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BU baseball gears up for run at fifth-straight regular-season crown

Bearcats have increased win total in NCAA-record six straight seasons

February 18, 2011


BU baseball gears up for run at fifth-straight regular-season crown

VESTAL, N.Y.– Binghamton baseball has put up some gaudy numbers in conference play over the last four years, winning at a 74 percent clip (66-23) and capturing four consecutive regular season titles. The program’s 2011 edition will look to continue that trend and then carry it over into the postseason, where the Bearcats have had mixed results in the winner-take-all conference tournament.

After back-to-back runnerup heartbreaks with talented squads in ‘07 and ‘08, BU broke through in ‘09, winning the crown and advancing to the NCAAs, where they became just the third America East team in 14 years to win a regional game.

Last season’s all-star-laden team breezed through a dominating 21-3 regular season in league play and won a school-record 14 straight games in May, setting the table for a repeat postseason crown. But the wheels came off at the four-team tournament, hosted by BU at Varsity Field. First-team all-conference center fielder and leadoff hitter Henry Dunn was deemed unable to play on the eve of the tournament. Then after a sloppy ninth-inning loss to fourth-seeded Albany in the opener, BU lost America East Player of the Year and cleanup hitter Corey Taylor to an injury, leaving the team without its two most explosive offensive players and all-star outfielders. Third-seeded Stony Brook emerged as the champion, leaving the Bearcats to wonder what could have been for a team that had eight all-conference selections, the Player of the Year, the Pitcher of the Year and the Coach of the Year and had won a school-record 31 games.

Graduation then took four starters, including Major League draft pick Dunn and first team all-conference second baseman Jim Calderone. Also lost are two-year starting shortstop Jeff Abrams and clutch hitter and second team all-star Joe Charron.

“All four guys were major players in this program and will never be forgotten,” Sinicki said. “However, this happens every year, and it’s up to the coaching staff to find guys who can replace the departing players and then it’s up to the current players to make the most of their opportunities.”

Marquee slugger Taylor leads offense, outfield unit
Despite losing four starters, including a pair of first team all-conference players (Dunn, Calderone), BU’s lineup remains a potent one. Senior center fielder, co-captain and clean-up hitter Corey Taylor is the reigning America East Player of the Year and is on pace to become the program’s all-time RBI leader. As a junior, Taylor led the conference in home runs (14), RBI (66) and slugging percentage (.679) and he ranked 11th in the nation in RBI/game (1.4). Aside from being a home run threat at the plate, Taylor hit .370 and beat up on America East foes to the tune of a .427 average and 31 RBI in 21 games. Speedy in the outfield and on the bases, he also stole 20-of-23 bases. With Dunn’s departure, Taylor will move from left field to center.

“Corey has worked extremely hard during his career here to become one of the program’s all-time great players,” Sinicki said. “We will need his production again this year in the middle of the lineup but will also count on his defense, leadership and experience to lead this team.”

Hitting in front of Taylor and forming with him a dynamic 1-2 punch is junior first baseman Dave Ciocchi, a first team all-star in 2010. In two collegiate seasons, Ciocchi owns a .372 career batting average - highest in BU’s nine-year Division I tenure. A contact hitter with power, Ciocchi hit .366 last spring and drove in 57 runs, second only to Taylor. He had a team-best 33 RBI against league foes (in 24 games) and was named the “hitter you least want to face” in an America East coaches’ poll for CollegeBaseballInsider.com. A sure-handed fielder at first, Ciocchi committed just six errors in 417 chances, good for a fielding percentage of .986.

“David is one of the most feared hitters in our conference and in the Northeast,” Sinicki said. “He has a rare offensive combination of speed, power and the ability to hit for average. He will also be our most experienced guy in the infield and will need to be a positive influence on the younger guys.”

Rest of infield is light on experience
The team’s biggest holes were formed at second and short with the graduation of veterans Calderone and Abrams. So Sinicki will likely line up any of four underclassmen at the other infield spots alongside Ciocchi.

Hard-working sophomore Jordon Smucker is able to play either spot and may platoon with freshmen John Howell (shortstop) and Daniel Nevares (second base). Smucker hit .326 in 19 games last spring. Howell was a first team All-Central New York selection for Cicero-North Syracuse last year and Nevares was a career .417 hitter in high school.

Sophomore Joel Stubbs is set to anchor third base after starting 30 games in 2010. Stubbs is a sound defensive player who committed just seven errors while hitting .283. Sophomore Mike Thompson, who started 17 games at third base, can play second or move to the designated hitter spot. Thompson was a second team all-conference pick after hitting .435 in league play. He was also named a Louisville Slugger Freshman All-American - BU’s third in the last four years.

Sophomore Bijan Mangouri and freshman Mitchell Hollander are options off the bench.

“We have to replace our middle infield from last year but I really like the options we have,” Sinicki said. “We have some very talented young kids who can play up the middle, and once they get the chance to play and settle in, I think we can be as good there as we’ve ever been.”

Bregartner, Skelhorne-Gross round out veteran outfield corps
Joining Taylor in the outfield are seniors Peter Bregartner (right) and Jeff Skelhorne-Gross (left).

Bregartner has started 143 games in his three-year career and is a viable all-star candidate, despite playing in the shadows of BU’s more recognizable players. He hit .342 from the left side of the plate as a junior and led the team and ranked second in the entire conference with a .439 mark against AE opponents - a statistic that warranted all-conference consideration. He already ranks among career leaders in triples (3rd), walks (3rd) and stolen bases (5th) and will likely graduate among the top-5 in hits, runs and RBI.

“Pete has been a four-year starter and major contributor for this program,” Sinicki said. “He continues to work hard and is primed for an outstanding senior season in both the outfield and lineup.”

Skelhorne-Gross is a versatile former catcher who started games at four different positions last season. He has the inside track on the starting spot in left field for his final collegiate campaign. Known for delivering clutch hits, particularly in pinch-hitting roles, Skelhorne-Gross batted .385 with the bases loaded in 2010 and came on strong at the end with five RBI in his last six games.

“Over the years Jeff has proven to be an extremely versatile athlete for us and this year he is working hard to try to secure an everyday spot in the lineup as an outfielder,” Sinicki said. “Jeff’s greatest strength during his career has been his ability to give us quality at-bats every time he steps into the box.”

Two freshmen, Bill Bereszniewicz and Shaun McGraw, begin promising careers as outfield reserves.

Co-captain Lukaszewski back to handle league’s premier pitching staff
Senior catcher C.J. Lukaszewski returns for his fourth year as a starter behind the plate and his experience and talent are vital to the team’s pitching success, considered to be the key to the 2011 season.

A role model captain and team leader, Lukaszewski has become one of the best defensive catchers in the America East. He manages a pitching staff that posted a conference-best 3.83 earned run average in league play and is a highly-underrated hitter. Lukaszewski batted .368 as a junior, including a .431 mark against America East opponents.

“C.J. has improved every year he’s been here and I expect 2011 to be no different,” Sinicki said. “He’s been the rock for our pitching staff over the past three years ... he’s been there with words of encouragement during difficult times for our staff and has provided reinforcement when things are going well. J.C. is truly like a coach on the field.”

Backing up Lukaszewski are sophomore Mike Danaher and freshman Kyle Liner. Danaher caught 17 games last spring and hit .291. Liner was a Class C first team all-state standout from Cooperstown High who was his team’s MVP three straight seasons.

America East co-Pitcher of the Year Giulietti returns for final season
Senior James Giulietti is back to anchor a solid pitching staff that should continue to be among the best in the conference. Sinicki returns all four conference starters and the bulk of his bullpen. His 2010 staff compiled a league-low 3.83 ERA in conference play, well ahead of second-place Maine (4.53) and the rest of the six-team league.

Giulietti, a crafty 5-foot-11 lefty, earned a share of America East Pitcher of the Year honors after a brilliant 2010 season. He went 8-2 with a 2.15 earned run average (13th in nation) and was nearly untouchable in conference play, compiling a 6-0 record and a 1.49 ERA. In 48.1 innings against America East opponents, Giulietti struck out 41 and walked just three. He led the league in starts (14), was second in complete games (6), third in strikeouts (7.57/game) and fourth in opponents’ batting average (.241).

“James is a competitor, a flat-out ‘I want to be better than you’ competitor,” Sinicki said. “That attitude combined with his ability to pitch and command three pitches for strikes is what has made him one of the best pitchers in the region.”

Junior righty Mike Augliera is a strong No. 2 starter who was a second team all-conference selection in 2010. Augliera went 6-2 with a 4.77 ERA, but like most of the Bearcats, posted even more impressive numbers against America East foes. He was 5-1 with a 3.60 ERA and had 36 strikeouts and only seven walks in 45 innings. In his final start of the spring, Augliera shut down Maine in an America East elimination game, posting 11 strikeouts in the complete-game shutout. A big-game pitcher, Augliera has made the America East All-Championship Team in both of his collegiate seasons and had two appearances at the NCAA regional as a freshman.

“Mike’s work ethic this past off-season has been just tremendous,” Sinicki said. “He is in the best shape of his life and his ‘stuff’ continues to get better and better.”

Sophomore Jay Lynch is coming off solid freshman campaign and should hold down the No. 3 position. A 6-foot-3 righthander, Lynch made 13 starts and won five games in 2010. He was 4-2 with a 4.71 ERA in league play and was selected to the America East All-Rookie Team.

Sophomore Joe Swindells, a 6-foot-4 righty, is also in the mix as a mid-week or conference starter. Swindells made 25 appearances with five starts as a freshman. He went 4-1 with a save and held down a 4.64 ERA.

“The way Jay Lynch has been throwing the ball I am extremely happy with our 1-2-3 starting rotation punch,” Sinicki said.

In the bullpen, Sinicki returns his top middle reliever, senior Zach Juliano, and his closer, junior Alex Adami. Juliano made 20 appearances (38.2 innings) and went 3-1 with a 4.42 ERA. Adami picked up three wins and three saves in 15 appearances. Senior Morgan Smith has pitched in 68 innings throughout his career and is an option out of the pen, as is surprising sophomore Lee Sosa, who has shown dramatic improvement and could earn late-inning work.

Three first-year players are also in the mix: Chris Nagorski, Mark Palumbo and Jack Rogalla.

Nagorski is a junior college transfer who pitched two seasons for a Connors State College program that was ranked No. 1 in the nation. He went 6-2 last spring. Palumbo was an all-area selection from Morristown HS (N.J.) and Rogalla is a highly-touted recruit from Illinois who struck out 66 in 55 innings of work as a senior.

“The fourth spot in the rotation is up for grabs, with Joe (Swindells) and Jack (Rogalla) having the inside track early on,” Sinicki said.

Two other newcomers, Jake Lambert and Jed Lemen, will sit out the season and make their debuts in 2012.

“Our pitching staff has done a great job with their off-season workouts and preparation, and the early-season bullpen sessions have gone very well,” Sinicki said. “I think this group has a chance to be as good as we’ve had from top to bottom.”

53-game slate takes BU down East Coast, to Texas, New Mexico before America East play begins
As is the norm, the Bearcats will hit the road for the first month of the season. Binghamton is slated to start with 21 straight games on the road, beginning with a season-opening three-game set at Virginia Military Academy on February 25-27. The Big South-member Keydets won 33 games last season and were ranked as high as No. 26 in the country.

Other highlights in the early-season schedule include a four-game series (March 4-6) at Big South power Liberty, who won 42 games in 2010 and is “receiving votes” in the USA Today/ESPN Coaches’ Poll. After two games apiece against George Washington and reigning Northeast Conference champion and NCAA participant Central Connecticut State, BU will travel to Texas for three games against Dallas Baptist. The Patriots are a potent independent team that advanced to the NCAAs as an at-large team in 2008 and have strung together 32 consecutive winning seasons.

From Texas, BU will head to New Mexico for six games against University of New Mexico and New Mexico State, who like Dallas Baptist, are “receiving votes” in the Collegiate Baseball poll. The Mountain West-member Lobos won 38 games last spring to earn an at-large NCAA berth. They were particularly successful at home, going 23-8. The Aggies won 36 games and were the regular season runnerup in the Western Athletic Conference.

Back in the Northeast, BU will host Niagara in the team’s home opener on March 29 and then will play non-conference games against traditional in-state rivals Siena, Cornell and Marist in April.

“Without question, this is the most difficult non-conference schedule we’ve had here at Binghamton,” Sinicki said. “We might not have any big-time BCS conference names on the schedule but what we do have is outstanding baseball programs week after week after week. Our hope is that we will learn a lot about ourselves as a ball club in February and March, and come time to open America East Conference play in April, we are ready to play our best baseball of the season.”

The 24-game America East slate consists of six games against divisionally-aligned foes Stony Brook and UMBC and four games against cross-division opponents Albany, Maine and Hartford. The four teams with the highest conference win percentage (regardless of division) will advance to the America East Championship on May 25-28, with the winner earning the conference’s automatic bid to the NCAA Regionals.

The defending tournament champion Seawolves were picked to finish first in the standings, followed by Maine, Binghamton and Albany in the Coaches’ Preseason Poll. The Bearcats were picked to finish third last year before rolling over America East opponents to a 21-3 mark and the team’s fourth straight regular season title. Sinicki’s squad has either met or exceeded preseason predictions four straight seasons.

Bearcats have enough talent to contend, keep NCAA streak alive
Despite losing four starters with considerable impact, Sinicki returns enough pitching and pop at the plate to make a run at a fifth-straight America East regular-season title, which would tie former member Delaware (1994-98) for most consecutive regular-season crowns.

Also at stake is the program’s unique record of consecutive seasons with increased win totals, which now stands at seven after last season’s school-record 31 wins. That feat is believed to be an NCAA record.

Getting a record 32nd win is fine with Sinicki, as long as the team is still playing in June.

“Our coaching staff and players aren’t concerned with what people or publications are saying about us in the preseason,” Sinicki said. “All we can control is getting better each and every time we practice and/or play so that when the end of the year comes we’ve put ourselves in a position to play in the America East tournament and then move on to the NCAA Regionals.”

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