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Bearcats relishing underdog role as 2012 season gets underway

SEASON PREVIEW

February 24, 2012


Bearcats relishing underdog role as 2012 season gets underway

On paper, the 2012 Binghamton baseball team looks to be in rebuilding mode after absorbing heavy blows to graduation last spring. Gone are four starting field position players who hit in the top six of the lineup, four all-conference selections, the team’s No. 1 pitcher and top reliever, its all-time home run and RBI leader and its best offensive run producer from 2011.

As if that wasn’t enough of a challenge to overcome, the ’12 Bearcats will face daily practice and a 50-plus game schedule entirely away from home as construction is completed on the team’s new complex, set to open in July. But don’t talk to head coach Tim Sinicki about this being a “down” year for his program.

Sinicki, the four-time America East Coach of the Year who is entering his 20th season at the helm, likes his team’s chemistry, from the 17 returnees to a core of 14 newcomers. His program has captured four of the last five America East regular season titles and still owns the league’s best win percentage since 2004. Any dismissal of BU’s recent run of success, such as being relegated to fourth in the America East Preseason Coaches’ Poll, ruffles the feathers of the longest-tenured coach at the University.

“I really like our ball club and I really don’t like preseason polls,” Sinicki said of his team’s position by opposing coaches, the program’s lowest in seven years. “So I am fine with just preparing our team for the season and letting them decide where we finish come May.” 

Despite an abundance of talent, the 2011 Bearcats didn’t finish strong last May, losing eight of their last nine games to suffer a quick exit from the conference tournament after placing third with 13 league wins. That potent lineup also absorbed 12 losses by two or fewer runs which led to a relatively disappointing 21-win season.

This spring the Bearcats return three all-conference players, including a pair of first-teamers, but could have as many as five underclassmen in the starting lineup. Sinicki knows, however, that championships are more frequently won with timely performances in May. Eight of the last nine regular season winners have come up short at the conference tournament with the only exception being the 2009 Bearcats.

“Fifty-one games is a long season and the key to success is to have the team playing well during conference play and peaking heading into the conference tournament,” Sinicki said. “Historically our guys have done a great job with that mindset and I expect this season to be no different.”

Righthanded ace Augliera leads pitching staff that may surprise
After graduating all-conference pitchers James Giulietti and Zach Juliano and spending the off-season rooting for former Bearcat hurlers in the pro ranks (Scott Diamond with Minnesota Twins and Murphy Smith in Oakland farm system), Sinicki turns his eyes to a current core of pitchers that he believes will rank among the best in the conference.

“I like the depth of our pitching staff for sure,” Sinicki said. “We return some guys I know we can count on and who have pitched big innings for us in recent years. Our biggest surprise this season might be the rapid development of some of our young guys. In the end, you need contributions from your entire staff if you want to achieve your team goals.””

Leading the way is senior righty and No. 1 Mike Augliera, who ranks among the nation’s current top-20 in career strikeouts and shut down America East opponents to the tune of a 1.41 ERA last spring. Augliera, a first-team all-conference selection, made 14 starts and pitched four complete games, including a pair of shutouts. He struck out a school-record 15 against UMBC in May and was especially sharp down the stretch, allowing just four earned runs over his final 28 innings pitched in May. With six wins in 2012, he will become the program’s all-time leader.

“Mike has worked hard to turn himself into, in my opinion, the best pitcher in our conference and one the best pitchers in the region,” Sinicki said. “His ability to command and mix three pitches along with his fierce competitive spirit is unmatched. Mike is a winner, plain and simple.”

Junior Jay Lynch moves up a spot in the rotation after a solid sophomore campaign that produced five wins and second team all-conference honors. Lynch, a 6-foot-3 righthander, was 4-1 in conference play with a 3.19 ERA and had 34 strikeouts with just three walks against America East foes.

Six-foot-eight righty Jake Lambert jumps into the No. 3 spot after sitting out the 2011 season as a transfer. The La Jolla, Calif. native helped his San Diego City College team capture a conference title in 2010 and as a reliever, posted a 1.90 ERA in league play.

Sophomore Jack Rogalla, a former Illinois high school standout, is pushing to move into the No. 4 slot. He received three starts in his rookie campaign and made a strong collegiate debut with 6.1 innings of one-run ball against VMI.

In the bullpen, senior Chris Nagorski is the team’s top middle reliever and set-up man for junior fireballer Lee Sosa. Nagorski tossed 17.1 innings last spring. Sosa, who tops 90 MPH and has drawn early attention from MLB scouts, notched two saves with 16 strikeouts in 14 innings in 2011.

Senior Alex Adami and juniors Mark Palumbo and Joe Swindells give Sinicki additional veteran options. Adami has appeared in 40 career games for the Bearcats. Palumbo was called on in eight games of relief in 2011 and Swindells has started eight games in his first two collegiate seasons, going 4-1 in his freshman campaign. Two newcomers to the staff but not to the program are junior Bijan Mangouri and sophomore Jed Lemen. Mangouri is a two-year letterwinner from nearby Vestal High who has played the infield before converting to the mound this season. Lemen missed his freshman season with an injury but went 10-1 with a 1.13 ERA as a junior at The Aquinas Institute in Rochester.

Sinicki has brought in five first-year pitchers in hopes of continuing the program’s tradition of elite arms for years to come. The quintet of Greg Ostner, Ty Lyons, Mike Kaufman, Anthony Grillini and Mike Urbanski looks to bolster a rotation that ranked third in the America East with a 5.37 ERA in 2011.

Ostner was a first team all-state player for New Milford high (Conn.) who struck out 39 and held down a 2.60 ERA in 45 innings. Kaufman, a 6-foot-2 lefty, posted a 1.74 ERA with 103 strikeouts in 84 innings over his final two scholastic seasons. Lyons led his Seneca High (N.J.) team to the state title and was an All-South Jersey selection. Grillini led his conference in strikeouts as a senior and the 6-foot-4 Urbanski was also an all-conference choice.     

Two-time AE all-star Ciocchi anchors infield at first
Senior Dave Ciocchi, voted the top first baseman in the conference each of the last two seasons, returns for his final collegiate campaign and will move from his customary No. 3 spot to the clean-up role. A career .362 hitter (second all-time at BU), Ciocchi will rank among the best to ever wear Binghamton green and his steady production will be pivotal for the 2012 squad. He hit .343 with a team-best .445 on-base percentage last spring and committed just five errors in 395 chances at first.

“Dave has established himself as perhaps the toughest out in the conference and one of the premier offensive players in the Northeast,” Sinicki said. “He has a rare talent of speed, power and an ability to hit for average.”

Joining Ciocchi around the infield are sophomores Daniel Nevares (2B) and John Howell (SS), junior Jordon Smucker (3B/1B) and after a year off with injury, redshirt sophomore Joel Stubbs (3B).

Howell was a unanimous America East all-rookie selection after starting 48 games at shortstop. The former first team All-Central New York player from Cicero-North Syracuse High hit .272 and had a team-best nine sacrifice bunts.

Nevares was a durable everyday player with 45 starts at second base, including all 23 conference games. He drove in 16 runs and had nine multi-hit games in his freshman season.

Smucker started 32 games primarily at third base in 2011 and hit .282 with 17 RBI. He stepped up his production in conference play with a .319 average and hit .333 over the final six weeks of the season. Smucker can play third or first base and also may move into the designated hitter role as Stubbs makes his return to the lineup. An excellent fielding third baseman, Stubbs started 30 games as a freshman before an injury cost him the 2011 campaign.

First-year infielder Kyle Coronel and local recruit Brian Ruby also begin promising collegiate careers in 2012. Coronel, an Ohio native, was an Under Armour Preseason All-American last spring and hit .346 in his high school career. Ruby opens his collegiate career after a decorated high school career at nearby Maine-Endwell High. Ruby hit .469 over his four-year scholastic career and was the 2008 New York State Class A Player of the Year.

“I think if we stay healthy we have the ability to be really good defensively in the infield,” Sinicki said. “I think our pitching staff feels really good when they look behind them and see the guys behind them. I think it breeds confidence.”

Danaher fills void at catcher after graduation of Lukaszewski
After playing behind graduated all-star and captain C.J. Lukaszewski for two years, junior Mike Danaher takes over the starting role behind the place in 2012. Danaher started 14 games in 2011 and hit .277. He picked off seven baserunners and didn’t make an error in 98 chances.

“Mike moves into a full-time role this season and the entire coaching staff and pitching staff feels great about that,” Sinicki said. “Mike is also doing a great job with our young catchers, helping them along with the differences between the high school game and college game.”

Talented freshman Jake Thomas will likely get into the lineup at either the catcher, DH spot or in the outfield. Thomas was a first team all-state catcher at Calhoun High and was named the Long Island Player of the Year after hitting .485 with seven home runs and 31 RBI in 23 games last spring.

Freshmen Jake Archey and Nick Pancerella are also in the mix behind the plate. Liner’s freshman season was cut short with an injury. Archey is a powerful hitter whose nine home runs as a senior at St. Luke’s School led the entire state of Connecticut. Pancerella hit .424 last season and was rated one of the top-10 catchers in Southeastern Pennsylvania. 

Bereszniewicz only returning starter in revamped outfield
The Bearcats’ outfield and middle of the lineup will have two huge holes with the departure of Corey Taylor and Peter Bregartner, who combined for 314 career runs and 295 career RBI. Taylor was the 2010 America East Player of the Year and three-time all-star and Bregartner was a finalist for the 2011 award after hitting .405 with 22 RBI in 23 conference games.

Back to follow up on an excellent freshman campaign is second-year center fielder Bill Bereszniewicz, who was a unanimous America East All-Rookie selection after hitting .353 from the leadoff position. Bereszniewicz became the fourth Bearcat to receive Louisville Slugger Freshman All-America honors in the last five years and Sinicki believes there is more to come from Bereszniewicz.

“Billy is a dynamic player and quickly emerged as one of the top freshman in the conference and country last season,” Sinicki said. “I have no doubt Billy will continue to develop his game and skills. He will be a catalyst for us on both offense and defense.”

Projected to join Bereszniewicz on the corners are sophomore Shaun McGraw (left) and freshman Zach Blanden (right).

McGraw appeared in 19 games as a freshman, including 12 starts in the outfield. He had an on-base percentage of .315 and earned all-star honors this past summer in the New York Collegiate Baseball League.
Blanden is the all-time hits leader at up the highway at Homer High and batted .500 in an all-star senior season.

In the mix also are Thomas and freshman Scott Hagan. Hagan hit .473 in his four-year high school career, which was capped with Louisville Slugger second team All-America honors last spring.

Fifty-one-game schedule features three-game set at No. 4 Arkansas, 24 league games
The Bearcats begin a daunting 51-game road-only schedule with a weekend series at VCU on February 24-26. After the three-game set against the CAA-member Rams, Binghamton plays three games at Norfolk State, the reigning MEAC runnerup.

From there, BU will fly to Fayetteville and a monumental test against the No. 4 team in the country in the Arkansas Razorbacks. In a three-game weekend series, BU will face the reigning SEC Western Division champions and perennial NCAA contenders. Arkansas won 40 games last season and boasts four preseason All-SEC picks, including the SEC preseason pitcher of the year.

Binghamton will then play nine straight games in the state of Pennsylvania, including three as part of the Big Five Baseball Bash in Philadelphia where the Bearcats will square off against a pair of Atlantic 10 foes (St. Joseph’s, Temple) and Big East-member Villanova.

The Bearcats will then continue longstanding rivalries with Lehigh (4 games), Bucknell (2 games) and Siena (4 games) heading into early April. A first-ever matchup with Penn State follows on April 4. The Nittany Lions won 32 games and reached the Big Ten tournament in 2011.

Two days later, BU begins conference play with a three-game set against a talented Stony Brook team that won 42 games last spring and has been picked by numerous media outlets to win the 2012 America East title. The series is the first of seven against conference opponents, with the top four teams advancing to the America East Championship. Sandwiched in the April schedule are two single games against Cornell and a doubleheader against Marist.

The Bearcats will play their entire 2012 slate off campus as construction finishes up on the team’s new facility, which is set to be complete in July. That means upwards of 50 games away from home in the 13-week season. Binghamton will split its 10 “home” games between sites at Cornell University and NYSEG Stadium in downtown Binghamton.

“I think our early season non-conference schedule will really challenge our guys and prepare us for America East Conference play,” Sinicki said. “We are playing some teams for the first time like VCU, Arkansas and Penn State, and renew some traditional rivalries against Norfolk State, Lehigh and Siena.”

Bearcats expected to battle Stony Brook, Maine, Albany for AE bragging rights
With Hartford and UMBC rebuilding under first-year coaches, the four teams responsible for winning the last five America East tournament titles - Binghamton, Stony Brook (2), Maine and Albany will continue to compete for the conference crown with the team playing its best baseball in late May advancing to the NCAA tournament. There, the America East champion has won at least one NCAA tournament game in each of the last three years, beginning with BU’s 11-7 win over George Mason at the 2009 NCAA regional in Greenville, N.C.

Last year Maine won the tournament from the No. 2 spot after Stony Brook took the title as the No. 3 seed in 2010. In the 10 years since the Bearcats joined the America East, only two teams have captured the coveted combo of regular-season and tournament titles (Maine in 2002, Binghamton in 2009).

“The conference looks like it will be as good as ever,” Sinicki said. “There is tremendous balance and I think anyone of the six teams could challenge for the title.”

Bearcats looking for new stars to emerge in 2012
In order to contend for its fifth regular season title in six years and a second postseason championship, Binghamton will need to weather the storm of 13 weeks of travel - even to designated “home” games - and will need widespread contributions from a lineup that has fewer stars than in previous seasons. But Sinicki remains consistent in his approach.

“Our goals for 2012 are the same as each and every year .... we are aiming for a fifth America East Conference regular season title and winning the post-season tournament with a return trip to the NCAA Regionals.”   
 
 

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