Last season, Seton Hall found itself one win away from winning a Big East title for the first time since 2011.
The Pirates fell just short of accomplishing that feat, but the groundwork for the 2019 season was laid in a season-ending loss to St. John’s in the Big East Championship game. Expectations surrounding the program are at an all-time high and rightfully so, as Seton Hall has the foundation in place to not only win the conference but make some noise in the NCAA Tournament as well.
Before that can happen, some pieces of the puzzle are going to have to come together. Shane McCarthy and Billy Layne Jr. will no longer be taking the mound on weekends and Al Molina, Ryan Ramiz and Mike Alescio are no longer the anchors of the lineup. The Pirates will have plenty of lost production to make up for, but the players returning for this upcoming season are up for the task.
It all starts at the top with junior ace Ricky DeVito. After an All-American sophomore season, DeVito is back to lead a Seton Hall starting rotation that features two new weekend starters in Noah Thompson and Tyler Burnham. As it stands right now, DeVito will start on Fridays, while Thompson will start on Saturdays and Burnham will toe the rubber on Sundays.
“Just like last year, our rotation…we try to put the best guys up at the front,” coach Rob Sheppard said. “It’s always an evolving process. Rarely do you start with the three weekend starters and finish with them. Sometimes things start to evolve and guys find themselves in a different role, while other guys project themselves in a different capacity that can help the team. As of now, our plan is to start with Ricky, Noah and then Tyler as our Friday, Saturday and Sunday starters.”
Both Thompson and Burnham are new to the weekend spotlight, but both players flashed top-end potential in 2018. As the season progressed, Burnham put together a string of successful weekday starts, while Thompson stepped up to the plate and turned in a solid outing against St. John’s in Game 1 of the Big East Championship.
“Noah wanted that start,” Sheppard said. “When we were talking about that tournament last year, he was looking forward to it. You could tell he wanted that start. It was an opportunity for him to have an impact and help the team. He did a tremendous job. He stepped up to the plate and did really well. I think that’s a sign of things to come. He did really well in that game and I’m sure he’s going to continue that this season.”
“I think [the start] gives him a little bit of confidence because obviously St. John’s was one of the best teams in our conference last year,” DeVito said. “He was able to show how good he is and we all know good he is. Early in the season, he had been only coming out of the bullpen, so it was definitely a different feel for him. He knew he could do it, we knew he could do it. Coming back this year, he looks really good and ready. He’s definitely ready to step into the role.”
DeVito is the undisputed leader of the rotation at this point, but it would not be fair to place the weight of the staff on his shoulders in Sheppard’s eyes. With a strong group of junior pitchers in the rotation and the bullpen, it will be a group effort out of Seton Hall’s pitchers in 2019.
“I wouldn’t say it’s Ricky’s staff, I would say it’s the junior’s staff,” Sheppard said. “I think the juniors need to step up. I don’t think it’s fair to put it all on one guy. Ricky is the pitcher of the year in the Big East, but I think the other juniors have done a tremendous job taking on and shouldering a lot of the load that is going to put on our staff with the graduation of our seniors and the draft status of our juniors from last year. This junior class, Ricky, Noah, Blake Espinal and Corey Sawyer, those four guys pitched really well down the stretch last year. I think the staff will depend on the upperclassmen.”
Both Espinal and Sawyer will work out of the bullpen with Sawyer serving as the closer. Working under Andrew Politi and Matt Leon the past two seasons has prepared Sawyer with the right mindset to close out games and become Seton Hall’s next elite back-end reliever.
“You talk about the culture of our program and how the older guys help mold and keep the tradition going. They set the tone and take other guys under their wing and prepare them,” Sheppard said. “Matt Leon did a tremendous job with Corey last year. At one point, they were kind of working off each other. The way Matt approached it, his preparation, how he went into the game, how effective he was, he was a good role model for Corey. Corey always wants the ball at the end of the game and that’s what you want.”
“We have plenty of bullpen arms, they have good stuff,” DeVito said. “Corey’s going to be ready to step into the closer’s role right away. He’s never worried about anything. He could’ve done it last year. He’s exactly what we need on this team, a nice lefty closer. He can come in and bounce back day-to-day. I think he’ll be really good in that role this year.”
The ninth inning is Sawyer’s, but don’t be surprised to see Sheppard play the hot-hand late in games based on the matchups.
On numerous occasions last season, other relievers were dealing and left in the game in favor of Leon, although he was the team’s closer. If a pitcher is throwing the ball well and the matchups are in his favor, Sheppard may elect to leave him in the game until he feels it’s time to go to Sawyer.
“It’s game by game,” Sheppard said. “If we see a righty doing the job and he’s carving and he’s getting through the lineup pretty well and it’s a righty-dominant lineup, maybe we go with Ryan McLinskey. I would say if it’s a tight game, you want someone whose been in that situation before and Corey’s definitely prepared for that.
Moving away from the mound, Seton Hall will also have some holes to fill in its lineup. Ramiz, Alescio and Molina accounted for a large chunk of the Pirates’ offensive production in 2018, but with Sebastiano Santorelli, Christian Del Castillo, Matt Toke, Casey Dana, Tyler Shedler-McAvoy returning, there isn’t much concern that Seton Hall won’t be able to put runs on the board this season.
“It’s kind of the same theme with the staff. It’s not really on one guy, we say we hit as a lineup,” Sheppard said. “If we’re able to stretch our lineup and have threats throughout, I think that allows us to be a more formidable opponent. Our philosophy is to put as much pressure on the defense as we can and if we’re able to stretch the lineup just like we are with our staff, the better we’re going to be.”
“The pitching at Seton Hall has always been pretty strong. My freshman year, we were always able to put up good numbers pitching, but we weren’t able to produce the runs,” DeVito said. “I think our lineup is going to be able to produce some runs. We have some younger guys in the lineup, but overall I think that’s going to be one of the bigger things for us. Our staff is going to pitch like we always are and our lineup is going to complete everything for us.”
Things seem to be coming together on the field for Seton Hall, but there are still some challenges off the field that need to be conquered in order for this team to succeed. The Pirates will not have the benefit of home-field advantage in 2019, as Owen T. Carroll is undergoing renovations. Without a true home game, Seton Hall will have to adjust to life on the road from February to May.
“We try not to focus on it, we’re going to have to play some away games,” Sheppard said. “It’s really just taking it a game at a time. We can’t do anything about playing away from home because we don’t have a home field. Those are things that are beyond our control so we tell our guys to stay focused on the process, preparing, getting ready to play and really putting an emphasis on things that we can control.”
“We all love traveling and we’ve done so much traveling over the last two years,” DeVito said. “The freshmen might find it a little weird because the traveling is one of the adjustments of college baseball. It’s a lot of work, especially for Northeast teams. We barely play at home. Now, legit having no home games, it’s going to be a little weird, but I don’t think it’ll make a difference. We’re still going to play baseball. We’re going to be on a baseball field wherever we’re going. We might not have Seton Hall’s field to play on, but I don’t think it will make a difference for us.”
Seton Hall has yet to open its season, but it has already garnered some preseason recognition. With six votes in the preseason AP Top 25 poll, the Pirates are climbing back into the national spotlight, which speaks volumes about how far the program has come. “We want to keep pushing the program forward,” Sheppard said. “We’ve been to the College World Series four times. We talk about that as a goal for us and continuing to play deep into June. We want to continue the tradition that was set before us, but at the same time keep raising the bar from year to year.”
One of the ways Seton Hall has raised the bar is by formulating a challenging non-conference schedule on a yearly basis. This season, the Pirates are set to do battle with the likes of Ohio State, Virginia, Dayton, FIU and TCU. Not only does a difficult non-conference slate give Seton Hall a chance to prove its chops on a national stage, but it prepares for the Pirates for the rigors of conference play as well.
“I like it, that’s why we play the schedule that we play,” DeVito said. “I say it all the time, I say it to teammates all the time, we’re going to play Ohio State, Virginia, FIU, TCU, whoever, these guys are supposed to be good. We do it for a reason. I want to go down there and prove that we’re just as good as other teams around the country.”
“I think it’s big,” Sheppard said. “It started with my dad. When I played here, we would open up against Miami on Feb. 3, it was crazy. We didn’t have a uniform start date, so we would play the best teams right away and we always said if you want to play those teams at the end of the year, you want to see how they are at the beginning. I think what it does is set the tone for the mentality of the team. These are the kinds of teams you want to compete against come June and conference play is not much different.”
Falling one game short last season has provided Seton Hall with the experience and knowledge of what it has to accomplish in 2019 in order to win a conference championship and reach the NCAA Tournament. The Pirates have the ingredients to succeed. Now, it’s all about finding the winning recipe.
“I think we have the depth pitching wise and one thing that would definitely help is not losing that first game so we don’t have to play two for a championship. That kind of killed us last year,” DeVito said. “I don’t think it’s going to take anything more than last year, I think it’s going to be simply our pitching be able to take us all the way. Offense does its job, pitchers do their job and we’re just as good as anyone in this conference. I definitely think we can do it this year.”
Tyler Calvaruso can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @tyler_calvaruso.