On the heels of an uncharacteristically poor season for the Slippery Rock baseball team, the league office selected SRU to finish sixth in the Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference for the 2020 season.
While some coaches would bristle at the less than flattering ranking in an eight team division and others would brush off the meaningless preseason ranking, Slippery Rock head coach Jeff Messer, who is entering his 35th season in charge of Rock baseball, seemed pretty pleased. Well, kind of.
“I did everything I could to get us placed sixth,” Messer joked. “It’s easier to climb than to fall. So, we’re young, but we have 19 new players on the roster — we have some very good players. We think we’re going to be better than we were last year, but so does everybody else in the PSAC.”
While Messer said it was only realistic that teams like Mercyhurst, which advanced deep into the national playoffs, would be ranked higher than Slippery Rock to start the season, he wouldn’t be quite so pleased to finish sixth.
With a young team bolstered by an influx of Division I transfer talent, Messer said Slippery Rock has aspirations to compete for a spot in the PSAC tournament and the PSAC title.
With the losses of All-American infielder Joe Campagna, outfielder Frankie Jezioro, with both signing for professional, independent leagues, and pitcher Wyatt Daugherty, Messer stressed a team-oriented approach to replacing their production.
“We have to [replace production] as a team, you can’t do it individually,” Messer said.
While Messer said the team will be slightly stronger defensively at the shortstop position, his bat will be nearly impossible to replace. With the team lead in batting average, on-base slugging, home runs and runs batted in, Campagna leaves a hole in the middle of the batting order.
However, the biggest hole on the team comes in the bullpen where Messer said the closer role is still up in the air.
With Daugherty, who led the team in earned run average, WHIP and strikeouts, forced to pitch in the starting rotation in his final season, Messer lamented his absence this season.
“I wish we had Wyatt back because he, unfortunately, wasn’t able to pitch in the ideal spot for him,” Messer said. “We had to take him out of the relief role and move him into a starting role just because we had some injuries. He did a really good job, but he was one of the best two or three closers in the whole conference the last couple of years.”
Instead, despite a revamped rotation, the hole in the closing role looms large as the season rolls around.
“Right now, it’s going to be closer by committee,” Messer said. “We have a lot of guys we feel are one-inning guys, and we’ll just see who comes out of the mix in our first 12 or 14 games before conference play.”
While the bullpen is still being figured out, Messer said the starting rotation will be an area of strength.
“We have a couple of DI transfers that have come in,” Messer said. “Tanner Esposito will start game one against West Virginia State next weekend, he’s a transfer from UMBC. Drew Shivak was a Youngstown State guy and transferred to Tallahassee Community College, who probably, very easily, could be our number one. He’ll be pitching game two.”
Messer said sophomore Andy McClymonds will likely take the mound to start game three after “the most consistent fall” among all pitchers, and sophomore Luke Trueman will take the mound for game four.
With the tentative starting rotation set, Messer said the first round of games in West Virginia will provide some clarity moving forward.
Sophomore Seton Hill transfer Tristan Seelhorst and junior JT Wolke will also compete for starts, with Wolke likely to serve as the first man out of the bullpen.
Losing four starters among position players, Slippery Rock once again went the transfer route in filling a couple of holes.
The addition of transfer Connor Hamilton serves the dual purpose of upgrading the catcher position and filling a hole in the middle of the batting order, according to Messer.
“Hamilton, our catcher, is probably our best player,” Hamilton said. “He’s a transfer from West Virginia, and he was the top catcher coming out of [New York] a couple of years ago. He went to WVU for a couple of years and played there. … With our engineering program, it worked out that he came here. He had a lot of different opportunities.”
Playing in 34 games, starting four during his two seasons with West Virginia, Hamilton will be expected to shoulder a leadership role while also helping to offset the loss of production from Campagna and Jeizero.
Although, senior Joe Sibeto and junior Kyle Bowser have both seen catching duty over the past couple seasons and will be expected to spell Hamilton.
A mixture of transfer talent, fresh faces and a couple of incumbents make up the infield for Slippery Rock.
Sophomore Vince Donato will man first base for Slippery Rock, completing a wind about route from Youngstown State to Johnson Community College in Kansas to SRU.
Sophomore Jon Kozarian returns to second base after starting every game for Slippery Rock last season, batting .260 with three home runs and 19 runs batted in.
The competition to replace Campagna will wear on through the start of the season with freshman Anthony Cinicola and freshman Kolby Bobash likely to split time early. Messer said while the pair will not bring the same firepower as Campagna, they are both upgrades defensively.
2018 PSAC-West Freshman of the Year Abraham Mow returns for his junior season as the starter at third base. Messer said that while Mow experienced a down season as a sophomore, he expects Mow to return to his peak.
After batting .319 with 10 home runs and 41 runs batted in as a freshman, with just 38 strikeouts to 25 walks, Mow went through somewhat of a sophomore slump.
Seeing his numbers drop across the board last season, Messer said Mow will return to a spot in the center of the lineup.
“Last year, we asked a lot of him hitting in the four position behind Joe Campagna,” Messer said. “He had a good year, but he’s looking to get back to his freshman numbers. He’ll be in the middle somewhere for us.”
The outfield will undergo an almost complete transformation as only sophomore Luke Trueman, who Messer said experienced the best fall among position players, will return as a potential starter.
With all three spots open, with centerfield remaining a major question, five players are in contention for starts.
Junior Joe Spishock from Potomac State College, who batted .337 with eight home runs and 68 runs batted in over two seasons, is in contention for one of the spots as Messer said his offensive production will be a plus.
Sophomores Quinton Brown, a high school teammate of Esposito at Williamsport, transferred from a Division I program and Alex Robenhalt, who appeared in 20 games as a freshman but has been dealing with a hamstring injury, factor into the outfield picture
With a multitude of outfielders, each with a varying degree of offensive and defensive aptitude, Messer said the outfield will likely depend on what the team needs on a game to game basis.
Despite the roster influx and small senior class, Messer said the “old guys” are still with the team.
“We’ve got some old-timers that are still with us,” Messer said. “Jay Cortese has been with us for five years now and was our captain last year. He brings a lot of leadership, and so does Derek Bobin. He’ll be going for that closing role as well.”
With just four seniors and a large transfer class, Messer isn’t worried about the team chemistry.
“The transfers that came in are baseball players,” Messer said. “We didn’t just bring in guys, we don’t bring in junior college guys to sit. Most of those guys, we recruited or talk to them earlier that were at Division I programs, went to JUCO and then came here or were Division I and came here.”
While Messer acknowledged that transfer players tend to bring “baggage” as some are on their third schools in three years, he believes each is a strong fit for the program.
“The guys that we brought in, the transfers, were stellar students and stellar baseball guys,” Messer said.
With a pair of sub .400 seasons in the past four seasons, the most recent sub .500 season prior coming all the way back in 1994, Slippery Rock has experienced its worst stretch in Messer’s tenure.
However, he feels that this season’s team is going to take a lot of people by surprise.
“Where we get to at the end, we’ve got a lot of work ahead of us, but we definitely will surprise a lot of people,” Messer said. “Which is a good thing, and we’re very comfortable being in the six spot because, for years and years and years, we were put in the one spot.”
While the first home games for Slippery Rock are still far out, Messer emphasized his excitement for the first games on the brand new turf.
“It’s incredible,” Messer said. “We’re going to miss the first weekend. The first weekend, we’re moving our games to West Virginia on an all-turf facility, so we’ll get them in. But on March 11, we’re hoping to open up against Kutztown.”
With a faulty drain system in the outfield, Messer said over the course of the last four years, Slippery Rock has been unable to make effective use of its home park. With every game played at Jack Critchfield Park, the next seemed to come at Pullman Park in Butler.
Despite the haphazard scheduling of home games over the past number of years, it was actually the practices that suffered the most disfunction, according to Messer. He pointed to a slowed development of players as an issue that will hopefully be resolved with the new turf.
With the process of obtaining permits from the state and other organizations, Messer said the stadium is slightly behind schedule, but he said the crews have been working around the clock.
Once the turf is completed, the second to last team to boast a turf stadium the PSAC-West, Messer said he expects Slippery Rock’s defensive numbers to improve.
Although, while the perks and pluses of a turf field are apparent, Messer still would prefer the feeling of a natural grass field.
“On a good day, in decent weather, I’d take the dirt infield over a turf infield, but with this weather in this environment, it’s crazy to try to do everything [we’ve been doing],” Messer said.
Slippery Rock kicks off its season Saturday with a pair of double-headers against West Virginia State University in Dunbar, WV. First pitch on Saturday is scheduled for 1 p.m.