Following a 30-19 (19-9) record last season, the Slippery Rock University baseball team has been ranked third in the Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference (PSAC)-West Division to begin the 2019 season, situated behind Mercyhurst University and defending conference champion Seton Hill University. Rock head coach Jeff Messer attributed the ranking to the youth of his team.
“We lost a lot of guys from last year,” said Messer, who enters his 34th season leading The Rock. “Mercyhurst and Seton Hill definitely are the lead teams in the conference this year. Spots three through eight are going to be real tight. Every game is going to count; so whether we’re three or eight, we’ll find out soon.”
This season, The Rock is forced to replace five key starting position players from last year in Christian Porterfield, Luca Fuscardo, Kyle Wise, Mitchell Wood and All-American Tyler Walters. The trio of Walters, Porterfield and Fuscardo accounted for 148 of The Rock’s 337 RBIs (44 percent), while Walters and Porterfield hit 45 percent of the team’s 64 home runs (29). Messer acknowledged the losses and said his team is going to have a different philosophy heading into 2019.
“We could sit back and look for a three-run or a five-run inning last season with Walters, Porterfield and Mitch Wood,” Messer said. “This year we will probably be going back to a more traditional format to where we’re going to play for a run each inning, whenever we get the opportunity. If that means bunting runners over, if that means running a little bit more or doing a hit and run, then we will do that.”
The Rock is not completely out of offensive threats as seniors Joe Campagna and Frankie Jezioro, and sophomore Abraham Mow are all starters returning to the lineup, with the latter of the two winning the PSAC-West Player of the Year. These three players combined for 114 RBIs, 23 home runs and a 1.707 slugging percentage in 2018.
Messer said his biggest expectation for his returning starters is for them to be able to duplicate the season they had last year.
“If these guys could have the season they had last year, I would be happy with that,” Messer said. “We’re going to rely on Campagna and Jezioro to have strong senior seasons and hope for Mow to continue right where he left off last year as a freshman.”
The Rock pitching staff is likewise undergoing a change to their personnel. Alex Pantuso and Matt Gordon, The Rock’s no. 1 and no. 2 starters last season, are both gone with the former of the two being drafted by the Oakland Athletics. Senior Chris Anastas will be poised to be The Rock’s no. 1 starter with fellow seniors Tanner Stanz and Ryan Tapp alternating between no. 2 and no. 3, Messer said.
“Anastas is our one, no question,” Messer said. “And depending on who we are playing, either Stanz or Tapp will be our go-to no. 2.”
Messer’s starting pitching options don’t end there as he has a number of players that are capable of filling that no. 4 starting pitcher position when needed. Freshman Ricky Mineo is likely to see time in that position as well as junior Jaret Peterson and redshirt freshman J.T. Wolke, who will likely be used in a bullpen role, but has the capability of being a starter when needed, Messer said.
The Rock’s pitching depth goes further with freshmen Luke Truman and Collin Cain, both graduates from North Allegheny, expecting to see some time as well, Messer said. Seniors Alex Worthington and Zach Manasek , and Redshirt junior Jay Cortese are all expected to make appearances this season in either bullpen roles or in spot-starts, Messer said.
Anchoring The Rock’s bullpen is senior Wyatt Daugherty. Daugherty made 21 appearances last season while serving as the Green and White’s primary closer. In 28.2 innings pitched, Daugherty went 3-5 with a 3.14 ERA that included 26 strikeouts and a PSAC-best nine saves. Messer said there was some thought among the coaching staff of shifting Daugherty’s role this season.
“There was thought even of maybe moving [Daugherty] into more of a starting role,” Messer explained. “But I think his role with his arm and everything served him best and us best as a closer.”
Messer said his team’s bullpen is going to be the key to The Rock’s success this season.
“We have the depth and if we can get our starters four, five innings, then we should be in pretty good shape relying on our bullpen,” Messer said. “We have a number of guys like Daugherty, Worthington and Wolke in that backside of the bullpen that can fill the role of closing out the game for us.”
Besides the notable freshmen additions to the pitching staff, Messer highlighted the number of position players looking to make a name for themselves during their rookie season. Anthony Cinicola, Zach Mancz, Cal Rickert and Alex Robenolt headline a freshman class that Messer called one of the best he has seen during his time at The Rock.
Messer acknowledged that calling his team “young” is correct, in a sense.
“I say young, but it’s more the freshmen class that we have this season,” Messer explained. “I think we are going to be able to compete with anybody this season, particularly because of our pitching and our defense.”
Taking over behind the plate for The Rock is junior Joe Sibeto. Sibeto, who played at both Gulf Coast State College and Harford Community College before coming to The Rock, is expected to make an immediate impact for The Rock this season, Messer said.
“Sibeto is a very good catch and throw guy,” Messer said. “With him behind the plate, defensively, we have a very good catcher that will be able to communicate well with the pitchers.”
Despite the season just beginning, Messer said he has potential starting lineups in mind for the first couple of games. Mow is expected to leadoff for The Rock and play third base, a role he had last year and is comfortable with, Messer said. In the two-hole, The Rock has multiple options, but Jezioro is expected to fill that role while being the center fielder, due to his speed and the fact that he is a switch hitter. Like Mow, Campagna is guaranteed the third spot in the batting order and returns as the shortstop while the cleanup hitter is uncertain, Messer said. Redshirt freshman Mike Collins will probably fill that void for The Rock during the beginning of the season, Messer explained.
“Mike will probably primarily be used as a designated hitter for us,” Messer said. “But we could see about using the (Zach) Mancz in that role because he is a left-handed hitter and provides some power for us.”
Junior Tyler Merigliano split time last season at first base and will resume duties there again, ideally hitting fifth in the batting order. Senior utility player Ray Scala will most likely hit sixth and play in left field. Scala has proven his versatility for Messer during his time at The Rock, playing each of the outfield positions, while also spending time at second base, third base and shortstop. Batters seven through nine are still officially undecided, Messer said.
“Joe Sibeto will probably be batting seventh, but that is still subject to change,” Messer said. “Eighth will probably be Bo Williams or Nick Reynosa, who will be battling it out to be our right fielder. Rounding out the order will Jon Kozarian who will be our second baseman.”
Messer said that although this lineup is feasible, that it is just one of the many he and the coaching staff have came up with.
“The top three [batters] of Mow, Jezioro and Campagna are for sure set to start the season,” said Messer, confidently.
Campagna acknowledged that the team might not have the power that they had last year but remains confident that The Rock can put up runs this season.
“Last season, it was Walters and Porterfield putting up big offensive numbers for us,” Campagna said. “This season, we are going to focus on situational hitting, but I wouldn’t dismiss the idea of our team being a power-hitting team. We still have Abe [Mow], Frankie [Jezioro] and myself.”
The 2019 season will be Messer’s 34th as head coach of The Rock. The winningest coach in PSAC history, Messer enters the season with 994 career wins and six wins away from being the eighteenth coach in Division II to get 1,000 wins. Messer said the record is not something that keeps him up at night.
“I am not a numbers guy,” said Messer, humbly. “If we could win the first six games to get it out of the way, that would be a blessing. I don’t think about it and I don’t want the team to be out there worrying about it; so hopefully we’ll have it done by the time the PSAC games start.”
Messer said that once he does get to 1,000 wins, it will because of the players that he has coached throughout his time at The Rock.
“We have had some outstanding players to get to 1,000 wins over the years,” Messer said. “It’s a credit to the players that this program has had.”
The Rock will have to delay the start of their season, as the four-game weekend Dinwiddie Invitational in Virginia has been canceled due to inclement weather. The Rock will begin a four-game series against West Virginia State University on March 2 and 3 before heading South again to North Carolina for a six-game series against four teams over the course of SRU’s Spring Break (March 8-14). Campagna said he is eager to go down South for a couple of games because it helps set the mood for the rest of the season.
“Those first couple of games will be important for our team because we can see where we are at as a team before PSAC play starts,” Campagna said. “The warm weather hrlps because it helps us stay positive and get into a sort of rhythm.”