Their coach calls them the “best double-play combo” in the America East. But they didn’t get that way overnight.
Shortstop John Howell and second baseman Daniel Nevares first met during summer ball in Florida before arriving at Binghamton University. They knew they’d be teammates in a few months, so Nevares stayed with Howell during the summer tournaments.
“I kind of accepted that as getting ahead of the game, getting to know some of the guys I was going to come in with and especially knowing the guy that was going to play shortstop next to me,” Nevares said.
“We both had goals to be starters for four years,” Howell said.
Nevares grew up in Puerto Rico before playing high school ball in Florida; Howell is a native New Yorker. They have different demeanors on the field: Howell a little more blue collar, Nevares with a little more flair.
“To say the two meshed right away isn’t necessarily true,” BU head coach Tim Sinicki said. “They both have their own way of getting things done.”
But it wasn’t the fact that they were both destined for the same college that sparked Howell and Nevares’ connection. It wasn’t their style of play, and it wasn’t even that they were next-door neighbors on the baseball diamond. It was their personalities.
“You have to enjoy being around each other if you really want to work at your craft and be good at something,” Sinicki said. “I think the fact that they clicked with their personalities was more important than anything else.”
As focused as they become once their pitcher goes into his first wind-up, Howell and Nevares joke around as much as anyone on the team. They share a level of comfort with one another that was bred from sharing a suite during their freshman year.
“Personality-wise, we both like to goof around a little bit,” Howell said. “Pick on each other a little bit. Quote movie lines and stuff like that. And I think just being close off the field makes it that much easier to get along with someone on the field.”
Being thrust into the every day lineup as a freshman isn’t an easy task. Compared to high school ball, the speed of the game increases dramatically, the level of competition is much greater, and then there are the eight new faces on the field you have to assimilate with.
Howell and Nevares were able to face their new beginning together, with their budding friendship lending way to a dynamic double-play tandem on the field.
“I think they both fed off each other,” Sinicki said. “When you come into a program as a freshman, you’re kind of feeling your way around the program a bit. But at the same time, they saw the opportunity that, ‘Hey, if we both work hard, this could be a pretty nice situation for four years.’”
Binghamton’s defense has been the team’s staple during Howell and Nevares’ tenure. For all the attention the starting pitching and timely offense got last year, BU’s efficiency in the field was the unsung hero of its 2013 America East title, and Howell and Nevares were right at the heart of it.
“They enjoy working with one another,” Sinicki said. “And I think because of that, they enjoy spending countless hours working on things such as double plays and tandem relays and all the things that go into being a good middle of the defense for us, which has been so crucial to our team the last three-plus years now.”
After so much time spent working with one another in practice and games, Howell and Nevares know exactly what to expect from each other once the ball is put in play. Much like the relationship between a pitcher and catcher, a second baseman and shortstop are constantly working to stay in sync with one another. Howell and Nevares are also talking on the diamond, and as important as anything else, they know each other’s limits.
“Like the pitchers and catchers have to be on the same page with signs they’re putting down,” Howell said. “We have to communicate who has the bag on a steal. Who’s got a ground ball back to the pitcher. Who’s covering the bag and stuff like that. Knowing each other, in and out.”
“It all comes down to communication,” Nevares said. “If you don’t click right away in terms of knowing each other and communicating with each other, it throws the whole play off. Because there’s some hesitation in between and you’re going to have to know in advance, prior to a play happening, you have to know in your head what’s going to happen and know where he’s going to be.”
During the preseason media day, Sinicki joked that he was going to petition the NCAA to get “maybe a fifth, six or even seventh year with that tandem up the middle.” While they’ve done a lot of developing from their freshman season until now, Howell and Nevares have remained the same in terms of how they approach the game.
“Their personalities are that they play the game hard, they lead by example in terms of the way they work, the way they get things accomplished, and they blend in very nicely with the rest of the ball club,” Sinicki said. “They did that as freshmen, and they continue to do it with each other as seniors… Ultimately, they not only want this program to be good while they’re here, but sustain that and be good down the road, and they’re making every effort to see that it happens.”
Both Howell and Nevares have taken positive strides with each passing season. Howell’s seven errors and .964 fielding percentage last season were an improvement from the 11 errors and .948 percentage he posted as a freshman. Nevares has seen a similar progression, committing four fewer errors and a .25 improvement in his fielding percentage from his freshman to his junior season.
Their increased efficiency in the field is a direct result of their growing trust and confidence in one another, and continues to trend upward in their senior seasons.
“We’ve both matured and come a long way since freshman year,” Nevares said. “I know freshman year was kind of rough for me and Johnny. We push each other to get better every day. And that’s what we’ve pretty much been doing for the last four years. It’s been pretty awesome, seeing each other grow up.”