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Baseball Banter: Breaking Down Birdball with Bradley Smart

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We know BC can batter the ball - will their pitching be enough to contend in the ACC?

BCEagles.com

EDITOR’S NOTE: Heights alum Bradley Smart writes the Bird’s Eye View Substack newsletter, offering in-depth coverage of Boston College baseball.

The newsletter is an indispensable resource if you’re looking to get up to speed on the Eagles, who are off to a thrilling 9-2 start to the season and are up to #13 in the country.

Bradley took some time to chat with us about the team - especially the BC pitching staff, and whether they will provide enough depth to pair with BC’s strong offense and push the Eagles toward contention in the ACC. Transcript of our conversation is below!

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Joe Gravellese: My first question for you, before getting to the team, would be on the genesis of the newsletter itself.

As I’ve mentioned on here, it’s an invaluable resource and a must-subscribe if you’re looking to get up to date on BC baseball, and is basically the only place on the web dedicated just to this program — what inspired you to put it together and have baseball be your focus?

Bradley Smart: That’s a great question. So last year, before COVID shut everything down, I had some free time on my hands and wanted to get back into sportswriting. I was the Sports Editor of The Heights for two years and during that, my favorite coach to talk to and team to cover was Mike Gambino and BC baseball. There was a lot of excitement around the program going into last year with new facilities and a lot of talent so I figured it was a good team to start covering. Plus, Northeast baseball in general can be under-covered and I felt like BC had a lot going for them. COVID shut everything down just a few weeks into coverage, but I rebooted it for this season because once again there was a lot of potential in this team and I wanted to provide fans greater insight.

Joe: Well there’s been no lack of storylines so far. I think what’s really obvious to everyone, even a more casual observer like me, is that BC is going to hit the ball. They’ve been really strong offensively for years, and their power up and down the lineup should be able to do keep doing damage even against good teams.

The big question in terms of whether BC can stay in that top 25, national contender conversation, is pitching, and whether the rotation can keep up with the big boys.

I’d love to break it down a bit - Friday, Saturday, Sunday, who’s next up if one of the top 3 falters, and who they’ll rely on midweeks.

Bradley: The lineup is definitely the focal point of this team—there’s so much depth there from 1-9 and even on the bench. I think you’re definitely right in asking the question about pitching.

Right now, the rotation is Mason Pelio on Friday, Emmet Sheehan on Saturday, and then freshman Joe Vetrano opens for a long reliever in Alex Stiegler on Sundays.

Pelio is the undisputed ace — this is a guy who was in the conversation for ACC Pitcher of the Year in the preseason. He had a tough go against Duke but bounced back with a strong start against Auburn and is the kind of guy that can win you Friday night duels.

Sheehan had two phenomenal starts against CSU and Duke, then got shelled against Auburn — and that’s kind of been his trend over the last two-plus years. His stuff is undeniable and he’s a premium strikeout pitcher when it’s on, but sometimes he can get a little wild and against good teams that can tank a start. If he’s at his best, though, that 1-2 punch of Pelio and Sheehan is really, really good.

The Eagles don’t really have a true Sunday starter like some teams, instead going with the Tampa Bay Rays-esque opener in Vetrano to build into a Yale transfer in Stiegler. Vetrano’s been up-and-down so far but he’s a true freshman so we’ll see how he progresses as the year goes. Stiegler has a ton of collegiate innings under his belt and outside of a tough inning against Auburn, he’s been really good for a longer relief role.

I think we’re going to see a lot of different pitchers in the midweek — like against Maine we saw freshman Joey Ryan for five innings, while Rhode Island was a true bullpen day with a lot of young arms getting two innings. You can see Gambino putting a lot of freshman out there for those games and it’s worked the first two times out, I’d expect that to keep going

The big bullpen name to know is Joey Walsh, though, and that speaks to what you asked about who’s up if one of those guys falters. He can spot start or close a game or pitch several innings in relief and is a really valuable piece. Another guy for longer relief outings is last year’s Sunday starter Joe Mancini.

Joe: Do you think anyone - like Mancini - is going to push for that Sunday spot or will they stick with the opener model? Is that trend coming to the college game too, the way it has grown in prominence in the big leagues?

Bradley: My guess is they stick with it. Mancini is solid in long relief and I don’t think they’ll slot him back on Sunday’s. Stiegler could make some starts — he was a starter at Yale — but having someone like Vetrano get through two innings and then completely change the arm angle/pitch type with Stiegler is a good combination. I’m not sure of the prevalence throughout college baseball — a lot of big conference teams go with the traditional 1-2-3 weekend rotation — but it makes sense when you don’t necessarily think you have that true Sunday starter.

Joe: I don’t know if you had a chance to see any highlights or anything from Saturday’s game - my understanding is that it wasn’t available to watch anywhere. So apologies if you don’t know - but is what happened with Sheehan on Saturday the control and wildness issues you referenced?

Bradley: Unfortunately because of the last-minute scheduling, Auburn had so many home athletic events that they couldn’t get SEC Network + for the first two games. I’m not entirely sure what went wrong for him but against Duke, he needed 89 pitches to go six innings with 9:1 K/BB. Against Auburn, he labored with 70 pitches in two innings — walked four, gave up a HR, hit a batter, and threw a wild pitch. Sometimes it’s just not your day. Gambino has always been very, very positive about Sheehan and describing how he’s “growing into his body” and developing as a pitcher. He doesn’t have that many career starts under his belt and that Auburn lineup is filled with a lot of guys who take very professional at bats, so my guess it was a bit of a spiral when things started getting out of control

Joe: For sure, the early returns were exciting for Sheehan with such a high strikeout rate in the first two outings, so it’ll be fun to keep an eye on him and this week we’ll get to watch the games on ACC NX.

A few guys who have made several appearances so far who we haven’t talked about yet - Charlie Coon, John West, Max Gieg. What are their roles? They are putting up pretty solid numbers so far, is that what we expect as we get into the grind of the season?

Bradley: Yeah, that’s a really talented trio of freshman that Gambino & Co. are really high on. Coon is a crafty lefthander who figures into the middle innings. He’s had great outings in the midweek and carried that success into weekend appearances too. West is a towering 6-foot-8 righty who was a basketball star in high school and is another middle inning guy. He’s had some control issues early in terms of walks and wild pitches but he’s a good arm. Max Gieg might have the highest upside of the group - this is a guy who throws mid 90s and is one of the traditional late inning relievers. Joey Walsh has three saves on the year, but Gieg’s another guy who could grab a few as the season goes on. He pitched well against Auburn getting in and out of trouble and was really good against Duke the weekend before. This is a really deep roster because of COVID, but these three freshman are some of the preferred arms out of the bullpen

Joe: You mention the shutdown of last season helping with the team’s depth - who would likely not be here if last year proceeded normally?

Bradley: There’s three everyday starters in the lineup that are benefitting from the extra year of eligibility — Brian Dempsey (who’s started something like 128 consecutive games now), Jack Cunningham, and Dante Baldelli. Then Joey Walsh, the heart of that bullpen, would be gone too. I think they’d all be guys that might’ve entered the minors as draft picks or free agent signings after graduating

Joe: Could hopefully be a perfect storm, then, of the right players, the right circumstances, the improved talent pipeline, and a chance to make a bit of a splash and continue the evolution of this program into a legit contender.

I don’t want to get too big picture yet — but from what you know about the talent pipeline, does it look like it’s continuing in the coming years?

Bradley: Yeah, absolutely. It’s definitely the deepest roster BC’s had in a while. In terms of big picture, though, there’s a downside—we’re at Sal Frelick, Cody Morissette, and Mason Pelio’s junior year already. They’re all draft-eligible after this season and could all go in the first few rounds. That’s tough to see three of the most talented players in recent BC history to miss their sophomore year. Still, they’ve got a good chance to leave a pretty lasting legacy.

In terms of the talent pipeline, Gambino’s recruiting has been strong the last few seasons and this is a really good freshman/sophomore group. You see someone like Cameron Leary come in and do well in his first two starts in the lineup and you get the sense that up and down this bench there’s future contributors. I think BC does a really good job of recruiting in the Northeast and there’s plenty of reason to think they’ll keep pulling in quality four-year contributors like Cunningham or Dempsey or Baldelli.

Joe: And then zooming back in — Louisville this weekend is obviously a strong team and another blueblood program. What should BC fans be looking out for from Louisville, and how do the Eagles match up with them as they look to win another big series?

Bradley: Louisville is the biggest test yet — a preseason top-five team that has a similarly deep lineup. It’s funny that the Cardinals biggest question mark, kind of like BC, is their rotation. They’re 8-4 but have some weird losses (Western Ill, Morehead St), and they just dropped a weekend series to Georgia Tech. I think this has the makings of a slugfest throughout the weekend if the starting pitching struggles on either side, and honestly, it’s hard to tell which team will score more runs.

BC’s got a lineup that’s hitting so well right now while Louisville has just terrific depth and the same arsenal of draft prospects. Cooper Bowman, Henry Davis, Cameron Masterman, and Lucas Dunn are all hitting over .330 with serious pop.

One thing I’d keep an eye on is the frequency that the Cardinals steal—they’ve got 40 stolen bases in 12 games—and they also do a really good job of preventing SBs as Davis is either the #1 or #2 catching draft prospect in the country. I think this is a monumental test for the Eagles but also one that can really establish themselves in the national rankings if they can keep their bats going.

Joe: On the topic of aggressiveness on the basepaths - one of the things I remember from BC when they first started to pop a little bit as a contender is being extremely aggressive on the base paths, bunting a lot, etc. etc., but they seem to have moved away from that approach - is that just based on a change in the kind of personnel they have available?

Bradley: They’re definitely not big on bunting, but you’re still going to see aggressiveness on the basepaths. Galland, Frelick, and Baldelli all are what Gambino calls “true base-stealers” which means they’ve got to go when they’ve got an opportunity. I think one change has been the sheer amount of power in this year’s team (18 home runs in 11 games) and there’s also been a lot of patience at the plate to move runners over.

It’s also hard with top-25 series to rack up a ton of stolen bases—these are usually close games and sometimes you see a reluctance to lose a baserunner when you’ve got someone like Cunningham or Dempsey or Gold at the plate.

I will say the team still is very good at getting the extra base whenever they can, like first to third situations.

Joe: Makes sense. Love seeing the evolution of the BC offense - they are so fun to watch right now. When you pair great hitting with baserunning that is aggressive but also smart, that’s when things really start clicking.

Last question - and thanks again for doing this. I know this is hard to do. But in like, 15-20 words or less... BC can go to Omaha this year if _______________ happens. Go!

Bradley: Oh boy, that’s a tough question. I’d say that BC is carried by its high-scoring lineup come postseason play while Pelio-Sheehan form a 1-2 punch and the bullpen, albeit filled with youth, has accumulated enough experience during the lengthy ACC seasons to finish out close games

Joe: Beautiful. Let it be so.

Boston College opens up a three game set at Louisville tonight at 6 PM on ACC Network Extra.