Eyes on the prize

Published by Aidan Treu, Date: February 14, 2023
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After compiling 33 wins and qualifying for both the Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference (PSAC) Tournament and the NCAA Tournament one year ago, Slippery Rock Baseball returns to the field.

The 2022 season was one of The Rock’s most successful seasons in years, amassing 17 conference wins, their highest total since 2018.

Out of players with at least 30 games played, now junior infielder Koby Bubash had the highest AVG (batting average) and OPS (On-base percentage plus slugging) with .402 and 1.078 among returning players respectively.

Senior infielder Jon Kozarian is another important returning player now that he is back at full strength after dealing with a back injury for much of last season. In 2021, Kozarian generated a .421 AVG and 1.209 OPS. Both figures led The Rock amongst any players that accrued at least ten games played. For reference, the last MLB player to finish a season with an OPS at 1.078 or higher was MLB all-time home run leader Barry Bonds in 2004 when he logged a stunning 1.422.

Head Coach Jeff Messer shared what Kozarian has meant to the team and how much effort he puts into his baseball ambitions.

“[Jon] played until he couldn’t play. We’re excited to have him back for another year,” Messer said.

Of course, there are other returning older players who are also expected to produce at a high level. Alex Robenolt, redshirt senior outfielder, Luke Trueman, senior outfielder and pitcher, Eddie Morris, junior outfielder and Braden Olson, junior infielder, all joined Bubash and Kozarian’s ranks by contributing an OPS above .930 and an AVGs above .290 as returning players.

“They know how close it is, from being the champion of the PSAC, going to the regionals, going to the world series. I mean, any of the teams that get to that level, any of them can go,” Messer said.

Trueman was able to add significant value to his stock by being a two-way player. He accrued a 4.15 earned run average (ERA) which was good for fourth on the squad.

“They’re program players, they know our expectations. I think they probably even have higher expectations than us,” Messer said. “They want to win.”

As for other pitchers, Devin Dunn will be a key part of The Rock’s success. Dunn, a junior pitcher, was the team’s ace last year and projects to perform to the same level for the 2023 season. Dunn impressively led the white and green in both overall innings pitched and ERA, generating the invaluable combination of quality and quantity.

Having upperclassmen return to a team that was already impressive the past season is important for any squad’s success. Messer shared his thoughts on returning several impact contributors.

“Ninety-nine percent of the time, it’s a lot easier winning with a 22-year-old than it is with a 17-year-old. I don’t care what sport it is. Just more experience,” Messer said. “They’re so hardworking and they know they’re so close to getting that championship or moving on even further.”

The training process simply goes more smoothly when a coach is able to use their veterans as assets.

“With a veteran team, it’s a lot easier to do than with a younger team. With a younger team you’ve gotta build some confidence where our guys have confidence,” Messer said.

The transfer portal adds another complication every offseason for collegiate baseball teams. Thankfully, SRU avoided losing impact starters to the portal in the way that many other PSAC squads suffered far worse fates.

“Some guys lost a lot of players because of the portal. Theres a lot of teams in our conference that lost a lot of good players last year,” Messer said.

SRU, in addition to its ability to maintain its established talent, has developed younger players into noticeable players. Not all key contributors are upperclassmen. Ethan Edkins was likely the best surprise for The Rock last season. Edkins came on and, as a true freshman, produced a team leading 3.21 ERA in conference games. The numbers he put up set him apart and allowed him to be named the PSAC West Freshman of the Year.

Edkins stepping up last year begs the question, will a different freshman pitcher make their mark early in their SRU Baseball career?

“Last year it was probably Edkins that got more innings than he thought he was gonna get. This year it might be one of the other freshmen,” Messer said. “Everybody will get their chance.”

Nate Malak, Parker Hogge, Branson Carson and Michael Kitko are the true freshman pitchers, much like Edkins last year, who could be studied in the non-conference games to see whether they have what it takes to step up.

“We added like five or six pitchers also that should help us… 15 games I think before we open up conference,” Messer said. “Hopefully after those 15 games, maybe somebody emerges that we weren’t anticipating getting as many innings. The weekend starters are wide open.”

When it comes to a younger pitcher stepping up, it becomes even more beneficial to have seasoned veterans to show younger pitchers the ropes.

“Dunn and Trueman, with their experience, they lead by example,” Messer said.

As seasons go by, teams will lose key players. Connor Hamilton was the one of the team’s leading contributors of the 2022 season.

Hamilton lead The Rock in both AVG and OPS in conference games with .404 and 1.278. These numbers are made more impressive by him playing catcher, a premium position that is typically glove first. It is not uncommon for a team to sacrifice some offensive prowess for a stable defensive presence behind the plate. Hamilton made it so The White and Green didn’t have to skimp on either.

“Position-player wise the biggest one is, no surprise, Hamilton, who was all-world for us. Very very hard to replace,” Messer said. “You’re never gonna find another Hamilton, he was that good.”

Messer was able to find a transfer, Robby Barrientos, who seems to be fitting in nicely so far as Hamilton’s successor.

“We brought in a transfer, Robby Barrientos from Old Dominion, that had an exceptional fall for us,” Messer said.

Abraham Mow, a first baseman, and Joel Spishhock, an infielder, are other players who each put up an OPS over .900 that will be not be returning.

“We lost three position players that were important to us, they were really good players,” Messer said.

Ricky Mineo, who led the squad in strikeouts a year ago with 85, is also leaving but is now on to further his baseball career. Mineo is now with the Twins organization of Major League Baseball. He was assigned to the FCL (Florida Complex League) Twins, a rookie affiliate of the MLB team. Mineo saw action in one game in which he twirled a 1-2-3 inning and picked up one strikeout.

Between the additions and subtractions, The Rock has managed to maintain much of their core and looks to be ready for another competitive season.

Messer shared that Seton Hill University is always one of the heavyweights to look out for.

“I’d say till, they’re the team that you’ve gotta match up with, gotta beat,” Messer said.

If last year is any indication, SRU is ready to match up with anyone, as they swept Seton Hill in regular season play.

Unfortunately, SRU would go on to play Seton Hill in the NCAA tournament where they would lose to get knocked into the loser’s bracket, from which they would not advance.

Even though Slippery Rock was undefeated against the Griffins in the regular season, Seton Hill played a key role in The Rock’s playoff demise. In other words, anything can happen as long as the team can reach the playoffs.

Baseball is not like other sports. In basketball or soccer, one player having the game of their life will almost never, if not absolutely never, take over a game to the point where the other team can simply not overcome the talent deficit. In baseball, a starting pitcher putting together the performance of his life can entirely inhibit the opposing team having any chance of winning.

“Everybody has a one or a two pitcher. Just get into the tournament, that’s your goal. And then once you’re in the tournament you’ve just gotta match up,” Messer said.

The PSAC and NCAA playoffs are not set up like regular season sets where a team will see multiple starting pitchers throughout the series. Each game is against a different opponent, so any given team might have to face multiple one or two starters in a row depending on how their schedule shakes out.

The Rock has shown to have good depth and hopes it will be enough to weather any storm thrown at them.

“Our first goal is to play solid baseball and get ourselves in a position to where we have a chance to win the state tournament on our home field,” Messer said.

Messer also shared how much advancing to the College World Series motivates him and his players.

“For us, even more important that that [a PSAC title] is going to the regionals and going to the World Series. If you go to the World Series, you’re one of the best eight teams in the country regardless of whether you win the state or not,” Messer said. “That’s our first motivation, especially with the guys that are fifth year, it’s their last hurrah.”

Of course, the PSAC has always been a difficult conference to come out of alive and rarely does one team simply dominate all of the others over the course of a full season.

That is the essence of baseball. There are many games to be played at the higher level, so undefeated seasons do not really happen and teams that win more than 80% of their conference games may be considered statistical oddities. A team has only recorded a winning percentage above .800 in the PSAC West twice since 2010.

“We want to play 28 conference games, but we beat each other up,” Messer said. “You’re not going unblemished in this conference. You’re gonna take your lumps; you’re just hoping you’re giving more lumps than taking.”

Slippery Rock’s playoff placement also came down to the final few games in 2022, and the PSAC standings are typically quite close. Even in a long schedule, every game could end up being the deciding factor in playoff contention or seeding.

“Every single game means something. It’ll come down- the last weekend, to something, whether you’re in the playoffs, whether you’re first, whether you’re fourth,” Messer said. “It’s gonna be a really competitive year.”

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