Although there is still snow in some places. college baseball is in full swing and the Seton Hall Pirates have started another spring season. Last season, the Pirates finished 29-24, including a 10-8 record in Big East play. That mark was enough to make it to the four-team Big East Tournament, where their season ended after two losses.
From Feb. 16 to 18, the Pirates opened their season with a win and two losses on the road against No. 23 N.C. State. The road trip to Raleigh, N.C. was the first of many for the squad, who face a challenging non-conference schedule before the start of Big East baseball in April.
Notable non-conference opponents include Notre Dame, Oklahoma State and Hawaii, with head coach Rob Sheppard making it clear that in order for his Pirates to fulfill their potential, they needed to give themselves a tough schedule.
“We wanted to challenge ourselves, and have an opportunity to play some of the best teams in the country right off the bat before conference play,” Sheppard said.
The non-conference schedule should help the Pirates prepare for the tough nature of Big East play. As usual, the league will be competitive from top to bottom, with rival St. John’s pegged as the early favorite.
“Based on preseason rankings, St. John’s looks to be one of the contenders along with Xavier and Creighton,” Sheppard said. “But I think [Big East teams] all improved considerably. Any time you play in-conference, it’s going to be tight and tough and you see it with [Big East] basketball too.”
For the second straight season, Cullen Dana – now a junior – and Shane McCarthy – now a senior – will lead the Pirates’ pitching staff. Dana, the staff’s top returning pitcher, posted a 3.40 ERA and struck out a team-high 81 batters last spring. McCarthy posted an ERA of 5.13, which was a surprising step down after leading the Big East in ERA each of his first two seasons. Despite the adverse season, McCarthy was still selected by the St. Louis Cardinals in last year’s MLB Draft, a testament to his ability and past success.
“Any time you get a guy of Shane’s stature to return, it helps the rest of the staff,” Sheppard said. “He’s a guy that leads by example and works really hard.”
The rest of the staff will be filled by a handful of veterans and newcomers. Redshirt junior Andrew Politi will move from the bullpen to fill the last starting rotation spot, with sophomore Rick Devito behind him as the staff’s fourth starter.
The bullpen will be led by senior right-hander Matt Leon, who was named Big East Pitcher of the Week after throwing 3.1 scoreless innings against N.C. State. Sophomores Corey Sawyer and Noah Thompson will also be counted on in bigger roles, as the two will fill out the back end of Sheppard’s bullpen.
“We’re always looking for those young guys to step up and show they can compete at this level,” McCarthy said. “We have a bunch of freshmen that are ready to go, and some other young guys that proved themselves this past weekend.”
Although the pitching staff is the clear strength of this team, they return multiple experienced bats to power the offense, most notably sophomore Matt Toke. Last year, Toke led the team with a .321 batting average and has already seen improvement, hitting his first career home run against N.C. State.
Seniors Mike Alescio, Ryan Ramiz and Al Molina also broke out as key starters last season and will be looked to fill the heart of the lineup. Other key contributors will include freshman Casey Dana, brother of Cullen, and junior Sebastiano Santorelli, who was named to the Big East Honor Roll on Feb. 19.
“I think we’re a lot more experienced,” Sheppard said. “We have more guys that have played quality innings, so we expect our offense to be a lot more productive this season.”
From Feb. 23 to 25, the Pirates will travel to Spartanburg, S.C. to play South Carolina Upstate, Wofford and Pittsburgh as they look to improve on their 1-2 record.
If the pitching staff performs to its ability and the lineup produces, the Pirates will see themselves as a surefire Big East contender. But for a team with so much returning experience and talent, the goal for Sheppard and his players may be even higher than that.
“The key is, if we want to move on to [NCAA] Regionals, then we need to have a really good record not only in Big East, but in the non-conference too,” said Sheppard.
Andrew Lombardo can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @lombardo_andrew.