As the Youngstown State baseball team's season opener quickly approaches, the Penguins and head coach Steve Gillispie are counting on senior leadership, player development and an overall increase in talent resulting in a substantial improvement in the win column in 2014.
The Penguins were undeniably more competitive last season, the first under Gillispie, than it was in 2012. Against a tougher schedule, the team improved statistically across the board. The offense had a higher batting average and scored more than a half-a-run more per game on average. The pitching staff also lowered its ERA by more than a run. YSU beat West Virginia for the program's first win over a Big 12 team, and it led Wake Forest in the ninth inning before losing. It won a series against Wright State for the first time in seven years and won at Kent State for the first time since 2005. The gap was even closed in losses as the Penguins dropped 23 games by three runs or fewer.
Losing close games is far from the plan in year two of Gillispie's regime and for the group of 10 seniors. Gillispie believes the talent has significantly improved, and the team will be noticeably better in run prevention with upgrades in pitching depth and infield defense. Plus, he expects that this past fall that was dedicated to player development instead of the necessary player evaluation period for a first-year coach will pay dividends early.
"We had deficiencies last year, and recruiting was a huge part of filling the holes that we had," Gillispie said. "Our two biggest needs were infield defense and the depth and skill of our pitching staff. I think we now are above-average with our middle-infield defense. We have better front-end guys, and that allows our middle depth to be better. If you pitch better and play better defense, you're going to be much more competitive than you were."
There are 17 newcomers – out of 35 players on the roster – on the 2014 squad, and many are expected to contribute. Nine of those newcomers are freshmen, and eight are junior college transfers. Of those 17 newcomers, nine have the ability to pitch, and eight are capable of playing on the infield.
"The new guys have a notable skill level and baseball savvy," Gillispie said. "We have multi-tool guys who do exciting things naturally. We've been able to spend more time teaching how to play the game at a higher level instead of the basics."
Gillispie's optimism heading into 2014 isn't resting solely on the newcomers. He's got a trio of returning all-conference players and a weekend pitching rotation that he thinks can match up with most teams in the region.
All three Penguins who earned second-team All-Horizon League honors last season return as seniors in 2014. Catcher Josh White batted .303 and drove in 30 runs in the middle of the order last season, and he'll look to lead the pitching staff and infield once again as a senior. Phil Lipari, who set career highs in batting average, on-base percentage and RBIs last season at shortstop, will move to second base – a position he played primarily as a freshman - for his final campaign. Outfielder Nick DiNello is arguably the top returning hitter, coming off a season in which he batted .311 and slugged .386.
There are four other returning players who appeared in at least 40 games last season, outfielders Mike Accardi, Jason Shirley and David Saluga and infielder Kevin Hix. The Penguins are also hoping to get a full healthy year out of outfielder Kris Moules, who batted .284 and started the first 26 games before he missed 28 contests with a hand injury. Jonas Wellan also returns after playing in 20 games as a freshman.
Freshman Anthony Rohan, a graduate of Youngstown Ursuline, is the only newcomer listed as an outfielder on the roster. The new infielders are freshmen Lorenzo Arcuri, Ryan Cordova, Joe King, Alex Larivee and Shane Willoughby, and juniors Brent Gillespie, Kurt Laver, Matt Sullivan and Shane Willoughby. Juniors Jake Fryman and Jake Ross will both add depth behind the plate behind White.
The top three candidates to hold spots in the weekend rotation are all upperclassmen right-handers. At the top is senior Patrick O'Brien, who will be in the starting rotation for the third straight year and led the ball club in wins, strikeouts and innings last season. Nic Manuppelli will move from the closer's role to the rotation for his senior year. He was second in the conference in saves last year, and a solid summer pitching in the Cape Cod League caught the eyes of national scouts. Junior newcomer Brendon Shoemake is a 6-foot-5 righty who, like Manuppelli, has gotten attention from scouts as a professional prospect.
"I think it's got a chance to be a pretty productive staff," Gillispie said. "O'Brien is the softest thrower of the three, but he was touching 90 miles per hour this fall. He's ultra-competitive and wants to be out there in that role, and that's what you look for. Shoemake and Manuppelli both throw in the low 90s with good breaking balls. We've got above-average stuff in all three starters. Somebody is going to have to have a good mindset to handle them. I think our starters will be able to go deeper in games, and that will allow us to play matchups better in the middle and late innings."
Sophomore left-hander Jared Wight will enter the season as the No. 4 starter, and Gillispie said a number of players could be in the running to be the fifth starter when one is needed. Two of those contenders could be senior Robert Switka, who has made 20 previous starts in his career, and Russ Harless, who started three games last season and 11 as a freshman in 2012.
With Manuppelli moving from the back-end of the bullpen to the rotation, the Penguins may go closer-by-committee early in the season. Gillispie said senior left-hander Alex Frey has been outstanding this spring, and freshman Kevin Yarabinec has shown impressive potential. He's also singled out juniors Ryan Krokos and Anthony Konders as pitchers who could see time in big situations early. Junior right-handers Josh North and Brad Smith also return as bullpen options.
In addition to Shoemake and Konders, left-hander Austin Lujano is a junior addition to the pitching staff. Freshmen pitchers in addition to Yarabinec include King, a lefty, and right-handers Laver, Jeremy Quinlan, Ryan Smith and Willoughby.
The Penguins will begin the 2014 season this weekend with four games in three days in Charlotte, N.C. The Penguins will play their season opener against Virginia Tech at noon on Friday, and they'll follow with a game against Charlotte at 4 p.m. They'll then play against Virginia Tech again on Saturday, and they'll end the weekend against Charlotte on Sunday. Friday will be the first time since the fall that the Penguins will have any kind of baseball team activity outdoors, but they've been able to hold scrimmages indoors in the Watson and Tressel Training Site. The Penguins will play their first 21 games on the road before their home opener on March 21.