2013 Preview – Big East Conference

By Eric Sorenson. Posted on February 5th, 2013 in 2013 National Preview, Big Easton
 

2012 CONFERENCE ISR: 16

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HOW THEY’LL FINISH IN 2013:

1- Louisville

2- St. John’s

3- Notre Dame

4- Connecticut

5- Rutgers

6- South Florida

7- Seton Hall

8- Pittsburgh

9- Cincinnati

10- Villanova

11- Georgetown

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THE LOWDOWN.

If last June proved one thing, it was that all you have to do is give a Big East team a chance and they’ll prove their worth. Louisville and St. John’s had a pair of wicked-good runs in the post-season last year, with the Cards playing into the title round of the Tucson Regional, while the Johnnies also ventured to Tucson before losing to national champion Arizona in the Super Regional, after taking down North Carolina in Chapel Hill the week before. Both teams won 40+ and join South Florida, Seton Hall, Rutgers, UConn and Notre Dame in winning 30+ games. In all there were only three programs who had losing seasons in 2012. This year could be an even better year as just about everybody except St. John’s and Cincinnati will return at last two weekend starting pitchers and at least five or six starters in the field. And to be honest, even though Louisiville is a very strong favorite to win the conference, any of the next seven teams could turn into serious contenders if everything gels and they stay injury-free. Of course, the biggest factor could be the weather. As you know, Big East teams don’t tend to do well early in the season due to weather, practice time and an abundance of travel. But come May and June, watch out for the top brass here. As last year proved, they can put a warm-weather teams’ post-season hopes in the crapper when given the chance.

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BREAKTHROUGH TEAM:

- Notre Dame

Year three of the Mik Aoki era should easily be the best in South Bend. Six of the eight fielding positions return, and more importantly seven of the top eight pitchers from the staff are also back. The non-conference schedule is a little more arduous, so the win total might be hard to surpass. But come conference play these guys will be legit.

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TRENDING DOWN:

- St. John’s

Losing front line pitchers like Dan Lubban, Matt Carasatti and Kyle Hansen would make any team’s steam engine run a tad on the dry side. It will take a month or two for some of the new arms to acclimate and everybody to find their role, so look for lots of peaks and valleys to the Storm this year.

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BIGGEST CLEATS TO FILL:

- Will Hudgins, RHP, Notre Dame.

The Irish ace led the Big East with a microscopic 2.06 ERA and also accounted for 90 strikeouts. Man alive! The Golden Domers could use a dominator like that again. The other two weekend starters return in Sean Fitzgerald and Adam Norton, but they didn’t establish a presence like Hudgins did.

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BEST PLAYER:

- Adam Engel, OF, Louisville.

Nobody in the Big East gets his team going like the mercurial Engle, who is an infectious ball of energy and accounted for 37 stolen bases a year ago. He and fellow firestarters Ty Young, Nick Ratajczak and Cole Sturgeon all hit .300+ and have base-stealing ability to lead the offense.

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BEST PITCHER:

- Sean Hagan, RHP, St. John’s.

He’ll assume the Friday role from Kyle Hansen and should do very well, in this his senior year. In 2012, he held opposing batters to a crappy .230 batting average but will need to cut down on the free passes a bit.

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IMPACT NEWCOMER:

- Michael Sheppard, RHP, St. John’s

Boy, does his arrival come at a good time for the Red Storm. With all the attrition that the rotation saw hittin’ the road from last year’s squad, the 35th round draft pick should figure huge into coach Ed Blankmeyer’s plans this season.

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STEAL A LEAR JET FOR…

- Louisville at Connecticut, May 10-12.

Weekends vs. Notre Dame and St. John’s may be bigger, but this has all the looks of a trap-door weekend since it’s the last roadie weekend of Big East play and there’s also the chance that the Huskies could be better than expected and have at-large hopes to play for. Should be fun.

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CAPSULES…

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- CINCINNATI (18-38, 7-20)

2012 ISR: 237

Starters Returning: 3

Weekend Starters: 1

Mid-Week Starters: 1

Key Relievers (15+inns.): 5

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All Conference Candidates:

OF Justin Glass (.366-3-26, 15SBs, 1st All Big East)

RHP Christian McElroy (4-6, 4.41)

LHP Thomas Gentile (2-3, 3.22, .245OBA)

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NOTES:

- The Bearcats? A last place finish? In the Big East? With THAT great home facility they’ve got? YUCK! UC went from a 30-win season in 2011 to last year’s 18-win abomination. Well the good news is that there’s nowhere to go but up from here.

- After allowing their opponents the most hits of any other pitching corps in the Big East, the Bearcats need to bear down in 2013. They’ll miss the comfort of the Two Zachs. Staff ace Zach Morris, who started 14 games a year ago, and saves leader Zach Isler, will both be missing this time around.

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- CONNECTICUT (31-27-1, 16-11)

2012 ISR: 114

Starters Returning: 5

Weekend Starters: 2

Mid-Week Starters: 1

Key Relievers (15+inns.): 5

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All Conference Candidates:

2B L.J. Mazzilli (.339-9-38, 16SBs)

OF Billy Ferriter (.319, 24SBs)

SS Tom Verdi (.289-4-35, 10SBs)

LHP Anthony Marzi (3-8, 2.55, 3CGs, .207OBA)

RHP Carson Cross (3-1, 1.21, .210OBA)

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NOTES:

- Well you knew after earning 45 wins, a near-trip to Omaha in 2011 and losing most of the team, 2012 would be a little bit of a downturn. Sure enough, a 31-win season wasn’t a big shock. But the good side is that even for a “down” season, 31 wins and a 16-11 conference mark isn’t bad. Kudos to coach Jim Penders.

- First off, let’s just hope the Huskies can shake the “Bulls Bugaboo”, a condition which caused them to go 1-5 vs. South Florida last season, including a pair of one-run losses in the Big East Tournament which ended their season down in Clearwater.

- The Huskies could have one of the best one-two punches at the top of their batting order in a pair of seniors; Billy Ferriter and L.J. Mazzilli. Both are swift-afoot, walked 22 times last year and ground into just three double-plays. Go ahead, call ‘em clutch.

- Watch for the emerging star of SS Tom Verdi, a rough and tumble dirtbagger who the coaches feel just keeps getting better and better, with the bat, the glove and certainly emerging into a lead-by-example type of player.

- With Anthony Marzi, LHP Brian Ward and RHP Pat Butler combining for 37 starts and nearly 200 innings of work, starting pitching could be in pretty good shape. The big question going into the season is who will lock down wins in the late innings. Scott Oberg was nearly perfect, going 5-0 with nine saves and holding opposing hitters to just .154 last season, but now he has moved on. Carson Cross looks to be a solid candidate, especially after posting good numbers last year. But UConn lost some late leads in 2012, so he’ll have to be effective and bring his A-game… along with that mid-90s heater.

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- GEORGETOWN (24-29, 10-17)

2012 ISR: 227

Starters Returning: 6

Weekend Starters: 2

Mid-Week Starters: 1

Key Relievers (15+inns.): 5

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All Conference Candidates:

OF Justin Leeson (.325-2-21, 18SBs)

INF Corbin Blakey (.300-3-24)

RHP Charles Steinman (4-5, 3.05, 4svs)

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NOTES:

- Despite the 10th place finish in the Big East, the Hoyas did manage to be the fifth-best offense in the conference, clipping at a .288 pace and also finishing second in the conference with 101 doubles on the year.

- Coach Pete Wilk will appreciate this. Of the six returning starters in the field, five of them are seniors. And of the eight pitchers coming back, five are seniors. So this will be an experienced team coming back and most of them in important positions.

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- LOUISVILLE (41-22, 18-9)

2012 ISR: 51

Starters Returning: 8

Weekend Starters: 2

Mid-Week Starters: 1

Key Relievers (15+inns.): 4

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All Conference Candidates:

RHP Jared Ruxer (8-3, 3.38)

RHP Jeff Thompson (9-4, 4.40)

OF Adam Engel (.308, 37SBs)

OF/LHP Cole Sturgeon (.321/0-1, 3.60, 3svs, .203OBA)

INF Ty Young (.344-6-42, 15SBs)

2B Nick Ratajczak (.343)

DH/OF Jeff Gardner (.299-2-34)

RHP Chad Green (5-0, 2.70, .245OBA)

RHP Nick Burdi (1-2, 5.56)

1B Zak Wasserman (.297-6-27)

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NOTES:

- It was a great thing to see the Cards turn things around last year, after the rather sedate 2011 season where they went just 32-29/14-13 despite having some big expectations. Coach Dan McDonnell’s charges got their act together well enough to become co-champs of the Big East (though the Cardinals took two of three from St. John’s so they’ll tell you the title is all theirs) and make it all the way to the championship round of the Tucson Regional last June.

- Okay, okay, take a deep breath. Coz you see all those All-Big East candidates above? It’s not a smoke screen or me just being generous, those are all legitimate post-season honor candidates. This team is bulging with talent and could be ready to take another step up this season. The only significant losses are the power-bat of Stewart Ijames, innings-leader Justin Amlung and saves ace Derek Self. Big losses, sure. But not insurmountable to overcome.

- Keep an especially close eye on RHP Jeff Thompson, who threw a no-hitter in the Cape Cod League this past summer in an impressive complete-game, 9K effort over first place Harwich. Thompson is like an Offensive Tackle on the mound, standing 6’6, 245 and was a 2nd-team All Big East. Equate that to Ndomukong Suh staring you down from 60 feet away. Yikes.

- One of the biggest stories of the off-season had to be RHP Nick Burdi, who apparently hit triple digits on the Juggs Guns in the fall scrimmages. Burdi only had 22.1 innings of use last season, so it should be interesting to see if this power arm can carry that intensity into the spring season and have a big 2013.

- It will be interesting to see how the Cardinals’ schedule will grade as the season goes on. They’ll play Kent State, Alabama, Purdue, USC and Elon in multiple non-conference games this year. All of those teams have the potential to be pretty good, or just run of the mill. The good news is that UofL appeared to *try* to put together a good non-conference slate and that should stand for something here. Also, how the HELL did they convince an SEC team to go north on the road in early March? Damn!

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- NOTRE DAME (31-27, 14-13)

2012 ISR: 123

Starters Returning: 6

Weekend Starters: 2

Mid-Week Starters: 2

Key Relievers (15+inns.): 3

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All Conference Candidate:

3B Eric Jagielo (.310-13-43)

1B Trey Mancini (.317-12-45)

RHP Sean Fitzgerald (7-3, 3.82)

RHP Adam Norton (5-5, 4.32)

RHP Dan Slania (3-0, 2.03, 13svs)

RHP Pat Connaughton (4-4, 3.18)

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NOTES:

- There is a certain sort of comfort zone for Mik Aoki as he gets more entrenched as the Irish head coach in his third season at the helm. They made great strides last season after 22 and 23 win seasons in 2010 and 2011. This year, they could go another step farther with all the experience at hand and growing confidence.

- The biggest source of that confidence comes from the large amount of innings coming back to the arms corps. Friday ace Will Hudgins is gone, but fellow weekenders Adam Norton and Sean Fitzgerald will make a good one-two punch as capable starters. Relief ace Dan Slania is a huge welcome return with his 13 saves.

- Eric Jagielo is the biggest slugger returning in the Big East and also had a banner summer in the Cape Cod League, hitting 10 home runs in what is usually a pitching-heavy league. He’ll be joined by Trey Mancini to provide the pop in the lineup. Speedwise, look for OF Charlie Markson (.303, 19SBs) and Frank DeSico (.302, 13SBs) to provide the pressure on opposing defenses.

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- PITTSBURGH (28-28, 10-17)

2012 ISR: 173

Starters Returning: 6

Weekend Starters: 2

Mid-Week Starters: 1

Key Relievers (15+inns.): 6

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All Conference Candidates:

C Elvin Soto (.250-7-38)

RHP Matt Wotherspoon (4-4, 5.03)

3B Sam Parente (.302)

OF/RHP Casey Roche (.323-3-45/2-1, 7.56)

OF Bob Vazquez (.327)

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NOTES:

- The Panthers face the specter of looking down into their crystal ball and knowing they’ve got to make a big upgrade to be competitive in the ACC. They’ve had some good seasons where they could play with almost anyone (for instance, 2010′s 38-win team that should’ve earned an at-large bid), but this has never been a consistent winner of a program. They are in need of a quick upgrade as they move to a top-flite conference.

- If experience goes a long way, Pitt may be ready to put the clamps on people. Nine of last year’s top 10 pitchers on the squad return to the roster. The Panthers should improve heartily on their 4.54 team ERA, which was 8th in the Big East. But the better part is that this arms corps also issued the fewest bases on balls in the loop with just 159 in their 56 games.

- The coaching staff is certainly excited about the second year to come from RHP Joe Harvey, who made 17 appearances last season and posted 1-0, 4.67 numbers. They’ll also get back RHP Luke Curtis, a highly-regarded high school phenom who earned a starting role last season before falling to an injury and ending up on the shelf.

- Four of the top six hitters from last year also come back to the batting order, all of whom hit .299+. The Panthers hit .299 as a team last year, which was 3rd in the Big East.

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- RUTGERS (31-25, 16-11)

2012 ISR: 116

Starters Returning: 7

Weekend Starters: 2

Mid-Week Starters: 0

Key Relievers (15+inns.): 3

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All Conference Candidates:

C Jeff Melillo (.311-4-30)

2B Nick Favatella (333-5-42)

RHP Rob Smorol (8-4, 3.46)

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NOTES:

- I look like an idiot, I know. Last year in this space I stated that the Knights were “primed to have their best team in a decade.” Well, while RU showed plenty of improvement, including flipping their Big East mark from 2011′s 11-16 ledger to last year’s 16-11 record, good for 5th place and just two games back of 1st place. So there was some improvement, though not best-in-a-decade improvement.

- Like Pitt above them, the Knights will have nearly the entire batting order coming back from a team that finished 2nd in the Big East in hitting at .292 as a team and with 230 walks last season. The only missing hole was actually a crater in the form of do-it-all Patrick Kivlehan, who finished 2nd in the Big East in hitting at .392, smashed a conference-best 14 home runs and had the 3rd-most stolen bases with 24.

- The arms corps will miss weekend starters Ryan Fasano and Tyler Gebler, who combined for 26 starts and 190 innings of work last season. But pitching could still be a strength, especially with the return of Rob Corsi (3-2, 4.59), who started six games before getting shut down due to injury, and senior Nathan Roe, who started 11 games in 2011 but missed last season due to injury but is back, and better.

- Worth watching: There is a lot of offense coming back, but be sure to keep an eye on catcher Jeff Melillo, who could be primed for a big-time season after spending last summer shattering the Northeast Collegiate Baseball League record with a .548 on-base percentage. He also hit .404 and collected 26 walks in 27 games over the summer.

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- St. JOHN’s (36-22, 18-8)

2012 ISR: 67

Starters Returning: 6

Weekend Starters: 1

Mid-Week Starters: 0

Key Relievers (15+inns.): 3

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All Conference Candidates:

LHP Sean Hagan (8-3, 2.90, .233OBA)

3B Sean O’Hare (.341-3-43)

1B Frank Schwindel (.332-4-30)

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NOTES:

- I owe the Johnnies a sizable apology. Last March, when I was up in NYC, I took the subway out to Jamaica to see the Red Storm host Maryland. And, instead of talking to coach Ed Blankmeyer and doing a small feature on his team, I chose to talk to Erik Bakich about his Terps instead. Little did I know it would be SJU that would go on to the NCAA tournament and finish its season at the Super Regional round. Maryland stayed home. Mea culpa coach Blankmeyer, I’ll try to make up for that this year when I get to the Big Apple.

- And by the way, before I forget, congrats on an incredible run in the Big Dance. That scintillating performance in Chapel Hill, eliminating North Carolina was pretty incredible. Proof positive once again that people should not forget these Big East teams just because they lose some early games mostly due to not being able to play and practice outside in February and March.

- Of course, the bad news is that the Johnnies will lose a large amount of pitching off last year’s team, including Stephen Rivera, Brendan Lobban, Kyle Hansen and Matt Carasait, who accounted for 38 starts and just under 300 innings of use last season. Sean Hagan will have to be the anchor to rebuild around. But he’s not a bad anchor at that. considering he threw a team-high 108.2 innings last season. He’ll also have RHP James Lomangino (2-1, 4.34, 6svs) to back him as the saves specialist.

- One newcomer that will surely be appreciated will be RHP Michael Sheppard, who was a 35th round draft pick in last June’s Major League draft. He could get a look for a weekend rotation spot.

- Relatively speaking, the Red Storm was below average defensively last season, fielding at a .962 pace. Losing longtime fielding leader Matt Wessinger from the middle infield will be tough to overcome as he was a steadying influence to this program the last few years. Getting corner infielders Sean O’Hare and Frank Schwindel back to man their posts will help.

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- SETON HALL (34-24, 17-10)

2012 ISR: 124

Starters Returning: 8

Weekend Starters: 2

Mid-Week Starters: 1

Key Relievers (15+inns.): 5

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All Conference Candidates:

RHP Jon Prosinski (9-3, 3.52)

RHP Jose Lopez (3-1, 3.68)

INF Kyle Grimm (.308)

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NOTES:

- The Pirates have to hope that 12-3 flurry which closed out the regular season last year has some kind of carry over effect. The 2012 season was also the second straight season that saw the Pirates pull off 34 wins, so give coach Sheppard some props for turning this around.

- Beyond Kyle Grimm, the Italian Mob Squad of Papaccio, Annunziata and Genovese will be Murder Inc. on their opposing pitchers. Guiseppe Papccio (.279-3-36), Sal Annunziata (.277-3-24) and Mike Genovese (.274, 30walks) will help improve that .266 offense.

- The 3.60 team ERA was stellar, but the Pirates will have to move on without weekend starter Ryan Harvey and the top three relievers, including saves leader Benny Mejia. But arms like RHP Jose Lopez,  LHP Greg Terhune (2-2, 4.67) and RHP Brian Gilbert (3-5, 4.71) had 20 starts between them while also making a lot of relief appearances.

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- SOUTH FLORIDA (38-22, 17-10)

2012 ISR: 107

Starters Returning: 5

Weekend Starters: 1

Mid-Week Starters: 0

Key Relievers (15+inns.): 3

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All Conference Candidates:

OF James Ramsay (.328-2-32, 13SBs)

RHP Austin Adams (1-2, 1.82, 5svs)

RHP Steven Leasure (2-0, 1.90, 6svs)

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NOTES:

- How about that? USF improved from 25 wins in 2011 to 38 wins last season, despite having very little pitching coming back. They even contended for the Big East regular season title, falling a game short of St. John’s and Louisville. The Bulls 38 wins did include a W over No. 1 ranked Florida too. Not bad.

- Without starters like Andrew Barbosa, Matt Reed and Derrick Stultz, who combined for 42 starts last year, reaching that 3.50 team ERA will be pretty tough to do. But stud ace relievers Austin Adams, Steven Leasure and Nick Gonzalez (4-1, 2.64, 2svs) all return and will take on bigger roles this season, including being the building blocks of the staff. Joey Lovecchio, a right-handed senior, returns after making 12 starts and going 8-4, 4.78.

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- VILLANOVA (28-27, 10-17)

2012 ISR: 196

Starters Returning: 4

Weekend Starters: 1

Mid-Week Starters: 1

Key Relievers (15+inns.): 6

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All Conference Candidates:

SS/2B Tyler Sciacca (.359, 17SBs)

RHP Pat Young (6-5, 4.39)

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NOTES:

- The good news is that the Wildcats have steadily improved the team ERA, dropping it to sub-5.00 for the first time in forever, it seems. Staff ace Pat Young is back to be a building block. Relievers Matt Lengel (2-0, 3.54, 1sv), Matt Meurer (3-2, 4.11, 2svs) and Kevin MacLachlan (1-1, 4.58) will take on bigger roles this season after combining for 53 appearances and 111 innings of work last year.

- Tyler Sciacca is getting glossed for preseason All Big East, and with good reason. He was given a fifth year after sitting out most of 2011 with an injury and should be a real leader for the Cats this season.

 

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