After last season came to an early conclusion due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Binghamton baseball team will kick off this year’s season against Hartford this weekend.

“Everyone is super excited to be back and finally playing baseball,” said senior catcher TJ Wegmann. “For most of us, this is what we’ve been doing our whole life. [There’s nothing better than] finally having the opportunity to get out on the field and compete.”

Last season, the Bearcats were picked first in the America East (AE) preseason coaches’ poll but only got to play 12 games before their season was suspended. Prior to the shutdown, the Bearcats were on a four-game winning streak and had won their last five out of six games.

This season will create unique challenges for the Bearcats. Unlike most seasons, there are no nonconference games on the schedule. Instead, there will be 40 games where the Bearcats will play conference opponents in back-to-back double-headers during a 10-weekend series. The Bearcats have traditionally relied on nonconference games to evaluate talent and build up pitch counts.

“It’s going to be difficult early on not having the ability to build up those pitch counts in a more traditional typesetting,” said Binghamton head coach Tim Sinicki. “But that’s why we carry 14 guys. We’ll work out pitch counts that we feel [are] appropriate. They all have to be ready to compete and contribute and I think they will.”

Despite these challenges, the team remains focused on winning the conference title. In this year’s AE preseason poll, the Bearcats were picked second in the AE.

“Our goals are always the same, [COVID-19] year or not, and that’s to win the America East championship both [in the] regular season and postseason,” Sinicki said. “We’ll do the best we can and work toward those same goals.”

Sinicki is entering his 29th season as Binghamton’s head coach and is the longest-tenured coach at the University. He has been named AE Coach of the Year six times and has amassed more than 600 career victories.

This year, the Bearcats are returning the majority of the roster, including all but one of last year’s seniors. In addition to the returning players the team has 11 freshmen this season.

“[Senior outfielder Daniel Franchi] and [senior third baseman Justin Drpich] have a lot of games under their belt in our uniform,” Sinicki said. “Franchi played in our last regional appearance at Texas A&M in 2016. Drpich started from day one. That type of experience will be key, especially early on in the season and trying to figure out who we are and what type of ballclub we could be.”

Additionally, this year’s team brings back three all-conference players from last season: senior second baseman Alex Baratta, junior outfielder Shane Marshall and sophomore pitcher Thomas Babalis.

“Babalis will move to the number-one role in our program,” Sinicki said. “[He] started off last year as the number one starter. He’s getting quite a bit of interest from professional scouts. [Marshall] will continue to hit in that number-two spot for us. I think personally he’s the best athlete in our conference. Baratta will hunker down to the three spot. [He is] one of the best pure hitters in our conference. Having those guys to count on is a great way to head into the season.”

The Bearcats baseball program has found high levels of success in the last decade. In the last 13 years, the Bearcats have won a combined 10 regular season and tournament titles. Additionally, the program has produced nine MLB draft picks since 2010. The most recent pick was right-handed pitcher Ben Anderson, who was taken in the 13th round by the Texas Rangers in 2019.

Last February, an anonymous $60 million dollar donation to fund a new baseball facility was announced. While the project was initially slated to be finished before this season, the timeline was delayed a year last spring. Several parts of the construction are starting to take shape, and Sinicki said that the construction has remained on schedule to be finished prior to next season. This year, the Bearcats will be playing downtown at NYSEG Stadium in Binghamton, New York.

“That’s a great facility,” Sinicki said. “The people at the Rumble Ponies have been tremendous. They’ve been very accommodating for us to play and practice and we’re happy with our relationship with them and we’re thrilled to be their guests of the year.”

The team will begin the season with a four-game series against Hartford, which begins on Saturday, March 20. First pitch is scheduled for noon from Fiondella Field in West Hartford, Connecticut.