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2006 UMBC BASEBALL PREVIEW
Head coach John Jancuska enters his 29th season at the helm of the Retrievers.
Expectations ride high heading into the 2006 baseball season for head coach John Jancuska and the UMBC baseball program, as the Retrievers are ready to reap the benefits of a youthful program becoming deeper and more experienced.
After a season in which half of the squad was made up of newcomers, including two starting outfielders, three of four infielders and a catcher fresh off knee surgery, the Retrievers are ready to become one of the elite members of the America East Conference.
“Expectations for this season are the highest they have been in a couple of years,” Jancuska said. “We have veteran leadership, experience at every position on the field and leadership throughout the team.”
Entering the 2006 season, UMBC returns seven of eight starting position players and has lost only three pitchers from the 2005 squad, giving the Retrievers a balance in all phases with quality and quantity. Coach Jancuska believes this is the year when UMBC moves over the hump in the America East Conference.
“We were capable of winning the first two years in the conference and were very competitive in every area except the win/loss column,” Jancuska said. “Last year was the youth while the year before our pitching staff was not very deep. This year I am optimistic we can do it all.”
Having experience and depth at the top of the Retriever pitching staff will prove to be valuable this season as the America East Conference has adopted a nine-inning Friday game, a doubleheader on Saturday with two seven-inning games and a single nine-inning series finale on Sunday. With the new conference format, the Retriever pitching staff will have to go an extra seven innings in league play, going from a minimum of 25 innings pitched to 32 innings per conference series this season.
At the top of the Retriever rotation are two solid seniors in Zach Clark and Jon Pavlis. Clark, the team captain for the 2006 season, was limited last season after recovering from surgery the previous year. Despite an earned run average of 8.21 last year, he showed signs of his dominate form from previous years and returned to that form over the summer. Clark was named co-MVP of the 2005
“Jon was very consistent and pitched at a high caliber last year,” Jancuska said. “Zach is now healthy and should pitch at a high level as well.”
Entering the season, junior Steve Evans is penciled in as the third starter in the rotation after earning some starts in conference play last year and coming on strong during the latter part of the season. Evans made eight starts in 2005, including one in each of the final three conference series. He held a 3.92 ERA in conference games with a .272 opponent batting average, the lowest average allowed by any Retriever pitcher in league play. Two of UMBC’s six league wins came from Evans, who won against
“Steve really established himself during the second half of the conference season last year and performed very well,” Jancuska said. “This is his third year, and we expect him to become a big part of our pitching staff.”
One of the Retrievers’ preseason battles will be for the fourth starting spot, with incumbent Dan Blewitt and newcomer Eddie Bach as the frontrunners. Blewitt threw very well last year, seeing the most action out of any rookie pitcher, with 17 games on the season. He allowed one earned run over his last seven games and held a 3.86 ERA in conference play. Bach is a highly touted rookie with great command and has the advantage of being a left-handed pitcher, something the 2005 Retriever rotation lacked.
Regardless of who earns the fourth starting spot, both Blewitt and Bach are expected to see plenty of innings this season. Coach Jancuska also likes the look of returning sophomore Tom Schlein, who held a 3.27 ERA in seven appearances last year, as well as newcomers Sean Rae, Tim Comiskey and Steve Gale. Also look for Matt Buchholz, Brian Duffy and Bo Sauter to get some innings, along with Mike Fitzpatrick, a red-shirt sophomore who has missed the last two seasons due to injury.
The Retriever defense may prove to be the strength of the squad this year, returning the entire starting outfield along with three of four infielders and last year’s starting catcher. Last season, the UMBC defensive unit trimmed 33 errors in two less games from the previous season’s total (114 in 2004, 81 in 2005), helping the Retriever pitching staff give up 112 less total runs (416 in 2004, 304 in 2005) and 32 less unearned runs (84 in 2004, 52 in 2005) than the 2004 season.
While the Retrievers may not make as big strides in the categories of errors or runs allowed, Jancuska believes that his infield this year has a lot of potential to continue the trend, while picking up the offensive output as well.
“We have added some depth giving us a lot of players this year that can hit and play good defense,” Jancuska said. “We have a lot of options around the infield to make us stronger offensively and defensively.”
A very crowded unit, the UMBC infield has a number of interchangeable parts with Ian Carman, Steve Russo, Anthony Socarras and Mark Lemon returning, as well as the additions of Carl Wolf, back from a knee injury last year, and junior college transfer Steve Bowen.
Wolf, who was poised to be the Retrievers’ everyday shortstop last year but suffered an injury after starting the first three games of the season, will battle the incumbent, Lemon, at third base. Lemon started 45 games on the hot corner last year.
Bowen is coming off a big year for CCBC-Catonsville and is pushing for the starting nod at shortstop. Socarras, who took over at the position for the majority of the season following Wolf’s injury, is excellent with the glove and will give Jancuska an option late in innings for a strong defensive presence up the middle.
Russo looks to make a move over to second base, where he will battle Carman for the starting spot. Russo is UMBC’s top returning hitter from last year and could earn the everyday job based on his offensive ability. Carman made a mere nine errors in more than 230 chances last year, as he started 44 games at second base.
The Retrievers will miss the glove of second-team all-conference selection Kyle Wildasin at first base, but Jancuska feels newcomer Steve Gale, along with returnees Isaac Friedel and Scott Peddicord, are all very capable of filling the void, especially with Wildasin, now an assistant coach, helping instruct the position. Zach Clark has seen action in the past at first base and could be used there when not on the mound or serving as designated hitter.
Behind the plate, UMBC possesses junior Tom Rinaldi, who has shown strong ability to handle the pitching staff while hitting with consistency and power. Rinaldi, however, will be pushed for the starting spot by newcomer Tom Meaney, a freshman switch-hitter with power who could split time with Rinaldi behind the plate. Sean Joyce and Dave Warrenfeltz will vie for time as the third catcher.
The Retriever outfield has only grown stronger since Jancuska found the trio of Joe Fowler, Brian Moran and Mike Scheffel. All three started more than 40 games last year and grew together as a strong defensive unit that will only get better, as Scheffel enters his junior year while Moran and Fowler are sophomores. Moran may be the fastest athlete on the team and will patrol center field, with Scheffel controlling right field and Fowler handling left field.
“They all are better than they were last year based on what I saw in the fall,” Jancuska said. “Fowler really came on as a left fielder and Moran and Scheffel were really outstanding defensive players last year. I expect all of them improve drastically offensively as well.”
Chris Cerullo began last year as an everyday outfielder until an injury forced him to take a medical red-shirt. Cerullo will see action and should push any of the returning outfielders for the position. Also look for Zach Clark, Tom Marino and Tom Meaney to see some playing time in the outfield.
Last year the Retrievers were held to a .277 batting average, and the team returns only one hitter that batted over .300 on the season in Steve Russo. UMBC finished fifth in the conference in hitting in 2005 and will look to make greater strides there this year.
“We maybe the closest to hitting through out the lineup that we have been in a long time not just for average but for extra base power,” said Jancuska. “We have some guys who have some pretty sound approaches at the plate, put the ball in play and can hit with extra base power.”
UMBC will look to Moran to use his speed to spark the Retriever lineup. Moran held a .344 on-base percentage and was 11-for-12 in stolen bases last season. Scheffel batted 28 games in the second slot last year and carried a .280 batting average.
The Retriever question marks offensively are whether Moran and Scheffel can produce at the top of the order and where Jancuska will find power needed to fill the middle of the lineup.
Last year UMBC held a .372 slugging percentage and produced 105 extra-base hits, both sixth in the conference.
Fowler and Russo are the top returning hitters with extra-base power, while Rinaldi and Carman were solid at the plate in 2005, with Rinaldi holding a .298 average and Carman hitting .288.
Expectations are high this season as the Retrievers look for their first winning season since going 32-24 in 2004. UMBC is stacked with depth across the board and returns a number of players who became very comfortable playing with one another last year.
In addition to the quality and quantity of players UMBC possesses, the Retrievers’ schedule is set up to give them the advantage heading down the home stretch. Once the conference season starts on April 7 at home against
“Having lights and night games is very unique situation in college baseball in the Northeast,” Jancuska said. “It is great for our players from an academic stand point, for our fans and for the community in general.”
Starting April 11, UMBC will play six consecutive Tuesday nights at home with 7 p.m. starts against local programs such as Navy, George Washington, Mount St. Mary’s,
The format for conference has also changed this season, which coach Jancuska believes will play into the Retrievers’ favor. Always a competitive team against conference foes, the UMBC skipper likes his team’s chances in adding seven innings to each weekend series, helping the Retrievers reach the top-four in the conference and advance to the America East Tournament.
“I am confident that we have enough pitching depth to have quality pitching for 32 innings,” Jancuska said. “I am sure in a strong conference like the America East that our opponents will have the same quality of pitching, but as long as we play solid defense and hit we will be very competitive.”