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SEASON PREVIEW: Baseball looks to defend AE title
Bearcats loaded as entire starting lineup returns from NCAA tournament team
February 10, 2014Tweet
Contact: John Hartrick (email@example.com)
2014 Binghamton Baseball Season Preview
VESTAL, N.Y. - Head coach Tim Sinicki returns his entire starting lineup from a 2013 championship team and thus, expectations are high as the 2014 squad takes the field for its season-opening series at Duke on February 15-16. The series was set to start on Friday but due to the snowstorm throughout the East coast, Friday’s opener was canceled and the teams will now play a doubleheader Saturday beginning at noon.
Sinicki, the longest-tenured coach at Binghamton now entering his 22nd year, does have to replace his top two pitchers from that America East championship team, including ace Jake Lambert, whose brilliant 17 shutout innings paved the way at the conference tournament. But with all nine starting field position players and two starting pitchers back in the fold, Binghamton is on paper, the team to beat in the America East.
“I’ve never had so many guys returning … to have one through nine in the lineup all back is very rare,” Sinicki said. “We have guys who already have a lot of at-bats at this level and there will be very few surprises when teams look at our lineup card. The program is in a pretty good place right now and we have a confident group of guys who don’t mind being the “hunted” this year. It won’t change the way we play.”
The 2014 squad seems ready to handle the task of being a frontrunner. It features one of the premier hitters in the Northeast (junior OF Jake Thomas), four senior leaders, three returning first team all-conference players, strong team defense and “a gritty lineup that doesn’t give away outs,” according to Baseball America, one of several publications that tabbed BU as the conference favorite. Aside from the skill in the lineup, Sinicki likes the balance and unity.
“What I like most about this team, just like last year’s … is the team chemistry,” Sinicki said. “They all get along and enjoy being around each other. They pull for each other and pick each other up. This team isn’t deterred by anything and they are focused and committed to repeating what we did last season.”
Veteran double-play tandem Daniel Nevares (2B) and John Howell (SS) anchor a solid infield that ranked 24th in the country in fielding percentage last spring (.976). Nevares, the team’s cleanup hitter and two-time all-conference selection, was a dual threat, hitting .311 with school-record tying 19 doubles (29th in nation). Howell is as sure-handed a shortstop as BU has ever had, committing just seven errors in 197 chances. He has started all 144 games in a stellar three-year career.
“It’s so rare for any team in Division I to have the same starting second baseman and shortstop for four straight years,” Sinicki said. “Daniel and John are a special double-play tandem and a big reason why we finished so high in team defense last year. They are two really good players who know each other so well … and they are outstanding leaders. Any time you can have that type of skill and experience anchoring the middle of the infield, you feel fortunate.”
At third, sophomore David Schanz returns after seizing the starting spot midway through the 2013 season. Schanz hit .467 in three postseason games against Maine at the America East tournament, earning All-Championship honors. He also produced several “web gems” at third, including a highlight-reel over-the-head grab into the stands at the conference tournament. Schanz, an All-Rookie selection, didn’t commit an error in his last 28 games and had a fielding percentage of .990.
Junior Brian Ruby is back at first after finishing strong last season. Ruby, who hit a team-best .371 in 2012, struggled out of the gate last spring before surging in May. He batted .328 over the last five weeks of the season and collected three hits at the NCAA Regional from the No. 6 spot in the lineup.
Sophomore Reed Gamache, who played in 23 games with 14 starts at third base in 2013, has impressed the coaching staff and will push for time. Six-foot-4 junior Kyle Coronel and freshmen Brendan Skidmore and Jextin Pugh are also in the mix. Hard-throwing Pugh is also expected to earn some innings on the hill and both he and Skidmore could also get some at-bats at DH.
Led by left fielder Thomas, this starting trio returns intact and is a strong unit both offensively and defensively.
Thomas has emerged as one of the best players in the entire Northeast, as evidenced by his first team all-region honors in 2013. The pure-hitting lefty achieved an abundance of offensive accolades last spring, highlighted by a gaudy .517 on-base percentage that tied for second in the nation. Hitting from the third spot, Thomas also led the America East in hitting (.371), slugging (.522) and walks (45, 17th in nation) and was third in home runs (5) and RBI (37). He roughed up conference pitching to the tune of a .416 average and turned it up another notch in May. In his last 14 games, Thomas hit .451 with 11 runs scored. At the NCAA Regional, he showed off his arm by throwing out two baserunners – including one at the plate – in BU’s game against No. 23 Ole Miss.
“Jake is one of the premier offensive players in the region,” Sinicki said. “He can hit for average and power, steal bases and shows great discipline and patience in the box. A tireless worker, Jake has also become a very good defensive player as well.”
Junior right fielder Zach Blanden, who like Thomas played in all 55 games last spring, also turned heads in May. He had 18 extra-base hits (second to Nevares’ 21) and jumped his average 30 points in the final month of the season. At the NCAA Regional in Raleigh, Blanden went 7-for-9 from the leadoff spot and was an easy choice for all-tournament honors. In the field, he made just one error in 91 chances all spring.
Senior tri-captain Bill Bereszniewicz patrols center field and has played in 120 collegiate games. He hit .304 in conference play and had an overall on-base percentage of .388 in 2013.
Senior outfielder Shaun McGraw was a steady No. 5 hitter and earned first team all-conference honors at DH. He hit .288 with four home runs and like several other Bearcats, was clutch down the stretch. McGraw produced nine RBI in six postseason games and was named to the America East All-Championship team.
Returning starter Nick Pancerella is back to handle the bulk of the catching duties. He caught 33 games last spring and managed a pitching staff that set a school record with a 3.73 ERA.
“Through hard work Nick has grown immensely in all phases as a catcher since he arrived on campus,” Sinicki said. “Our pitching staff has a tremendous amount of confidence in him behind the plate and so do the coaches.”
This unit took the brunt of the graduation losses from 2013 with America East MOP Lambert and four-year starter Jay Lynch finishing their careers. Redshirt junior Jack Rogalla is now the ace of the staff. Rogalla had the lowest ERA among BU starters last year (3.01) and got the ball for the NCAA opening game against N.C. State, pitching into the seventh inning against the College World Series-bound Wolfpack. He led the Bearcats with four complete games and like the rest of BU’s starting staff, yielded very few walks (13 in 89.2 innings.) Sinicki believes he is already a No. 1 caliber pitcher.
“Jack was an ace for us last year,” he said. “Really we had a 1A and 1B guy last year and Jack was our opening starter at the NCAA Regional so we already have a tremendous amount of confidence in him.”
Junior Mike Urbanski makes the move from the bullpen to a starting role and will begin the season in the No. 2 spot. He made 16 appearances in 2013 and nailed down the championship game win over Maine with a scoreless ninth inning. After a strong summer and a 90+ fastball, Urbanski has hit the radar of Major League Baseball scouts and he will give the Bearcats another big 1-2 punch on the mound.
Sophomore Jake Cryts, who was the team’s primary long reliever and spot starter in 2013, moves into the No. 3 starting role. Cryts worked 26 innings as a freshman and held down a 4.50 ERA. He ended the spring on a high note with three strikeouts in 1.1 innings against N.C. State.
“We’ve been impressed with the hard work and development that Mike and Jake have put in during the last year,” Sinicki said. “Mike is one of our best arms and we felt we should give him the most opportunities to pitch … that’s why we moved him from closer to starter. He’s shown us he’s ready for the challenge and opportunity. Jake has worked very hard and his quick development has been a pleasant surprise. Each guy has improved his arm strength and command of secondary pitches so he can get through the opposing lineup the second and third time.”
Juniors Greg Ostner and Anthony Grillini return as key contributors out of the bullpen. Ostner made 11 appearances and led the 2013 squad with a 2.55 ERA. He didn’t allow a run in his last seven innings of work. Grillini was the team’s closer before an elbow injury ended his season in early May. He went 4-0 with three saves and a 3.71 ERA.
Junior lefthanders Mike Meleski and Mike Kaufman balance out the right-handed arms. Meleski made four appearances (three starts) before he had to be shut down with an injury but not before he showed his form with five shutout innings against VMI. Kaufman appeared in 15 games last spring and notched 22 strikeouts in 22.2 innings.
“We lost a lot of innings with the graduation of Jake and Jay (Lynch),” Sinicki said. “But we have a lot of depth on our pitching staff and I expect those innings will be picked up by five or six guys. I think our staff has great balance and it could be a strength by the end of the year.”
The team’s 52-game slate features three first-time opponents and the earliest start date in school history. The Bearcats will play 28 non-conference games in addition to their 24-game conference slate.
Binghamton begins its spring campaign with a three-game set at ACC member Duke on February 14 - nine days earlier than the 2013 opener. The series in Durham, N.C. will begin a stretch of 20 consecutive road games to begin the season.
The non-conference slate consists of opponents from nine different conferences, including the SEC (Georgia) and the ACC (Duke, Boston College). After playing three single games against the Blue Devils (Feb. 14-16), Binghamton will play a three-game set at CAA member James Madison (Feb. 21-23). The teams split a four-game set to open the 2013 campaign. The following weekend, BU travels to Athens, Ga. for a first-time encounter with the Bulldogs. After that three-game series at Georgia (Feb. 28-March 2), BU faces familiar foe VMI the next weekend (March 7-9). The teams split a four-game series in 2013.
“The first four weekends of non-conference play are the most difficult we’ve ever scheduled,” Sinicki said. “Quality opponents from the ACC, SEC, Colonial and Big South will certainly give us a chance to see where we are as a team heading into America East Conference play. But our guys are very confident and look at the early season schedule as more than just getting prepared for conference play … they want to compete to win games.”
With the addition of new America East member UMass Lowell, the conference slate has been revamped from 30 to 24 games. Each weekend conference series will consist of an opening doubleheader followed by a single game on Sunday. The Bearcats begin with a three-game series at Lowell on March 15 and and then play three more on the road (at Hartford on March 22-23) before hosting Bucknell in the team’s home opener on March 25.
The unbalanced 24-game America East schedule has BU facing Lowell and Hartford six times apiece and Maine, Stony Brook, UMBC and Albany three games apiece. The top four teams will advance to the America East Championship, hosted by Lowell on May 21-23. The River Hawks are ineligible as new members but will welcome the double-elimination tournament back to LeLacheur Park for a second straight year.
“From top to bottom the America East continues to improve each and every year,” Sinicki said. “All of the coaching staffs are doing a great job recruiting and developing players, and it’s making the conference balanced, competitive and a wide-open race late in the season.”
The Bearcats have a rare and enviable circumstance of having 21 letterwinners back, including the team’s entire starting lineup. In fact, BU’s lineup card for the season opener at Duke is expected to be identical to the one Sinicki wrote out for the NCAA tournament game at N.C. State some 37 weeks earlier. That veteran squad is eying a hard-to-come-by America East repeat, which has occurred just once in the last 12 years. Sinicki knows why winning back-to-back titles has been so elusive for any America East program.
“Anything goes in a four-team, double-elimination tournament and I’m not sure the best team advances all the time in this format,” Sinicki said. “If you get hot and play three good games, you can go from being a No. 4 seed to the NCAA tournament. The league is very competitive and balanced every year. What separates teams 1-7 is very small.”
The Bearcats are counting on experience and team chemistry to propel them to the program’s third NCAA berth in the last six years.
“Our expectations are the same every year … to compete for conference regular season and tournament championships,” Sinicki said. “Our team is as good as any I’ve ever had at Binghamton and they have a good chance to repeat.”