The veterans on Creighton’s baseball team know the value of being picked first in the Big East’s preseason poll.
“It’s great recognition for our program,” Creighton junior second baseman Jake Peter said. “But my freshman year, we were predicted No. 1 and we ended up eighth. Preseason rankings don’t really mean much to us.”
Still, Creighton will enter into its first season of Big East competition considered the team to beat, by an eyelash. The Bluejays received two first-place votes and 32 points in the poll released Thursday by the conference office.
Seton Hall also received two first-place votes and totaled 31 points, while St. John’s is picked third after receiving the other three first-place votes and 29 points. Rounding out the poll were Xavier (21 points), Georgetown (12), Butler (11) and Villanova (11).
The conference named Creighton senior outfielder Mike Gerber its preseason player of the year, while sophomore right-hander Tommy Strunc was selected the preseason pitcher of the year. Strunc, Gerber, Peter and reliever Bryan Sova were picked to the preseason all-conference team.
“It’s nice to be told you’re on top but you also have to take it with a grain of salt,” Strunc said. “We have to go out there and prove ourselves every single day. Yeah, we’re No. 1, but they also just put a giant target on the backs of our heads.”
Strunc is coming off a 2013 season in which he earned All-Missouri Valley honorable mention after compiling a 7-3 record with a 4.14 ERA. He struck out 55 batters in 71 2⁄3 innings while holding opposing hitters to a .201 batting average.
Developing a change-up to go with his fastball, which he estimates he threw 75 percent of the time last season, and a slider was Strunc’s offseason priority.
“I was a little one-dimensional last year, throwing a lot of fastballs,” Strunc said. “I’d throw in a slider here and there, and I’d throw a change maybe once or twice a game.”
He paused, smiled and added, “And it probably wasn’t going to be the best pitch.”
Instead of playing summer baseball, Strunc remained in Omaha, taking classes and working out.
“I took some time to rest my arm,” he said. “It was a little weird at first, not playing summer ball and getting a lot of innings under your belt. But I think it’s going to be really beneficial in the long run.”
In addition to seeing Strunc make progress with adding another pitch to his arsenal, Creighton coach Ed Servais believes the pitcher has made strides in developing a better presence on the mound.
“Veteran players just carry themselves differently,” Servais said. “All pitchers and all players are going to go through some adversity both in a season and a game. The beauty about having an older player is that he’s been through that and he understands how to stay the course and not panic.”
Like Strunc, Gerber was a unanimous selection for his preseason honor. He hit .328 with 31 RBIs, and led the Bluejays in home runs (five) and triples (six) in spite of missing 15 games because of an appendectomy.
Gerber’s early work in preseason practice, Servais said, indicates that he intends to build on his solid junior season.
“He’s becoming a more consistent player,” Servais said. “We’ve talked a lot to Mike about the next step in becoming the type of player he wants to become. So far, he’s been much more consistent.”
Creighton opens its season in a week when the Bluejays play a three-game series at Arkansas-Little Rock. They won’t face their first conference action until April 11 in a home series against Georgetown.
Servais joined his players in dismissing the importance of being picked first in the preseason.
“To me, preseason polls are based a lot on perception,” he said. “It’s nice to think that people perceive us as having a strong program, even though the teams in our league don’t know much about us and we know little about them.”