With spring around the corner, the Binghamton University men’s baseball team is gearing up for what it hopes will be another successful season.
The Bearcats, who have increased their win total in an NCAA-record seventh straight season, have set high expectations for themselves after finishing last season with 31 wins. At 31-20 overall, Binghamton posted a 21-3 mark in the America East en route to a fourth consecutive regular season conference title.
Following the 2010 season, BU lost four starters to graduation, including center fielder Henry Dunn, who was selected by the Cleveland Indians in Major League Baseball’s annual draft.
Entering his 19th year as head coach, four-time AE Coach of the Year Tim Sinicki has grown accustomed to parting ways with star players. In the past five years, 13 Bearcats have signed professional contracts.
“We’ve had great leadership in recent years,” Sinicki said. “New guys coming into the program immediately feel that sense of responsibility. They know of the success we’ve had, they learn from the returning guys about how to prepare.”
Topping the list of returnees is reigning conference Player of the Year Corey Taylor, who earned the award after leading the conference in home runs (14), runs batted in (66) and slugging percentage (.679).
After being hit in the face with a fastball in last season’s conference tournament, doubts began to swirl about Taylor’s future on the diamond. But for the Vestal native, the injury is in the rearview mirror and Binghamton’s star outfielder is ready for another strong season.
“Honestly right now it’s the last thing on my mind,” he said. “I look at it as a freak accident. It’s not going to be a distraction when I get back in the box. I feel like I came back stronger and I’m ready to go this year.”
Another vital piece of BU’s powerful lineup comes from junior first baseman Dave Ciocchi. With a .372 batting average, Ciocchi has hit for the highest career average in BU’s nine-year Division I history. Ciocchi, who will hit in front of Taylor, helps BU boast one of the conference’s most potent lineups.
“I think a lot of teams don’t have a player with [Ciocchi's] dynamics,” Sinicki said. “He will hit for high average, he will hit the ball out of the ballpark and he also runs very well.”
As the season has approached, Sinicki and his staff have worked to solidify an infield that lost starters at both shortstop and second base. In early season competition, sophomore Mike Thompson and freshman Daniel Nevares are the leading candidates for second base, while sophomore Jordon Smucker and freshman John Howell have stood out at shortstop.
In addition to power, Binghamton’s offense features speed. Leadoff hitter Peter Bregartner, a senior outfielder, ranks fifth on Binghamton’s career steals list. The team’s ability to run the bases has coach Sinicki focusing on small ball.
“We’ll probably have more green lights than we will red lights this year, it’s just the style of baseball that we want to play,” he said. “I think this year our overall team speed is good, and I’m not sure there’s not a guy in our anticipated lineup that can’t steal a bag for us.”
Defensively, the Bearcats are confident in corner infielders Joel Stubbs — who is a sophomore third baseman — and Ciocchi. In 2010, Stubbs committed only seven errors in 30 starts, while Ciocchi committed just six in 417 chances. Anchored by Taylor and Bregartner, the Bearcats boast a solid outfield that can cover a lot of territory.
On the mound, the Bearcats’ rotation will feature three starting pitchers from last season, including 2010 America East Co-Pitcher of the Year James Giulietti. A left-hander, Giulietti finished with an 8-2 record last season, with a 2.15 earned run average that ranked 13th in the country. In 48.1 innings against America East opponents, the southpaw compiled a 6-0 record, dominating conference opponents with a 1.49 ERA.
Junior Mike Augliera and sophomore Jay Lynch will serve as BU’s No. 2 and 3 starters, with freshman Jack Rogalla slated to be the team’s No. 4. Rogalla, a right-hander, relies on a fastball that is clocked between 86 and 89 mph. His arsenal also includes a changeup, which coach Sinicki has described as “outstanding.”
The Bearcats will also return a bulk of last season’s bullpen, including junior Alex Adami, who in 15 appearances earned three wins and a team-high three saves.
“After seeing how well they’ve been throwing in the offseason, and with the preparation, I think the guys will get the job done,” Giulietti said of his bullpen. “I’m confident in our closer Alex Adami. He’s showing promise, and I can see him being a top save guy for us this year.”
With conditions in Binghamton not suitable for baseball, the Bearcats will open the season with 20 games on the road, a typical schedule for a northeastern club. Before BU’s home opener on March 29, the team’s schedule includes trips to Texas and New Mexico, where the Bearcats will face Dallas Baptist University and the University of New Mexico, respectively. Taylor knows the value of this early-season road trip.
“[We need to] gain experience, make improvements throughout the year and use those series as stepping stones or building blocks for when we can get outside here,” he said.
“You can draw some positives out of these early season road games,” Sinicki added. “I think you get a chance to build some team chemistry because you’re on the bus as much as we are; we spend a lot of time eating out with each other and in hotels.”
In the conference’s annual Coach’s Preseason Poll, Binghamton has been predicted to finish third, behind Stony Brook University and the University of Maine. But the early-season rank hasn’t deterred the team’s goals. After coaches predicted the squad to finish third last season, the Bearcats tore through their conference schedule, posting a 21-3 mark for a fourth consecutive regular season title. But after a first-round exit in last season’s America East tournament, Bearcat players are ready to put last season behind them and focus on the future.
“We’re going to use [last year] as motivation,” Taylor said. “It’s always going to be in our mind what happened to us last year. It gives us confidence. I feel like we’ve put in enough preparation and work to get back to that point.”
In Taylor’s eyes, Binghamton experienced one of the best offseasons he can remember. With top-tier opponents slated on the schedule — including Big South powerhouse Liberty University, who won 42 games in 2010 — simply competing is not an option for this year’s Bearcats.
“The point we’re at now, we’re not just going there to get some good pitching outings, get some good at bats, stay in ball games; we’re going there to win,” Taylor said. “We’re just as good as those teams. We can put up runs, we can get some wins, and just going there and competing isn’t good enough anymore.”
On the whole, Sinicki feels confident in his team’s abilities.
“I like the makeup of this team, I like the depth and I think the key to this year’s team might be the balance that we have in our program,” Sinicki said. “I think we’re balanced in our pitching staff, I think no matter what combination we have in our lineup we’re balanced one through nine, and I think we have as good of depth in this program as we’ve had in recent years.”
The Bearcats begin their season at 4 p.m. today, opening a four-game series at Virginia Military Institute that includes a double-header tomorrow afternoon.