The Seton Hall baseball team will head to Prasco Park on Thursday, to compete in its first game of the 2018 Big East Tournament in Mason, Ohio. The Pirates enter the double-elimination playoff as the second seed in a field of four, with a 13-4 record in-conference that surpassed any mark the team had managed in the four seasons following Big East reconfiguration in 2013.
Grounded by mature veterans throughout the lineup and rooted by coaches new and old, the Pirates have improved game over game, from late winter to the end of spring, with the progression all leading toward this weekend, which consists of a chance to win a first Big East title since 2011.
Shane McCarthy, the senior right-hander from Fair Haven, N.J., will be handed the ball in the Pirates’ tournament opener against Butler. The blonde-haired ace immortalized himself into Seton Hall baseball history when he threw the program’s first perfect game on April 15, 2016; however, his junior season fell short of expectations, with his ERA rising from 2.38 the previous year, to 5.13.
McCarthy was drafted in the 18th round by the St. Louis Cardinals on June 14, 2017, but the Pirates No. 1 starter made the decision to return to Rob Sheppard’s team for his senior season; a decision that brought back just the veteran savvy that the young rotation needed.
“I have to make sure everyone is doing what they’re supposed to be doing and lead by example,” McCarthy told The Setonian at the start of the season. “I want everyone to understand the mission, our mission, and make sure we’re carrying out the work we need to do every single day to keep everyone on track.”
McCarthy’s return proved to be even more vital than could have been forecasted, as No. 2 starter Cullen Dana, who had pitched to a 5-3 record and 3.40 ERA in 2017, was forced to miss the season with a shoulder injury. With Dana’s younger brother, Casey, making waves as a freshman, Cullen was sidelined, and the powerful left-hander was not the only one.
Matt Toke, a strong first baseman, who was coming off a freshman season in which he led the team with a .321 batting average, missed most of the season due to injury. Absent of a dynamite arm and bat, the Pirates did not sulk. The philosophy of the team has always been: “next guy up.”
“You know, we don’t want to make excuses due to injuries,” head coach Rob Sheppard said. “We’ve had situations like that in the past, and guys have stepped up and played a pretty big role in our success, and, it’s no different this year.”
In the wake of such absences, a 98-point improvement in batting average for an infielder, as well as a converted bullpen pitcher emerging as Big East Pitcher of the Year, are welcome developments. Rob Dadona, the senior second baseman, and Ricky DeVito, the sophomore right-hander, both from Staten Island, were behind such impactful contributions.
Dadona was at times the only constant in a Pirates lineup that struggled to hit consistently against high-level competition in the non-conference, including an NC State team to open the season that are now ranked No. 9 in the country in the USA Today Coaches’ Poll. In addition, Seton Hall faced Oklahoma State, Missouri State and Florida Atlantic before Big East play, with those sides most recently receiving 18, 17 and five Top 25 votes, respectively, in the Coaches’ Poll.
The Pirates entered Big East play on April 13 with a record of 14-14-1, near the bottom of the conference in runs scored. Facing a Xavier program that had taken home three of the last four Big East Tournament titles, the Pirates played a cagey conference opener, which teetered back and forth until the bottom of the fifth inning.
With the go-ahead run, senior Ryan Ramiz, on second, another emerging presence, sophomore centerfielder Tyler Shedler-McAvoy, blasted the ball to right-center field. With the bleacher crowd breaking out into delirium on a day that brought the first taste of spring warmth, Shedler-McAvoy slid head first into third base in flamboyant fashion, and the Pirates were on their way in the Big East.
“The whole idea is, you know you’re going to be playing against really good quality opponents [in the non-conference], and that’s what you want to have, underneath your belt, when you go into conference play,” Sheppard said.
Seton Hall took two of three against Xavier, then all three against Butler and Villanova. Following the 8-1 start, Seton Hall won the first of three in a highly-anticipated series against first place St. John’s. Following that series, the Pirates completed the regular season with a doubleheader sweep against Georgetown, amidst blinding rain and fog at Johns Hopkins’ Babb Field, which the series was relocated to because of its turf surface.
All the while, seniors like Ramiz, Al Molina and Mike Alescio each brought patient yet punishing hitting to the plate. Ramiz finished the year with a .433 on-base percentage, first in the Big East, while Molina hit 17 doubles, second in the conference by only one. Alescio, meanwhile, batted a solid .286, hit three home runs and stole 12 bases.
DeVito and his partner in the weekend rotation, Billy Layne, who had also emerged from the bullpen, helped complete a formidable Pirates rotation that began with the before-mentioned McCarthy. DeVito threw to a 1.33 ERA in 54.1 innings, while Layne boasted a 4-1 record, with a 3.47 ERA.
“I feel like we feed off each other’s outings, from day to day,” DeVito told the Big East Digital Network on Wednesday. “We just want to get out there and get after it, every day. No matter how the first game goes, next day we’re always looking to be better, and just looking to build off each other at all times; no matter if things are going good or bad, we’re always looking to build off each other.”
Working in harmony, McCarthy, DeVito and Layne have been able to set the stage for success this season; however, one man has been primarily responsible for pulling down the curtain.
Matt Leon, otherwise known as “Lockdown Leon,” is the Pirates closer, and a potential tournament-deciding factor for the side from South Orange. The senior right-hander from Bethlehem, Pa., with a smile that strikes fear into the opposition, closed out the Pirates’ lone win against the 15-3 Red Storm on May 11, breaking Seton Hall’s single-season save record in the process; a record he stretched to 11 saves on May 19.
If Seton Hall defeats Butler on Thursday – a team competing in its first Big East Tournament – Leon and the Pirates will face the winner of St. John’s and Georgetown, on Friday, which could be a tall order if the Pirates draw the Johnnies.
That being said, if Seton Hall is trying to re-create 2011, defeating a highly-touted No. 1 may just be par for the course. The 2011 Pirates not only beat a 22-5 UConn team, but forced that No. 1-seeded Huskies team into activating the mercy rule.
It remains to be seen if the Pirates can get Leon into multiple game-saving moments this weekend, but, if the starting pitching and hitting can manage to create those opportunities, Sheppard would not be more confident in any other pitcher to clinch another championship.
“I think you’ve got to want to be in those situations, and he does,” Sheppard said. “Sometimes you have to have a short memory to be pitching at the end of the games, and, you have to have a certain kind of makeup, and, he has that. … You can have the stuff to do it, but having the desire and tenacity to be in those situations allows you to be a little more successful, and he has that.”
James Justice can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @JamesJusticeIII.