Feb. 11, 2013
VILLANOVA, Pa. - This weekend in Cary, N.C. the Villanova baseball team will begin the 148th season in the program's history. The third-oldest varsity baseball program in the nation will begin the 2013 campaign at the USA Baseball Complex Classic, where the Wildcats will play games against Monmouth, Canisius, Toledo and Wright State. With the season opener just a few days away head coach Joe Godri sat down to answer some questions about this year's team.
Prior to reading the below interview with Godri be sure to check out the full season preview of the Wildcats, which can be found by clicking here.
How does it change your evaluation of the pitching staff when you have so many veteran arms who are capable of filling multiple roles?
Godri: The overwhelming majority of players that come into college baseball have been starters in high school so the first thing we do is evaluate what kind of stuff everyone on the team has. We look at the guys who have two or three pitches and then see how their secondary stuff works and how effective their curveball or slider are, as well as how they can command a changeup. The guys who can throw two or three pitches effectively have a chance to hang around in that starter's role because they can go through a lineup a couple of times.
We also have guys who throw with plus velocity but may not have as much command of their secondary pitches so a lot of times they wind up in a late-inning bullpen role where they can come in for one inning and beat the other team with their fastball.
Then you have your guys who are in the middle with their fastball velocity and their off-speed stuff. We have quite a few guys who fall into that category and as a group they have pitched quite a bit for us. How this group continues to grow and how we are able to best use them in games is one of the things we need to find out at the beginning of the season.
The thing that I really focus on with our pitching staff is that we have plenty of options with six left-handed pitchers on the staff. I am excited about being able to evaluate our staff based on what we want to do in a weekend series against the makeup of the other team's offense.
Do you feel that individually the pitchers need to be locked into specific roles or is the versatility of the pitching staff going to end up being the secret to its success?
Godri: My approach to building a team is that the more things an individual player can do the better it is for the team as a whole. We do have several pitchers, both in our returning group and amongst the newcomers, who I feel can contribute on the mound in a number of different roles. Early in the season these are some of the things that we have to evaluate and there comes a point where that evaluation has to come on the field and not in the gym. During the course of our non-conference schedule we will get a chance to see where we are at and to take a look at the opportunities the guys have been able to get in competition. I will not only be looking for what makes the most sense at the start of the game but also how we want to line up our pitchers and finish the game when we have a lead. That is probably the most important consideration.
What will the starting rotation do in terms of presenting the other team with a different look each day?
Godri: At the front of the starting rotation we have guys who are pretty true power arms. They are going to come at you with their fastball, try to force contact early and hopefully find their way deep into games by getting swings and misses when they need them. In the middle we have more finesse pitchers who rely on their command and secondary stuff. They attack in a different way by going soft to hard with their pitches. Those guys won't get as many swings and misses over the course of the game but they do still get them. From my experience the finesse pitchers on the mound tend to bring a lot of intangibles to a start and do a good job of controlling the running game. A big key for us is to support them when they are on the mound by playing our best defense.
When you get into the bullpen how do you balance the potential benefits of matching up our relievers in situational roles as opposed to just putting the top arms in the game regardless of the game situation?
Godri: We have had a lot of success over the years playing match-up baseball in the later innings so that is certainly something we are going to try and continue. In a three-game weekend series we can really match up well since there are six left-handed pitchers on the staff. At the same time the pitchers who will be in the mix for late-inning roles have a lot of stamina, so I wouldn't hesitate to go to someone in the middle innings and have them finish the game. We may not have a true closer following in the footsteps of alums like Josh Eidell and Mike Francisco but if push comes to shove we do have the personnel who are capable of pitching in that kind of a role. Starting the season off I feel good about our bullpen and the people we have in place all the way down the line.
A lot of the returning position players have a great deal of playing experience already. As a group they have had a lot of success but there is still upside for each of them individually. As they continue to get better what do they need to do in order to be successful?
Godri: What this group needs to do is make the playoffs. In two of the past three years we have come within a game or two of making the BIG EAST Championship so now the team needs to take the final step. I look at the veterans on our ballclub and I see high character guys and to a man each of them puts Villanova Baseball first in everything they do. I have a great deal of respect for our veterans; they have put a tremendous amount of sweat equity into the program and they probably have higher expectations for themselves and the team than even I do. The best thing we as a coaching staff can do is put our guys in the right situation to succeed. They have been through it all and have had a lot of highs and lows. Throughout their careers they have run the full gamut of what you can experience as a college baseball player with the exception of playing in the postseason. There is nothing I would like to see more than for us to get to Florida for the playoffs with these guys.
How will you measure the progress that the team is making offensively, especially early in the season? What do you need to see from our hitters in the first week or two weeks?
Godri: We have so many young position players that during preseason we have probably spent more time talking to the players about focusing on the process than in any other year. That means being able to focus on practice and the mental toughness of being able to work on your swing and build it up to where it needs to be when we start playing games. The guys have done a tremendous job with this approach to getting ready for the season.
Compared to last year we will have a little bit of a different start this season. Instead of opening up against a highly ranked team like Arkansas we will be at the USA Baseball Complex tournament and play four games in the opening weekend. Early in the season what I want to see the hitters do is to go out, compete well and do all the "coach speak" sort of things. I am interested in seeing how our younger guys focus on the process of the day, how good a pregame practice we have and how we utilize the time in batting practice. All of those things need to become a routine for us so that we can put ourselves in the best position from one week to the next, leading all the way up to when we open BIG EAST play.
There are still a lot of decisions to be made about our lineup and what we are going to do defensively at a few positions. Like with our pitching staff I need to see how some of our lineup options play out in the first few weeks and that has to happen against a team wearing a different uniform. I feel good about the number of options we have to work with.
From top to bottom this should be one of the more athletic lineups for the team in the last few years. How does that determine the team's style of play?
Godri: We have a lot of speed and that basically allows us to run everything we want to do offensively with our bunt game, the stolen base game and the ability to hit-and-run. We can also stretch things out on the bases and challenge the other team with going from first to third and second to home. Basically we are able to put the other defense on notice that they are going to be forced to come and get the ball and to make plays. Our lineup is going to have that ability and as they continue to get comfortable playing with each other I am very excited about where our speed is going to take our offense.
You talked about the number of young position players and the energy that they bring to the team. Can you expand a little more on that?
Godri: The youthful energy comes into play when we get into those weekday games or when we are in Florida playing for the fifth time in six days. As a coaching staff you do your best to get the players ready for playing five games a week but there are games that can be a drag during the course of a long season. When we get into those games there are young guys who might be making their first-ever college start or might only be getting their fifth or 10th college at-bat. That brings us a lot of energy and that helps the team as a whole. I have no doubt that in the dog days of a 56-game schedule the youthful energy of our team is going to win us a few games.
You have said that the adjustment the younger position players make on defense will be a big factor in the outcome of games during the season. What do you expect defensively from the team?
Godri: We base a lot of our goals around our pitching staff and one of the things that go along with that is playing great defense. Because we have a strong pitching staff and because we play in a big ballpark we have defense in mind throughout our entire recruiting process. We are always looking for players with great athletic ability, speed and arm strength; basically all the characteristics of playing good defense. With the younger players we make defense a priority for them by emphasizing that playing good defense is the quickest way for them to have an opportunity to win a starting job.
When we get into playing games we talk a lot about not trying to knock the other team out with power punches but trying to outpoint them. The defense has to take care of the ball and that means limiting free bases. We look at errors, walks, hit batsmen, wild pitches and balls in the dirt to see if we can get more free bases than the other team each day. We know that someone is going to hit a ball in the gap but you don't know when that is going to happen. That is why our defense is so important. We can't get caught up trying to chase runs down because of self-inflicted damage. If we can get into the late innings in a close game I have all the confidence in the world that our offense will find a way to get the job done and our pitching will be able to shut the other team down.
Earlier you talked about the athleticism of the lineup from an offensive standpoint. How does all that speed help the team defensively?
Godri: Our overall speed is critically important when we are in the field, especially in the outfield. We play in a huge ballpark and our expectations of the outfielders are first and foremost to be dependable and second that if a ball is hit in the air and stays in the ballpark we are going to run it down and catch it. I look at this team in particular and our outfield defense is as good as it gets. When it comes to collective outfield defense I would take our guys over anybody.
Talk about the defense in the infield and behind the plate.
Godri: I think over time our infield will be very good. It is a matter of some of the younger players getting experience with college baseball and with the team as a whole playing together every day. We won't have the same amount of experience at second base and third base as the past few years but that is how college baseball works. What we do have is the opportunity to put a great athlete at every position and we also have the depth to give the lineup some options against both right-handed and left-handed pitching.
This year's team has some star power in junior pitcher Pat Young and senior infielder Tyler Sciacca. What type of recognition are these two guys getting for the success they have had the past few years?
Godri: Tyler and Pat have each been recognized on a national level. They have each played in the Cape Cod league during the summer and are showing up a lot on different kinds of draft lists. Pat is high up on a number of junior boards and Tyler will be a highly sought-after senior-sign prospect. These guys have both played for a long time and when we go out on road trips there are always a number of scouts and talent evaluators that come see us play. I believe [sophomore left-handed pitcher] Josh Harris will eventually be in this category too. He isn't there yet but ability wise he could be the next in line.
We are getting a lot of calls and interest from professional teams. When pro scouts come out to see our top prospects it benefits the entire team and in particular it benefits the fringe guy who might not otherwise get noticed. We want them to have an open forum with professional scouts and set them up with advisers. There is a good process in place here that is conducive to putting our pro prospects in the best position to not only succeed for Villanova but also to have success at the next level.
We spend a lot of time with players like Pat and Tyler just talking to them about how they handle the attention. It is important for them to handle the attention the right way so that the next guy in line who is a sophomore or a freshman can learn by the example they set. In the past few years guys like Matt Szczur, Kyle McMyne, Kyle Helisek and others have been through this and the guys who are still on the team had an opportunity to watch them and see what they did well during the entire process. I have always been very pleased to see our players handle the extra attention in a manner that makes it a positive experience for the entire ballclub.
During conference play every team will play four series at home and four on the road this year. Is there a sense that this will create a more balanced schedule?
Godri: I never really bought into the idea that playing five series at home one year and four series at home the next year created an imbalance in the league schedule. It is kind of funny when you look at it because for so many years we have been a great team on our home field and struggled on the road, but last year it was kind of the opposite.
Where the schedule really benefits us this year is that our bye week in conference play is the first week. That gives us an extra week of preparation and during our bye week we will play a three-game series against Cornell. There is much more value in that for us than if we had a bye week in April. I think we will look back at the end of the year and see that the early bye week in conference play worked to our advantage.
Villanova has played at least one big series a year against a highly ranked opponent with a national profile. This year that series is against Florida State and does not occur until the third week of the season. Do you see an opportunity with the schedule to pick up some early momentum?
Godri: We open the season at the USA Baseball Complex Classic. This is a great event and it is going to be very beneficial for Villanova to play in it. Every game is going to be against a good team who finishes at or near the top of their conference so we will be challenged. All of the teams in this tournament are pretty similar and we are all in the same boat just needing to play games so early in the year.
In the past when we have had success against teams like Florida and Alabama it has come after we had a chance to be on the field for two to three weeks already. There is a tremendous difference in not just going from practices in the gym into a mega venue. The schedule we have in the first two weeks this year gives everybody a chance to get their feet under them and allows our offense to start getting something going.
After the USA Baseball tournament we go to another tournament at North Carolina State, who could end up being the best team we see all year. We get them in the Friday game at their tournament and then play two more games before going to Florida State. Then we come home from the Florida trip to start our home schedule. The way we have our big non-conference games staggered in the opening weeks should be good for us.