The Youngstown State baseball team was within eight outs of playing in the Horizon League Tournament Championship round last year. Despite a regular season where wins and runs were at a premium and the pitching staff was depleted with injuries, fifth-year head coach Rich Pasquale and the Penguins enter this season knowing that the separation between them and a title is far from insurmountable.
"We've talked about how big it was for this program to be so close to playing in the championship game," Pasquale said. "It just showed that we have the talent to win here, and our returners understand what it takes to win."
Although the Penguins lost two greats in pitcher Phil Klein, a 30th-round draft pick of the Texas Rangers, and four-year starting outfielder Joe Iacobucci, a talented crop of 17 newcomers - more than half the roster - should add depth to the pitching staff and make the line-up more potent.
"Right at the top of our strengths is going to be our pitching staff, both with the number and quality of arms," Pasquale said. "We have a solid 1-2 punch and three or four guys that can to be in that No. 3 role. I'm excited about our options this year."
"Offensively, we have some good veterans with (Jeremy) Banks and (David) Leon who I think are going to have very good years."
The top two starting pitchers heading into the year will both be new to the staff, but they both have Division I experience. Klein will be replaced at the top of the rotation by sophomore Patrick O'Brien, who pitched at Bowling Green in 2010 out of nearby Boardman High. A 6-foot-2 right-hander, O'Brien had four wins and six saves as the Falcons' closer his freshman year. Right behind him will be Pat Shedlock, a 6-foot righty who has pitched previously at Cleveland State and Cuyahoga Community College.
"O'Brien has a quality arm with good run on his two-seam fastball, and he throws his off-speed pitches for strikes," Pasquale said. "He's really looking forward to being the No. 1 guy. Shedlock's familiarity with the Horizon League from his time at Cleveland State is going to help him out."
Switka made 15 starts last season and pitched 83.2 innings, and he was better than his 2-8 record. He posted a quality start in seven of his final 11 outings, and the Youngstown native received two runs of support or fewer in seven of his losses. Gajda is a junior transfer from Oakton Community College who earned all-conference accolades. Aquadro struggled in the early part of last season, but he was very solid in May with a 1.82 ERA in 24.2 innings. He did not allow an earned run in 9.1 innings while earning a win and a save in the Horizon League Tournament.
"Switka had some very good outings for us last year because he just grinds it out on the mound," Pasquale said. "Gajda brings a good fastball and command of off-speed pitches. Aquadro's experience in the playoffs gave him a lot of confidence. His fastball has picked up, and he had a tremendous fall."
The two pitchers who do not earn the final weekend starting spot will be a big part of the bullpen and start during the middle of the week. Pasquale also said the third starter could be different from week to week based on matchups.
"As a group, the pitchers have good confidence and good work ethic," Pasquale said. "When they're on the mound, they're locked in. That's something I feel very good about with these guys. They're being coached well, too, with Eddie Marko. They have good confidence and good work ethic. When they're on the mound, they're locked in. That's something I feel very good about with these guys."
Eight different pitchers made starts last season, and only three worked exclusively out of the bullpen. That's something Pasquale hopes to change this season. With the large number of quality starting pitchers, the Penguins should be able to have more defined roles for their relievers.
A trio of right-handers have stood out to be the mainstays in the back end with returners Kevin McCulloh and Nic Manuppelli setting up Nick DiBartolomeo. McCulloh started last season as the No. 2 starter and made seven starts before shifting to the bullpen. In 15 relief appearances, he had a 3.58 ERA over 27.2 innings. It was well below that before an arm injury hampered him down the stretch. Injury limited Manuppelli to just two appearances in May, just as he was beginning to settle in. The sophomore allowed just one earned run over his final 10 innings. DiBartolomeo is a freshman from just across the Pennsylvania border in Hermitage who was an Under Armour Pre-Season High School All-America selection heading into his senior year.
Left-hander Alex Frey is coming off of a lost season from Tommy John surgery, and his health should continue to improve as a match-up specialist. He and Aquadro are the lone southpaws on the staff. In addition to DiBartolomeo, Pasquale is excited about the potential of fellow freshmen Russ Harless, Ryan Krokos, Ryan Martin, Josh North and Brad Smith.
A new format to Horizon League series should also help the Penguins. Instead of playing one game on Friday and two on Saturday in the normal rotation, all teams will play single games on Friday, Saturday and Sunday. That will give relief pitchers more rest in between games, and it could allow them to pitch more regularly.
To help the pitching staff, the Penguins look forward to another strong year defensively. Last season, the Penguins led the Horizon League with a .966 fielding percentage, and leading the conference again is a big goal for Pasquale in 2012.
Although offense was down across the country last season with the introduction of new bat standards, YSU's offense took a sizeable step down from 2010's record-breaking campaign. With a lot of new faces in the line-up, the Penguins ranked last in the conference in slugging, on-base percentage and runs, and only Cleveland State had a lower batting average.
While improving in the rankings would obviously be a step in the right direction, Pasquale said the Penguins will need to continue to focus on situational hitting and fundamentals at the plate.
"We have to be able to move the baseball and have good bat control," the fifth-year head coach said. "We have lots of new guys stepping in, and they'll have to stay focused on what their job is at a given moment."
To help with run production, Pasquale was able to bring in two junior college stars who are from the Youngstown area. Sophomore outfielder Marcus Heath originally signed with Cincinnati out of Badger High, and, after a redshirt year with the Bearcats, he was dominant at Sinclair Community College. Heath was the conference player of the year and a Second-Team All-America pick, batting .430 with nine home runs, 58 RBIs and a school-record 20 doubles. Junior catcher and Canfield graduate Jake Kucek also has a good chance to be an impact bat for the Penguins. Also a Second-Team All-America selection, Kucek posted the third-best batting average in the country at .481 for Cuyahoga Community College.
Heath and Kucek, both right-handed hitters, will be joined by a trio of talented left-handed hitters in the top half of the order.
Leon returned after a redshirt year to bat .268 with 21 runs and three home runs. He started as the leadoff hitter 40 times in 2011, but Pasquale is planning on moving him into the middle of the lineup to give him more RBI opportunities this year. Leon will enter the year without a cemented position, but he could DH or play second, third or shortstop.
Banks started 53 games at first base - plus two at DH - last year and led the Penguins with a .300 batting average while adding team highs in home runs, hits, RBIs and slugging percentage. He finished the year strongly by batting .363 in May, and he has hit at least .300 in all three of his seasons.
Sophomore third baseman Drew Dosch was a Horizon League All-Newcomer selection last season, batting .262 with 15 runs and 11 RBIs. He had just one extra-base hit during the year, but Pasquale attributes that to bad luck on hitting line drives right at fielders. Dosch hit .615 during the final week in March to earn Horizon League Batter-of-the-Week accolades, but he missed three weeks right after with an injury. Dosch has signed to play in the Cape Cod League this summer and will be the first Penguin to play in the prestigious league.
Sophomore Phil Lipari was terrific as a middle infielder last season, and any offense he provides will be a bonus. Although he was limited to pinch-running duties with a hand injury during May, he drove in 14 runs and stole six bases last year. He's slated to be the everyday shortstop this season. Freshman Jack Graham, a 50th-round draft pick by the Chicago White Sox out of Seneca Valley High, figures to be the starting second baseman at the season's outset.
Freshman Weston Weiss and junior Padraic Williams will also see time in the infield. Weiss hit .455 as a junior at Reynoldsburg High, but he was set back by injuries as a senior. Williams hit .176 last year while splitting time between the infield and the mound.
Pasquale has been very complimentary of Craig Goubeaux's progress at the plate and defensively at catcher. Goubeaux batted .223 last year, and Kucek and he should both help YSU control the running game better this season. Girard graduate Ryan Trimbur is a walk-on who could also see time behind the plate.
The front-runners to join Heath in the outfield are sophomore Chris Mitko and freshman Kevin Hix. Mitko hit .300 with nine RBIs over his final eight games, and he did not make an error in 46 chances in the outfield last season. He's likely to start in center field as last year's starter, Neil Schroth, continues to battle a shoulder injury. Schroth hit .297 last season.
There is plenty of depth off the bench in the outfield with four more players who will try to break into the line-up. Sophomores David Saluga and Dan Hurlimann will be joined by freshmen Jason Shirley and Harrison Martin.
Youngstown State begins the 2012 season on Friday against Canisius at 1:30 p.m.