In 2016, for the first time in at least 31 years, the Slippery Rock University baseball team failed to reach 20 wins in a season. The 2016 version of the Rock baseball team lost 36 games, the most in head coach Jeff Messer’s career, and only amassed 13 wins.
This season for the Green and White was marred by inconsistent pitching, poor infield defense and injuries to many important players. The team only had eight wins in Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference (PSAC) play, finishing 8-20 in the conference, good for second-to-last place in the PSAC-West.
Not one to sit and lick his wounds, Messer is using the down 2016 season and motivation for 2017.
“Last year you try to forget about, but we don’t want to forget about it,” Messer said. “More than anything, with last year, you use it to fuel this year. The guys that are returning are hungry and they want to prove that we’re a better team than what we showed last year.”
The Rock will be returning all but four senior from last year’s squad, with the biggest being junior Tyler Walters. Walters was named a preseason All-American earlier this winter and, after recovering from shoulder surgery last season, will look to take over as one of the team’s primary catchers.
Walters, who played in and started all 46 games a season ago, batted .439 with 12 home runs and 45 runs batted. He led the team in average, hits (72) and home runs. He will split time at catcher with fellow junior Christian Porterfield. Porterfield started in 26 games last year batting .224 with one home run and 11 runs batted in last year and will serve as the team’s designated hitter when Walters is catching, with Walters doing the same when Porterfield is catching.
Taking over for slugger Alex Bell, who graduated last year, at first base will be senior Carson Kessler. Kessler Saw time in 28 games in 2016, batting .230 with three home runs and 12 runs batted in.
The team’s starting second baseman will be the junior converted shortstop Mitchell Wood. Wood, last year’s starting shortstop, batted .257 with two home runs and 12 runs batted in. However, Wood also committed 26 errors, leading to his transition to second base. Behind him at second will be sophomore Ray Scala. As a freshman, Scala played in 19 games, batting .207 with two runs batted in.
Shortstop will be the converted second baseman, sophomore Joe Campagna. According to Messer, Campagna has the best hands in the infield and has lost 20 pounds in preparation to play shortstop. Compagna impressed as a freshman, batting .224 with four home runs and 13 runs batted in.
Manning third base will be the junior Matt Mandes. Mandes batted .241 with seven runs batted in last year. Behind him will be sophomore Tyler Merigliano, who did not play during his freshman season, but looks to factor into the team’s success this year. Scala and Merigliano can both play shortstop as well.
Messer said that some of the infield changes were made in an attempt to improve the tea’s defense and, in turn, the team’s pitching.
“We just felt that we had to solidify our team defense and we had to solidify our pitching,” Messer said. “We think our infield will definitely be much stronger this year and I know our pitching will be.”
In the outfield, the Green and White return senior Jimmy Divosevic, junior Kyle Wise and sophomore Frankie Jezioro. The Rock also brought in junior transfer Luca Fuscardo and freshman Bo Williams.
Divosevic, the team’s captain, will play both ways yet again in 2017, being both the team’s starting right fielder and closer. As a batter, Divosevic was third on the team last year with a .367 batting average and 22 runs batted in and as a pitcher, he threw 15.1 innings with a 5.87 ERA and 12 strikeouts.
“I just try to walk the walk I think. It’s easy to say to do something, it’s another thing to go and do it,” Divosevic said of being named captain. “I like to get out there and have fun, play my hardest and I think that rubs off on people. I think a good attitude from an upperclassman, in general, carries on through the entire team.”
Starting in centerfield will be Jezioro, who put together one of the better years a freshman has ever had in 2016. Jezioro batted .310, with 48 hits, six home runs and 22 runs batted in. He also led the team in stolen bases with nine and scored 31 runs.
Fuscardo comes to SRU by way of Calhoun Community College, where he played in 2016, and Division I Kent State University, where he played in 2015. Fuscardo will be the team’s primary left fielder, looking to replace Ty Zimmerman, who had a career .340 batting average at SRU.
Wise will serve as the team’s fourth outfielder, coming in to play right whenever Divosevic pitches. Wise played in 25 games last year, batting .221 with two home runs and 11 runs batted in.
Messer said that all four of Divosevic, Jezioro, Fuscardo and Wise are all good enough, defensively, to play centerfield.
“We feel that we have four centerfielders, basically,” Messer said. “We can only put three out there at a time so we don’t think we lose anything by putting in that fourth outfielder, whoever that may be that day. All four of those guys are as good as any of the other ones.
Williams is from Bethel Park, Pa. where he hit .450 as a senior at Bethel Park High School. Messer said Williams is coming off an arm injury and will most likely redshirt this season.
“Bo is going to be an excellent player for us,” Messer said. “He had arm surgery last year at the end of the year, so he couldn’t really throw that much this fall. If our four other outfielders stay healthy, we’ll probably go with those guys and try to redshirt Bo, that’s what he would like to do. If we can’t, I would have no problem putting Bo out there, the only thing he lacks is experience.”
The starting pitchers for The Rock will be senior Preston Falascino, juniors Alex Pantuso, Matt Gordon and Tyler Markovic.
Like Divosevic, Falascino played both ways in 2016, being The Rock’s starting third baseman and starting three games on the mound. However, this season Falascino will only be a pitcher. Falascino went 1-4 in 20.2 innings last season with a 6.97 ERA and 14 strikeouts last season and batted .250 with five home runs and 25 runs batted in. Messer said that, by focusing only on pitching Falascino could be one of the better pitchers in the PSAC.
“[Falascino] could be one of the top pitchers in the conference where he could just concentrate on pitching so we decided just to have him pitch,” Messer said. “It was a tough combination for him, to be a starting pitcher and a starting third baseman. We don’t like losing his bat, but I feel playing as a position player took away from his pitching and vice-versa. We just thought he’s much more valuable for us where he can concentrate 100 percent on pitching.”
Pantuso and Gordon both pitched 50 plus innings for The Rock last year, while Markovic transferred to SRU from Mongomery Community College prior to this fall. Pantuso went 1-7 last and in 53.2 innings had a 6.54 ERA with a team-leading 51 strikeouts. Gordon was the only pitcher with a winning record at 5-4, pitching 55.2 innings with a 5.82 ERA, 41 strikeouts and a team-low (among starters) 11 walks.
At Montgomery, Markovic was spectacular, pitching 30 innings with a 2.10 ERA and 46 strikeouts. Messer thinks he will be a big boost to a pitching staff that struggled in 2016.
“He’s coming in being a weekend starter for us and he worked his way there from the Fall,” Messer said of Markovic. “In the fall he was our most consistent strike-thrower. We were looking for guys that work quick and throw a lot of strikes and he did that.”
The rotation order will be Pantuso, Markovic, Falascino and Gordon. Pantuso said being the number one starter makes no difference on how he approaches his starts.
“Game one is just as important as two, three and four so I don’t really see it as added pressure,” Pantuso said.
Other pitchers that figure to see some starts this season are junior Shawn Holman and sophomores Jay Cortese and Chris Anastas. Messer said that Holman is dealing with a minor injury and will start the year out of the bullpen, but could see some starts when healthy. Holman was the only one of the three that saw significant time last season, pitching 50.2 innings with a 4.80 ERA and 34 strikeouts.
Also coming out of the bullpen will be senior Josh Coleman, junior Andrew Null, and sophomore Wyatt Daugherty. Null was the most used reliever a year ago, appearing in 16 games, while Coleman and Daugherty both made eight appearances. Daugherty is another player that Messer said dealt with injuries last year and will be better when fully healthy this season.
To coach the pitchers this year, The Rock brought in 2014 alumnus John Kovalik. Kovalik is SRU’s all-time leader in saves with 16 and replaces former pitching coach Bob Mitcheltree, who will become the team’s first base coach.
“Both of them are great pitching coaches but having John is nice. He can kind of relate to us a little better, he’s a little younger,” Pantuso said. “He pushes us to be our best every day.”
The Rock will begin their season Feb. 24 when they travel to Dinwiddie, Virginia to compete in the Dinwiddie Invitational. They will also make trips to Bel Air, Maryland and Cary, N.C. before making their home debut on March 25 against Clarion University.
Divosevic said the team always looks forward to traveling south to start the season.
“We enjoy the warmth because when we come back up here we’re not going to have it,” Divosevic joked. “You go down there and it’s like you’re a kid again. It’s your first game, the excitement’s there. You get off that bus and you’re just ready to go.”
With much of its roster still in place from a disappointing 2016, the SRU baseball team like try to return to form in 2017. With more experience under their belts and a few new faces brought it, the team will try to show everyone that last season was the exception, not the rule.