With complete autonomy in building the roster, Hill, the pitching coach for Chowan University the rest of the year, has completely revamped it. Of the 32 players currently listed on the team’s roster on its website, only left-handed pitcher Cody Smith was a Tob in 2017. Smith’s presence is due to a new rule in the CPL that allows players who have graduated to have played. Each team is now allowed four graduate players, provided they have exhausted their NCAA or NAIA eligibility. Because Smith has graduated from Chowan, he is allowed to play for his college coach. Undergraduate players are not permitted to play for a CPL team that employs one of their college coaches.
Smith appeared in 10 games for the Tobs last summer, starting nine of them, while posting a 1-6 record with an 8.49 ERA and a team-high 52 strikeouts. This spring the Rocky Mount High product started 11 games for the Hawks, going 4-3 with a 3.65 ERA and a team-high 82 strikeouts in 56 2/3 innings.
While there are no players from Wilson on the current roster, another former Gryphons pitcher may be familiar to Wilson fans. North Carolina State left-hander David Harrison has played well in his freshman season for the nationally ranked Wolfpack, going 1-2 with a 6.16 ERA and 27 strikeouts in 30 2/3 innings.
Bell said that Hill wanted to bring back outfielder Andre Nnebe, who hit .290 in 30 games for the Tobs in 2017, but the rising junior at Santa Clara University opted to play in the prestigious Cape Cod League this summer.
“We are still looking for four more pitchers because now is the point of the season where coaches will call and say, ‘He’s thrown too many innings,’” Bell said.
But Hill’s been busy, considering all aspects of the grueling CPL season.
“He’s got some guys coming in the second half. He’s got a plan,” assured Bell.
The 2018 CPL season will have some notable changes, including a few that should please those who think baseball games take too long. Bell said that four new rules should help move games along more quickly. There will be a two-minute time limit between half innings and new pitchers will only be allowed five warm-up throws on the mound. Also, there will be a limit of seven total mound visits per team in a game, including conferences between players on the mound. The standard rule of two mound visits per inning requires a pitching change still applies but if a team goes over the seven-visit limit for the game and the pitcher isn’t removed, the batter at the plate will be awarded first base.
The most dramatic rules change is the implementation of the international tiebreaker for extra-inning games. Starting with the top of the 10th inning, teams will begin the inning with runners on first and second. The runners will be the last two batters from the previous inning.
The other changes in the Coastal Plain League are straightforward. The addition of a new team, the Macon Bacon — who are actually the former Petersburg Generals — gives the league 16 teams. The CPL is now split into four divisions for the first time in its 22 seasons. The Tobs are in the North, along with traditional rivals Peninsula and Edenton as well as the Martinsville Mustangs. The East Division is comprised of the Fayetteville SwampDogs, the Holly Springs Salamanders, the Morehead City Marlins and the Wilmington Sharks. The South Division is the Bacon, the Savannah Bananas, the Lexington County Blowfish and the Florence RedWolves while the West Division has the Asheboro Copperheads, the Forest City Owls, the High Point-Thomasville HiToms and the defending CPL champion Gastonia Grizzlies.
The first- and second-half division champions (or the team with the next highest overall record in the case of a repeat winner in a division) will comprise the eight-team playoff bracket. However, the first-half winner in each division will host the opening round series, Bell said, noting another change for this season.
It is pretty rare that the exhibition games will count now that there’s four divisions. It’s one of the final tiebreakers and will probably never happen.
Off the field, Tobs fans can expect many of the same promotions they’ve grown to love over the years, including the traditional fireworks shows after the season opener and Fourth of July games. Including the CPL opener May 31, there will be eight Thirsty Thursday promotions. Bell said the beer garden down the first-base line in Fleming Stadium underwent a $15,000 renovation during the offseason and will be ready for business for the exhibition opener May 27. In addition the usual fan-favorite promotions such as the seventh annual Beer and BBQ Festival (June 2), School’s Out Summer Kickoff (June 7), Bark in the Park (June 10), sixth annual Home Run for Hunger (June 24) and Diggin’ in the Diamond (June 29), there are two new promotions in development — Christmas in July (July 15) and Whirligig Night (July 21).
“Almost every promotion we’ve got going benefits the community in Wilson in some way,” Bell said.
While it remains to be seen if the product on the field this season will match the excitement in the stands, Bell assures, “This is the year Tobs fans have been waiting for.”