Can you feel that? It’s starting to sweep across the country. No, not the sub-zero wind chill. Spring. Spring is getting closer and with it, baseball season. Pitchers and catchers report to Major League Spring Training in less than a month and, before you know it, it will be time for some peanuts, cracker-jacks, and red solo cups on the Beacon Hill parking garage. That’s right folks, Birdball is almost back.
The Eagles are coming off the best season in school history, which saw them obliterate all expectations and reach the Super Regionals for the first time ever, and come within a game of the College World Series. Although some key players from the record-setting 2016 squad are now gone, BC enters 2017 with a fair amount on talent on the roster, looking to pick up right where they left off last year. What a time to be alive.
As we get closer to opening day, we here at BC Interruption are going to preview the upcoming baseball season in a three-part series focused on the BC lineup, pitching staff, and 2016 recruiting class. We start our journey inside Birdball today by taking a look at what to expect from the lineup this season:
The biggest challenge a head coach faces in sustaining success in college baseball is trying to find a way to overcome with the yearly personnel turnover that the MLB Draft creates. Every year, the top players from programs around the country routinely leave school a year (sometimes two) early to chase their dreams in the minor leagues, and more power to them; they’ve earned it. For powerhouse programs, it is easy to replace the holes left by those players. They simply bring in a top-ranked recruiting class full of studs because, hey, they’re a powerhouse program and can do that sort of thing year-in and year-out. For a team like BC, however, it’s not that simple.
While Mike Gambino has brought in a fair share of top-line talent during his tenure, the Eagles rely heavily on player and program development to compete in toughest conference in college baseball, the ACC. 2016 saw the Eagles lose five position players, three of whom were everyday cogs in the BC lineup. However, Gambino’s proclivity to play guys early and often in their careers should pay dividends in 2017 and help fill the void left by those who are gone.
Entering 2017, the outfield is in prime position to continue the success it enjoyed last season. The only departures from the group come in the form of Logan Hoggarth and Gabe Hernandez, who graduated in May after four solid years on the Heights. Hernandez, who hit .220 last season with two homeruns and seven RBI, will be missed for his ability to play almost any position on the field and Hoggarth, who hit .280 with two homeruns and 20 RBI, was a steady presence in left field and on the backend of the Eagles lineup. Beyond those two, however, the outfield remains intact.
Senior Michael Strem, the top everyday hitter in the BC lineup a season ago, returns to patrol centerfield for the Eagles. The California native hit at a .301 clip, adding 1 homerun and 32 RBI, while starting every game for BC in 2016. Strem, a doubles machine, will again be relied upon to provide some pop in the middle of the Eagles lineup. Junior Donovan Casey, a two-way player who missed time last season with a broken bone in his hand, enters the spring looking to build off a strong showing in the Cape League this past summer and to solidify his spot in right field. When he was healthy, Casey was effective, hitting .273 with a homerun and 14 RBI in 32 starts. Rounding out the outfield will likely be junior Scott Braren, who saw the field last season in 29 games including 19 starts. Braren made the most of his limited time in the lineup, batting .333 with a homerun and 16 RBI. That kind of production has more than likely moved Braren to the front of the line for a shot at earning the starting job in left field when the Eagles open their season at Bethune-Cookman on February 17th. Also, keep an eye on freshman Dante Baldelli, a 39th round draft pick of the Philadelphia Phillies and the younger brother of former big-leaguer Rocco Baldelli, who could see time early, either in the outfield or as a DH. Baldelli, an alum of powerhouse Bishop Hendricken in Rhode Island, could also become one of the first off the bench in pinch-hit situations, when he is not in the starting lineup.
Providing depth in the outfield will be senior Chris Balogh, sophomores Dominic Hardaway and Connor Bacon, and freshmen Nick Latham and Jacob Yish. Balogh and Hardaway have the most experience of the group, appearing in 26 and 29 games, respectively, last season. Balogh’s size and power ( he’s 6’4, 223 lbs.) and Hardaway’s speed (4 out of 5 on stolen base attempts in limited action) will get them on the field throughout the season, and will allow Gambino to play the matchup game with opposing team’s bullpens.
There is no doubt the Eagles lost a leader in Joe Cronin, who was drafted in June by the Minnesota Twins in the 34th round after a solid senior season that saw him hit .267 while leading the team with four homeruns and 36 RBI. Cronin, who started every game for BC last season, split time between first base and third base and often was the offensive catalyst for an Eagles team that fed off of his energy. In short, replacing him will not be easy. However, the Eagles return the majority of their starting infield from a season ago, and will lean on that experience throughout the 2017 season.
Senior Captain Johnny “Pup” Adams enters his third full season as the Eagles starting shortstop having started every game there the last two years. Adams, a Walpole native and last year’s recipient of the prestigious #8 jersey (given in honor of Sonny Nictakis to a player who embodies perseverance in the face of adversity and the best qualities of BC Baseball), enjoyed his best offensive season a year ago, hitting .284 with a homerun and 26 RBI. He followed up the college season with a strong showing in the Cape League where he hit .254 for the Harwich Mariners. Joining Adams up the middle is second baseman, and leadoff man, Jake Palomaki. The junior started all 57 games last season for the Eagles and hit .258 with 25 RBI. He also led the team in walks (42) and hit-by-pitches (9); in other words: the guy gets on base, which is exactly what Coach Gambino will be looking for Palomaki to do again this season out of the leadoff spot. Playing first base will be junior Mitch Bigras, who really came into his own down the stretch last season hitting .261 with one homerun and 14 RBI. With his size comes the potential for power, however, Bigras will need to be more selective at the plate, and cut down on his strikeout total from a year ago, if he wants to become a more effective hitter in the middle of the BC order. Getting the first crack at taking over for Cronin at third base will likely be junior Anthony Maselli. The Avon Old Farms alum started 13 games in 2016, all at third base, amassing a .227 average with a homerun and 6 RBI. He’ll be looking to build off of that experience solidify his spot at the hot-corner.
Sophomore Jake Alu, freshman Jack Cunningham and senior Chris Balogh may all see time in the infield this season, although Cunningham’s role may me more on the mound than anywhere else. Alu saw very limited action a year ago, only recording four at bats as a freshman. The good news? He got hits in two of those four, including a double.
If replacing Joe Cronin is hard, what does that say about replacing Nick Sciortino? Even if you only watched the final game of BC’s season last year, you could easily see what Sciortino meant to this BC team. After a Miami player hit a resounding grand slam off Jesse Adams to put the Hurricanes ahead for good, and punch their ticket to Omaha, he showboated his way down the third base line, showing up not only Adams, but also the entire BC team. Sciortino was having none it. What ensued, to the outside observer, looked like an unfortunate altercation between the two teams. However, players and coaches alike will tell you, there are certain things you do not do, and certain lines you do not cross, and when someone does, it is OK to react, no matter what the ESPN commentator says at the time (looking at you Alex Cora).
Beyond the game in Coral Gables, Sciortino was the type of player every coach wants behind the plate. He knew how to handle the entire pitching staff, understood every situation, and controlled the opposing team’s running game with his arm. Oh yeah, he also hit .271 with 2 homeruns and 22 RBI. Not bad. The Boston Red Sox made him their 17th round draft choice and, in doing so, left a void in the BC lineup that will not easily be filled.
Sciortino’s likely replacement will be sophomore Gian Martellini. Martellini did not see a ton of time behind the plate last season, but played more than any other freshman on the roster, seeing action in 38 games overall including 27 starts, mainly as a DH. In those 38 games, he hit .224 with 2 homeruns and 14 RBI and showed flashes of being a middle of the order-type of hitter. The question for Martellini will be how well will he handle the day-to-day grind of catching in the ACC? And make no mistake about it, it is a grind. Providing depth at the catcher’s position will be freshmen Jake Goodreau and Jacob Yish. Generally speaking, it is rare for a true freshman to be a team’s everyday catcher in the ACC (unless your name is Tony Sanchez), so, expect Martellini behind the dish on opening day.
So, there you have it: although the Eagles lost several key players from last year’s Super Regional squad, the everyday starting nine should be pretty stout. However, a big concern facing the lineup this season will be depth. How well will the younger guys, who did not see much action last season, transition into more important roles? Can Gambino get either of the freshman catchers game-ready as a solid backup for Martellini? Are they going to bean Miami’s leadoff hitter on April 28th? (Yes, they should) We should have the answers to some of those questions early in the season, as the first two weekends (at Bethune-Cookman & at Oklahoma for the Sooner Baseball Classic) will reveal a lot about the 2017 Boston College Eagles.
Stay tuned to BC Interruption in the coming weeks as we’ll preview the Eagles pitching staff and 2016 recruiting class.