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Junior first baseman Brendan Skidmore hit six home runs and drove in 34 for the Bearcats in 2015.
Photo by Jonathan Cohen
Baseball preview: Bearcats look to return to ‘championship standard’
February 19, 2016Tweet
Binghamton baseball will open the 2016 season in unfamiliar territory, as a team off the radar … one that didn’t qualify for the previous conference tournament after struggling to the finish line last May. After winning three America East titles in six years and becoming a tough-out at the conference tournament, Binghamton suffered through a 6-16-1 league mark last spring and was left out of the four-team America East Championship for the first time in nine years.
Now nine months later, head coach Tim Sinicki opens his 24th-year at the helm with an expectation that his 2016 team will return to form.
“I believe over the past 10-12 years we’ve set a standard for this program – a championship standard, and obviously we didn’t play up to that standard last season,” he said.
Sinicki returns 19 letterwinners, including seven position starters and nine pitchers. Glaring graduation departures, however, are the team’s center fielder and leadoff hitter (Zach Blanden), its No. 1 starter (Greg Ostner) and one of the finest players in program history, Toronto Blue Jays draft pick Jake Thomas. Those seniors led the program to two NCAA berths in their four years.
The Bearcats still have plenty of weapons in the lineup, however.
“Our everyday lineup should be very good from top to bottom offensively, and collectively as a team our defense should be a strength,” Sinicki said. “Like every other year for this program – and most programs across the country, it will come down to how the pitching staff accepts their roles and performs.”
Seniors Reed Gamache and David Schanz return at second and third base, respectively. Gamache hit .288 with 26 RBI last spring and had an on-base percentage of .422, which ranked 11th in the America East. Schanz, a steady defensive player with a reliable bat, returns for his final season. He led the team with eight sacrifices in 2015.
Junior first baseman Brendan Skidmore is the program’s biggest slugger. Skidmore hit .303 last year (.360 vs. AE) and shared for the America East lead with six home runs. He registered a .517 slugging percentage, a team-high 18 extra-base hits and drove in a BU-best 34 runs (ninth in America East).
Sophomore shortstop Paul Rufo is back after starting 26 games in his freshman season. Rufo hit out of the eighth and ninth spot and turned 12 double plays.
Second-year infielder Luke Tevlin can fill in at third, short and second. He appeared in seven games as a freshman and hit .300 with a .550 slugging percentage.
Freshman Matt Tsukroff is also expected to see time in the infield and at DH. He was an all-state selection and conference player of the year at Montville Township High in Northwest New Jersey.
Sophomore Nick Wegmann, a lefty pitcher, will also see some time at first. The former three-sport scholastic standout hit .381 as a senior in high school.
Waiting in the wings is talented sophomore transfer Justin Yurchak, who hit .312 as a starter at Wake Forest last spring. He will become eligible in 2017.
“We should defend at a very high level in the infield,” Sinicki said. “We have tremendous talent and experience at each of the four positions, and our pitchers should take great comfort knowing they can pitch to contact and will have a strong group behind them.”
The tandem of junior Eddie Posavec and sophomore Jason Agresti gives Sinicki two capable two-way catchers. Posavec, the hero of Binghamton’s 2014 America East championship, played four different positions in 2015. He is on pace to crack the program’s top-10 in doubles, triples and stolen bases. Agresti started 33 games as a freshman (catcher and DH) and hit .309 in the last month of the season. Both players can DH when not behind the plate.
Junior transfer Henry Pellicciotti, a former standout at local Johnson City High, joins the program in 2016.
“With the return of Eddie and Jason, we probably have the best catching combination in the conference,” Sinicki said. “Add Henry to the mix behind the plate and we’re as deep – and athletic – as we’ve ever been.”
Two-thirds of this starting trio is gone, leaving sophomore CJ Krowiak as the most experienced returnee. With Blanden’s departure in center, Krowiak will move over from left field. He started 23 games (19 in left) as a freshman and hit .325 with a .453 on-base percentage in 2015. Krowiak can also patrol the infield and started four games at second base.
“Moving CJ to center field allows him to utilize and maximize his athleticism,” Sinicki said. “We’ve been fortunate to have a very good run of guys playing center in this program and CJ will continue that tradition.”
Junior Darien Herncane has logged 37 games in his career and will start in left field. Herncane appeared in 17 games during 2015 and had a .314 on-base percentage.
In right, sophomore Chris McGee has earned the starting nod after a strong freshman season. McGee hit .296 in 21 games last spring and bumped that up to .323 against America East opponents.
Versatile junior Eddie Posavec can play outfield when he’s not behind the plate and sophomore Pat Britt brings a solid lefty bat to the lineup and will get some swings from the DH spot. Freshman Daniel Franchi begins his collegiate career as an option in center.
Sinicki returns the bulk of his pitching corps but does lose No. 1 Greg Ostner, who logged a team-high 60.2 innings last spring, and top reliever Anthony Grillini (2.00 ERA), who made a team-high 15 appearances. The 2015 Bearcats allowed nearly six runs a game in 2015 conference play, and will have to drop that number to make another run at regular season and tournament titles.
Moving into the No. 1 spot is senior Mike Bunal (4-6, 3.96 ERA, 41K in 50 IP), a former outfielder who has appeared in 43 games during his collegiate career. With a fastball in the 90s and an effective slider, will be on the MLB scout radar this season. Bunal made eight starts in conference play last spring and posted a 3.51 ERA. His best start, though, came in February against SEC member Auburn, when he limited the Tigers to one earned run with four strikeouts in four innings of work.
“Mike can be as good as any No. 1 in the conference,” Sinicki said. “This is really only his second season pitching in a full-time capacity so Mike continues to learn and get better every time he steps on the mound.”
Senior Rob Hardy returns to the weekend rotation after going 3-4 with a 5.02 ERA. Like Bunal, Hardy displayed his best stuff against the best competition. He pitched 5.0 innings of one-hit ball at Auburn, striking out five.
Redshirt junior Jake Cryts returns to the starting rotation after a year off due to injury. Back in 2014, he posted a 5-6 mark with a 3.99 ERA in a team-high 16 starts. Cryts pitched a team-best 88.0 innings that spring and was given the ball in Binghamton’s opening NCAA tournament game against No. 7 Oklahoma State.
“We’re happy to have Jake back to the rotation,” Sinicki said. “He’s one of the most fierce competitors to ever put on a Binghamton uniform.”
Redshirt sophomore Jake Wloczewski will likely make the move from the bullpen to a starting role after a stellar 2015. Wloczewski made 12 appearances (four spot starts) and held down a 2.96 ERA. He was even more stingy in conference play, limiting America East opponents to a .173 batting average with a 1.12 ERA. Wloczewski didn’t allow a run in his final 8.2 innings to end the spring.
Freshman Nick Gallagher has impressed Sinicki with his stuff and he will be moved into the rotation to start the spring. Gallagher was an all-state selection at New Fairfield High (Conn.) after posting a 1.00 ERA in his senior season.
Sophomore Joe Orlando has made big strides and will be counted on to play a key role out of the bullpen or as a starter. Classmate Dylan Stock made 14 appearances as a freshman and will be a primary relief option again this spring. For an 11-appearance stretch midseason last year, he posted a 2.46 ERA. Junior reliever Nicholas Liegi is back for his third collegiate season and posted a 4.44 ERA in 14 appearances during 2015.
Senior Tsuyoshi Horibata (1.32 ERA, 2 saves in 2014) and sophomore Jake Erhard (3-0, 3.86 ERA in 2015) are capable out of the pen.
There are 11 underclassmen pitchers on the squad, including six freshmen. Ready to begin their collegiate careers are Rob Brown, Cal Lawrence, Anthony Meduri, Jeremy Westaway, Sean Trenholm and Cam Ringo.
“Our bullpen should be solid based on the fact that we have pretty good depth on the staff,” Sinicki said. “Whoever doesn’t secure a spot in the rotation will maké
The 54-game spring slate begins with a four-game set at 2015 NCAA participant Houston Baptist on Feb. 19-21. The Bearcats will face four new opponents in 2016 and will see foes from eight difference conferences, including the Big Ten, Atlantic 10, CAA and Southern Conference.
“Any time you open with a defending conference champion like Houston Baptist out of the Southland Conference, you know you will have your hands full,” Sinicki said. “By playing UNC-Greensboro and VMI out of the Southern Conference in weeks two and three, followed by Delaware out of the Colonial and Penn from the Ivy, I think our guys will be challenged and hopefully prepared for the demands of America East play.”
The opening weekend begins a stretch of 18 consecutive road games that will take the Bearcats to Texas, North Carolina, Virginia, Delaware and Pennsylvania.
Binghamton is scheduled to host Bucknell in a twinbill on March 22 - its final tuneup before the 24-game conference slate begins. Intermixed with America East series’ in April and May will be games against traditional state rivals Cornell, Marist, Siena and St. Bonaventure. For the second time in five years, Binghamton will head to University Park, Pa. to face Big Ten member Penn State (March 30).
The America East schedule features eight three-game series’ - four at home and four on the road. This season, the conference tournament will open up to all six eligible schools (all but UMass Lowell) and will return to LeLacheur Park in Lowell, Mass., on May 25-28.
Having seen its string of postseason berths snapped at nine last spring, Binghamton will automatically reach the conference tournament in 2016, as will each of the six eligible America East members.
Securing a top-two seed and an adjoining bye to start the double-elimination tournament will be crucial. Binghamton’s run through the America East tournament loser’s bracket en route to the 2014 title from the No. 3 spot is the exception. The top two seeds have combined to win 16 of the 18 America East tournaments.
“The America East continues to get better each year,” Sinicki said. “I truly believe any of the six eligible teams have a chance to win a championship and move on to 1the NCAA tournament. All the coaches are interested to see how the six-team conference tournament format will play out, but I think it’s a good move if for no other reason, than the number one and two seeds are rewarded with byes, making the regular season that much more important.”
The three-month season is a test of attrition and momentum and Sinicki knows his team just needs to peak by Memorial Day, something they’ve done twice in the last three springs.
“Our hope, as in years past, is to be playing our best baseball the last third of season and ultimately compete for a conference championship,” he said.