Baseball eyes defense of AE title, opens season at Duke

After taking the America East by storm last season, the Binghamton baseball team heads into 2014 with the bar set high. The Bearcats, who won 30 games en route to capturing the 2013 conference title, have been nominated the AE preseason favorite by several publications as well as the coaches poll.

Franz Lino/Staff Photographer Junior outfielder Jake Thomas ranked second in the nation last year with a .517 on-base percentage. Collegiate Baseball projected him to be the America East 2014 Player of the Year.

“I think our guys are focused and committed to just repeating what we did last year,” head coach Tom Sinicki said. “But that’s our goal every year.”

The Bearcats are already in excellent shape to defend their title, returning their entire offense and boasting candidates to replace last season’s top two starters in the rotation.

Leading BU in the field and at the plate is junior left fielder Jake Thomas. In 2013, Thomas produced a .517 on-base percentage, which ranked second in the nation, as well as a .371 batting average, a .522 slugging percentage and 45 walks — all of which led the America East. He also added five home runs and 37 RBIs, and was selected to the first-team ABCA All-Northeast Region.

“People did not want Jake Thomas to be the one that beat them, so they pitched around him a little bit — it’s pick your poison,” Sinicki said.

Collegiate Baseball pegged Thomas to be the Player of the Year in the America East this season.

Senior captain Bill Bereszniewicz, who hit .286 and started every game he played, and junior Zach Blanden, who started all 55 games and was second on the team with 38 runs, round out the starting outfield.

The Bearcats’ infield is led by one of the nation’s most experienced double-play tandems. Senior shortstop John Howell and senior second baseman Daniel Nevares enter their fourth year as starters together and anchor BU’s stout defensive infield.

“We’re currently going to petition the NCAA for maybe a fifth, six or even seventh year with that tandem up the middle,” Sinicki said. “Those guys, I truly think they know each other so well on the field — they know exactly what type of feeds they want from each other when turning a double-play … I think it’s a big reason why we finished in the top 30 last year in team defense.”

Junior catcher Nick Pancerella, junior first baseman Brian Ruby and sophomore third baseman David Schanz fill out the rest of an infield that boasted a .976 fielding percentage last season — good for 24th in the nation.

BU’s pitching took the biggest hit this offseason with the graduation of ace Jake Lambert and number-two starter Jay Lynch. They were one and two, respectively, in wins last season for Binghamton. However, redshirt junior Jack Rogalla is set to take over as ace, and Sinicki is confident he has pitchers who will step up this season.

“[Rogalla] was really an ace last year on a team that had a 1A and 1B on the mound,” Sinicki said. “I think the team has a tremendous amount of confidence in Jack … I do think that we have very good depth at our pitching staff.”

Rogalla, who led the team’s starters with a 3.01 ERA, notched five wins last season. Junior Mike Urbanski will be moved from the bullpen to the number-two spot in the rotation. The 6-foot-4 right hander attracted Major League Baseball scouts with a mid-90s fastball over the summer.

Sophomore reliever Jake Cryts will likely be moved from the bullpen, where he was the team’s long reliever, to the starting rotation. He struck out 19 batters in 26 innings during the 2013 campaign.

“I think both guys have developed their pitches, particularly their secondary pitches, to a point where now they can get in there and they can face a lineup more than one time, hopefully two or three times,” Sinicki said.

After winning the America East tournament, Binghamton was awarded a bid to the College World Series last year only to be knocked out in the first round by North Carolina State. Resolved to prove their potential, the Bearcats have added several powerhouse schools to their 2014 schedule, including Georgia, Boston College and Duke, against whom they’ll open their season.

With the addition of UMass Lowell to the America East, the number of conference games each team plays has decreased from 30 to 24, allowing Binghamton to schedule more non-conference teams.

The Bearcats plan to field the same starters against the Blue Devils that they did against NC State in the NCAA Tournament — including pitcher and designated hitter.

“I think we should roll right into May right now and play the NCAA tournament and skip all 52 games,” Sinicki joked when asked about his confidence in his team.

Binghamton will hit the road to face off against ACC member Duke on Saturday, Feb. 15, after Friday’s game was canceled due to weather conditions. Saturday’s double-header is set for noon while the first pitch on Sunday is slated for 1 p.m.