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Playoffs, Winnipeg vs. Lincoln, 9/6/17

Lincoln Saltdog starter Shairon Martis pitches to the Winnipeg Goldeyes in the first inning last September during the first round of the American Association playoffs at Haymarket Park.

On the Chinese Zodiac, 2018 is the year of the dog.

That may be good news for the Lincoln Saltdogs, who are looking to repeat as division champions and make a run at the American Association title.

Lincoln returns a record-setting infield and a pitching rotation that set numerous franchise records last season.

“The familiarity of 11 or 12 returning guys helps you know what they are capable of doing on a nightly basis,” Saltdogs manager Bobby Brown said Monday during the team's media day. “We are real excited about the other 12 or 13 guys in camp to see what they can do too.”

Six pitchers that helped Lincoln compile a franchise-record 3.75 ERA in 2017 return.

Lincoln native Derek Gordon will be in his second season with the Saltdogs after going 9-5 last year, including a stretch when the Saltdogs won eight straight games he started.

He'll be joined by returning starters Shairon Martis and Cesilio Pimentel. Martis has made 51 appearances for the Dogs from 2015-17, going 19-12 with a 3.34 ERA. Pimentel joined the team midway through last season and did not allow a run in his first eight appearances. Pimentel's contract was later bought by the Arizona Diamondbacks' organization, but that didn't work out, and now he's back in Lincoln.

“It's huge,” Gordon said of the Saltdogs' experienced pitching staff. “Bobby actually called me in the offseason and said 'Are you ready to come back?' and in 2 seconds I was ready. He said 'OK, well, get ready, because we are going to have one of the best pitching staffs in Saltdogs history.”

In 2017, the pitching staff also set franchise records in strikeouts (720) and opponent batting average (.251), and allowed a franchise-low 52 home runs.

“I said, 'Are you sure?' because we had a pretty good staff last year, an extraordinary staff,” Gordon said. “For (Brown) to say that, he's not going to say that without feeling that and if he is already feeling that, that is just exciting.”

Lincoln also returns J.R. Bunda and Dimitri Kourtis in the bullpen. Bunda led the Saltdogs with a 10-1 record despite not making a single start last year.

The team also returns the league's best infield, which committed just 65 errors in the regular season for a franchise low and also boasted an American Association-record .982 fielding percentage.

The reigning Central Division champions bring back first baseman Nathaniel Maggio, second baseman Cesar Valera, shortstop Ivan Marin and third baseman Christian Ibarra. Dashenko Ricardo returns behind the plate, and Curt Smith is also back for another season. Brandon Jacobs is the only returning outfielder listed on the preseason roster.

"Our team chemistry was great in the infield," said Maggio, who hit seven home runs in his rookie season. "We really took pride in our defense all year and I think that is why we went so far and had a successful year. We really focus on our defense and have guys that don't take their at-bats out to the field."

The Saltdogs, who lost in the playoff semifinals last year, begin the regular season May 17 at Haymarket Park against Sioux City.

Reach the writer at 402-473-7431 or tgray@journalstar.com.

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