Feb. 12, 2013
PITTSBURGH - With a talented class of newcomers complimenting a tenured core of young and experienced players, the University of Pittsburgh baseball team stands in position to deliver a strong 2013 season in the Big East Conference. The Panthers, returning six starting position players and two weekend rotation starters, open their demanding schedule against Missouri Valley Conference power Wichita State in a three-game series on Feb. 15-17 at Eck Stadium in Wichita, Kan.
"It's a very aggressive opening weekend," head coach Joe Jordano said. "We've always tried to schedule according to the opportunities we have, but also to be certain that we're in situations that may help put us in position for potential NCAA Regional consideration at the end of the season. It will be a great challenge for us."
Pitt is scheduled to take on three teams ranked in the Collegiate Baseball Preseason Top-40 Poll--No. 22 Louisville, No. 32 Wichita State, and No. 34 Kent State. Other teams slated on the Panthers' radar receiving votes in the preseason poll include Manhattan, Notre Dame, St. John's, Toledo, USF, and VCU. As the university prepares itself for its transition to the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) in July, Jordano and his staff wish to take advantage of every opportunity that may take the baseball program "to another level."
Boasting 672 all-time conference wins with 427 of them coming with Jordano at the helm, including 10 postseason appearances, Pitt is one of four teams to have advanced to the Big East Tournament in each of the past four seasons. Since 2000, the Panthers have produced 12 All-Americans and 50 All-Big East honorees, and have also seen 51 players go on to sign professional contracts.
"We have a long history in the Big East, so the transition to the ACC is bittersweet," said Jordano. "However, it is refreshing to know that we're going to a conference that is arguably one of the best baseball conferences in the country. There's a kind of rebirth and rejuvenation that comes along with it for us as a program."
Pitt's 2012 campaign featured 18 losses by two or fewer runs and 10 losses by one run. Despite the unfortunate circumstances that plagued them a season ago, the Panthers put their potential on display by placing among the top ranks of categories indicative of offensive and defensive consistency with a young team.
An effective overall performance at the plate placed Pitt in the conference's top-five in hits (557), batting average (.290), on-base percentage (.376), slugging percentage (.399), and total bases (766) last season. They also excelled with runners on base by grounding into the fewest double plays (16) in the Big East and producing a lineup that had six players with more than 20 RBI on the year.
Success, however, was not limited to offensive play. The Panthers' arsenal of arms on the mound allowed the fewest walks (159) and fourth-fewest home runs (19) in the conference in 2012. Its bullpen recorded the fifth-most saves (14) in the Big East as well--a total anchored by relievers Tanner Wilt (6) and Joe Harvey (3).
Pitt placed seventh in this year's Big East Preseason Coaches' Poll with 46 points, one slot improved from last season's selection. Now with 16 upperclassmen on their roster, the Panthers enter a new year with a chip on their shoulder ready to prove their legitimacy as a contending Northeast program.
"We're a team that needs to play good, solid baseball," Jordano said. "I'm confident that we have the ability to do so, but it's going to be an effort among all of us to make sure that every day we come out and play the Panther way."
Pitt will be without its former ace and all-time leader in career wins (28), Matt Iannazzo, for the first time since 2008 this season. Iannazzo, who recorded a 3.97 career ERA and .700 winning percentage in four collegiate seasons, signed a professional contract with the Chicago Cubs last summer. The Panthers, however, return two-thirds of their weekend rotation for 2013 in juniors Ethan Mildren (2012: 6-6, 3.76 ERA) and Matt Wotherspoon (2012: 4-4, 5.03 ERA).
Mildren logged 95.2 innings last season, the fifth highest single-season total in school history, and struck out 72 batters while walking just 17 (5.26 career strikeout-to-walk ratio). Known for exceptional longevity on the mound, Mildren tossed four complete games and put together a scoreless streak of 22 innings during three consecutive starts against Notre Dame, Cincinnati, and Connecticut.
Wotherspoon joined Mildren with a top-10 conference finish in strikeouts (86) and was second in the Big East in batters struck out looking (34) a season ago. His 86 strikeouts in 2012 are the eighth-most recorded in a single season by a Panthers pitcher and his 91.1 innings pitched placed ninth on the program's all-time single season list.
According to Jordano, the weekend rotation's third starting pitcher against Wichita State will be determined based upon the team's performance in the first two games of the series.
POWER OF THE `PEN
Wilt, Harvey, and J.R. Leonardi will once again anchor Pitt's bullpen in 2013. Wilt served as the team's primary closer his freshman year, leaving 74.2-percent of allowed runners on base while recording the eighth-most saves (6) in a single season in program history. He is also tied with Leonardi and Alex Caravella for sixth on the all-time career saves list.
Harvey converted three saves with 28 strikeouts in 27 innings last season and tied with Leonardi for the most relief appearances (17) on the team. He also put together a streak of nine consecutive scoreless innings in games against Miami (Ohio), Hartford, and Notre Dame as a redshirt freshman and struck out five batters in 4.1 innings of relief against nationally ranked Louisville.
Leonardi, a strong set-up man out of the bullpen in 2012, led the Panthers with 9.74 strikeouts per nine innings in 18 total appearances. Leonardi was also Pitt's top-performing reliever against Big East teams with a 3.14 ERA and 11 strikeouts in nine outings (14.1 innings).
Caravella needs to pitch in just three more games to pass Corey Baker (2008-11) and Jeff Barnyak (2001-05) to become the program's all-time leader in career appearances. Now in his senior season, Caravella has appeared in 62 games for the Panthers, including 10 starts, and holds a 3.77 career ERA with 10 wins and 126 strikeouts in 164.2 innings. He has held opposing hitters to a .258 average in three seasons with 68.9-percent of runners left stranded on base and a career 0.49 home runs allowed per nine innings ratio. The southpaw posted a 4-5 record in 21 appearances last season.
OUTFIELDING CORE RETURNS
Junior right fielder Casey Roche batted .323 with a .419 on-base percentage and a .483 slugging percentage to go along with 17 doubles, three triples, three home runs, and 45 RBI in 2012. He finished fifth in doubles, seventh in RBI, and eighth in walks (30) in the conference and tied with Anthony Defabio for the second-most hits (65) on the team. Roche shared the team lead in hits against conference opponents (33) and his 17 doubles on the year were the eighth-most ever recorded in a single season in Pitt baseball history. His career .331 batting average, .411 on-base percentage, and .469 slugging percentage show why he serves as the cornerstone to the Panthers' offense.
Roche and sophomore left fielder Boo Vazquez are the only returning players that posted batting averages greater than .300, on-base percentages greater than .400, slugging percentages greater than .400, at least one home run and 20 RBI last season. Vazquez led the team with a .346 average against Big East teams and also finished with the second-highest batting average (.327) for the Panthers as a freshman. In 2012, he was perfect in the field with a flawless fielding percentage (1.000) and on the bases with four stolen bases in four attempts.
Between Roche and Vazquez in Pitt's outfield stands junior center fielder Stephen Vranka, whose five triples last season were the fifth-most recorded in a single season in school history and whose 222 at-bats were good for sixth on the all-time list. Vranka held a .333 on-base percentage and a .392 slugging percentage and was fourth on the team in hits (61). He also tied for the team-lead in stolen bases (9) and scored a team-leading 22 runs during conference play.
THE INFIELD: WHO'S IN?
The Panthers return two veterans of consistency to the left side of the infield this season in seniors Evan Oswald and Sam Parente. Oswald, who finished with a .299 batting average and a .391 on-base percentage in what was a strong finish to his junior campaign, put together a streak of 18 games where he reached base safely and also manufactured 11 multi-hit games last season.
Parente, a Lackawanna College transfer, sported his debut season at the Division-I level with six multiple-RBI performances, an eight-game hitting streak, 11 multi-hit games, and a string of 17 consecutive games where he reached base safely. He finished with a .302 batting average and the fifth-most RBI (26) on the team.
The right side of the infield still remains in question with several key battles going on between integral players to fill vacancies at first base and second base. Redshirt senior Steven Shelinsky, Jr. and sophomore Eric Hess are both competing for the starting role at first.
"At first base you have a right-hander in Shelinsky and a left-hander in Hess, and both are doing a solid job," said Jordano. "The one that is producing and executing at a higher level will be the one that gets the nod on day one."
The battle for second base rests in the hands of freshman Bennette Hill, redshirt freshman Dylan Wolsonovich, and senior Ronald Sucre. Jordano said each player brings a different dimension of strengths to the field and the coaching staff has yet to determine a clear-cut favorite.
A lot was asked of Elvin Soto behind the plate last season as he was one of three players to start every game in 2012, but he continued to perform at a high level with his bat and as the pitching staff's battery mate. As a freshman, Soto slugged at a .398 mark and hit seven home runs to tie Rick Devereaux for the team lead, placing eighth overall in the Big East. The Panthers' backstop led the conference in runners caught stealing (22) and maintained an impressive .993 fielding percentage. Soto was listed as the No. 15 prospect in the Big East this season in Baseball America's 2013 conference preview.
FORMER PROS IN THE DUGOUT
Pitt added two new faces to its coaching staff this season. Jerry Oakes, a 2000 seventh round draft selection by the Milwaukee Brewers and former four-year assistant at Coastal Carolina, joins the Panthers as the program's pitching coach. Former Youngstown State standout and 27th round selection by the Houston Astros in the 2012 MLB Draft Jacke Healey will head Pitt's infield and assist associate head coach Danny Lopaze with the offense in his first year as an assistant coach.
"Any time that you have coaching changes there is a period of transition, but Jerry and Jacke have done a great job in making that transition very smooth," Jordano said. "Jerry has worked very hard with the pitchers and has spent a tremendous amount of time doing above and beyond what is expected to prepare the pitching staff. Jacke, as well, has done excellent work with the infield and has brought a nice perspective to the players."
BOYS OF WINTER?
Several players on the Panthers' roster have thrived in the month of February throughout their careers, showing little restraint in the opening weeks of nonconference play to get off to a hot start.
In his first two career appearances, Wilt pitched back-to-back perfect outings and recorded his first career save in the Big East/Big Ten Challenge last season.
Caravella, a workhorse for Pitt as a starter during midweek competition and as a bullpen mainstay during conference play in 2012, has held opponents to a .234 average in 13 innings of February competition. Wotherspoon and junior Luke Novosel have also excelled in their careers during the first month of the season, with Wotherspoon holding an undefeated record (1-0) with 16 strikeouts in 12 innings and a .229 batting average against. Novosel sports a 3.18 ERA in the month of February.
Roche owns a team-best .429 batting average in the month of February with 10 runs scored and 11 RBI, with fellow junior Vranka's .393 mark not far behind. During the opening month of their freshman campaigns, Soto batted .300 with nine RBI and Vazquez posted a .350 average with six runs, two RBI, and three bases on balls.
SEASON OF MILESTONES
Jordano, 710-477-2 (.598 winning percentage) in his career and 427-359-2 (.545 winning percentage) with the Panthers, met several milestones as a head coach last season. A 3-1 win against Coastal Carolina at the Coastal Carolina Invitational in Conway, S.C. on March 2 rewarded him with his 400th win with Pitt. On April 18, a walk-off solo home run by Roche against Akron in a 3-2 win at home solidified Jordano's 700th career victory.