This is unfamiliar territory for the Binghamton baseball team.

Last season, for the first time since making the leap to Division I, the Bearcats tasted the postseason, finishing in fourth place and qualifying for the America East tournament. With the squad’s core still intact, the team is confident that last year’s playoff trip will not be a fluke.

“I think it’s going to start becoming familiar territory,” said junior catcher Pat Haughie. “I think we’re going to do everything we did last year except we’re going to have even better pitching.”

While the Bearcats return a solid group of hitters and virtually the entire pitching staff, they will have to make due without reigning America East Player of the Year Mathieu Bergeron, who left the school for personal reasons.

Last season, the team had the luxury of knowing that at any second, Bergeron could step up and smack a home run. This year, the Bearcats will have to rely on their quickness and ability to manufacture runs, but are confident they can get the job done.

“It’s the same core of guys as last year,” said head coach Tim Sinicki. “It’s a pretty veteran group. We’re hoping to build off last year’s experience.”

On the mound

Pitching looks to be the Bearcats’ strength this season, as the returning pitchers accounted for 87 percent of the team’s wins last year. In addition to those players, the team expects contributions from several new pitchers, and those returning from injury. That experience and depth will come in handy during the conference slate, especially with the new scheduling system in place. America East opponents will make up for the departure of Northeastern by playing four game series rather than three, putting a premium on pitching depth.

“Pitching is really going to be such a big part of it,” said junior right fielder Jeff Monaco. “It’s such a big part of any good team at any level of baseball.”

Luckily for the Bearcats, they return the America East Rookie of the Year Scott Diamond to anchor the staff. The southpaw was 4-2 in conference play last season with a 2.85 ERA. He also threw two shutouts.

Also returning from last year’s rotation are senior right-hander Jarrod Rampey and junior righty Mike Van Gorder, who won a combined nine conference games in 2005.

Junior right-hander Zach Groh and senior righty David Lind return to the rotation after injuries derailed their seasons last year. Groh was expected to be the staff ace last season, and Lind was the team’s top pitcher back in 2004. If they can remain healthy, the starting rotation will be as deep as it has ever been.

“I think there is going to be a lot more competition on the staff this year,” Haughie said. “Everyone has to be ready to go the extra step.”

Seniors Adam Shatkun and Tom Gaube will anchor the bullpen, and their experience will be crucial during late inning pressure situations.

After the rash of injuries last season, several other pitchers got a chance to prove themselves and now hope that experience will carry over this year. Senior Nick Bogdanoff, junior Khalid Afify and sophomore Gio Yannuzzi all return after seeing significant time last season. The staff is rounded out by newcomers Seth Rademacker, Jeff Dennis, Ron Miller and Greg Lane, who will redshirt this year.

At the plate

Almost half of Binghamton’s RBI production departed in the offseason, yet the hitters are more confident than ever, largely because reigning AE batting champ Brendon Hitchcock is back. Hitchcock batted .399 last season and will anchor an experienced lineup that should give conference pitching fits. When asked about the loss of Bergeron, Hitchcock didn’t sound too worried.

“I don’t think that’s even a factor,” he said. “We lost some power there but we’re all just working to get better and we run a little more offensively and just do things different. We might not have the luxury of sitting around waiting for the home run but we’re going to put the ball into play a lot more.”

Winning the batting title is a tough act to follow but Hitchcock isn’t concerned with his numbers, just with helping his team the best he can.

“[Winning the title again] is something you just don’t try to do,” he said. “I’m not looking at numbers. It’s more just taking it one at bat at a time and hitting the ball well.”

Along with Hitchcock, the infield features an outstanding double-play combo between juniors Justin Smucker and Matt Simek. Simek was second on the team in batting average last year, and they both hit above .300 for the season.

Rounding out the infield is sophomore Ryan James, freshman Kyle Klee and junior transfer Jeff Wertepny. The three will compete for time at third base and the designated hitter spot.

Haughie, who threw out 38.5 percent of potential base stealers last year, is one of the best defensive catchers in the league. Backing up Haughie will be freshman Michael Quinn, better known as “Pizza Box Guy.”

The outfield returns two starters, senior center fielder Aaron Davis and Monaco in right. Davis is one of the fastest players on the team and covers ground excellently in center, while Monaco hit .306 last year and will help offset Bergeron’s absence.

“From an individual aspect you can’t even try to replace that,” Monaco said. “But we got three or four guys as a team power wise, RBI wise, that as a team can make up for what we lost.”

Freshmen Ken Jacobi and Tom Carberry, and junior Mike Papili round out the outfield. Jacobi is a highly touted recruit and looks like he will crack the starting lineup.

High hopes

This year the regular season champion will host the America East tournament, a goal that Sinicki hopes his team will achieve. The Bearcats have the experience and confidence to finish conference play in first place, but they will need contributions from the entire team.

“I think we have a more balanced attack than anything else,” Sinicki said. “There will be days when we need to out slug someone, and there will be days we’ll do with our pitching. The team is just so balanced.”