Baseball Season Preview
Feb. 15, 2011
One of the biggest tasks at hand for 10th year head coach Joe Godri and his staff in recent seasons has been to find a balance within the roster between experienced upperclassmen and emerging underclassmen. In the two years that have passed since a 15-member senior class graduated in 2008, the Wildcats have had a relatively small group of veteran players that have carried the team on a daily basis. Meanwhile, the team as a whole has stayed young enough that Godri can reasonably expect Villanova to continue taking big steps forward from one season to the next.
The upcoming 2011 season should exemplify this trend better than ever. The team returns six members of its everyday starting lineup and three of its top four starting pitchers from last season. Each of the players in those two groups will have to make consistent contributions in order for the Wildcats to have a successful season and challenge for a playoff spot in the BIG EAST Championship. At the same time, seven of the nine returning starters (five in the lineup and two in the pitching rotation) are juniors who are being counted on to build on their experience to this point.
Meanwhile, there is reason to be as excited as ever about the group of newcomers that arrived in this year's recruiting class. A pair of junior college outfielders will strengthen the lineup and a stable of freshmen pitchers form one of the best young pitching classes Villanova has attracted in the past few years.
Signs of progress were everywhere for the Wildcats last season. The team increased its win total by seven from the year prior, won three more BIG EAST games and had a chance to contend for a postseason berth until the final day of the regular season. It was easy to see where the additional wins were coming from, as Villanova notched the highest batting average, lowest staff ERA and best fielding percentage of Godri's tenure as head coach. So with the expectation that the Wildcats are ready to take another step forward in 2011, there is a great deal of optimism as Villanova prepares to get the new year underway.
SCOUTING THE SCHEDULE
There is plenty of familiarity for the Wildcats early on in the season but most notable on the schedule is that for the first time in his head coaching career Godri will not be taking his team on a spring trip to Florida, where Villanova has won 34 games over the past nine years. Instead, the Wildcats will spend nine days in North Carolina with an opportunity to play challenging games against some opponents they have not seen before.
Taking a step back first, however, Villanova will open the year with its annual series against Norfolk State from February 18-20. The teams will meet for three games in Virginia and continue a series in which the Wildcats have gone 13-2 over the last seven years.
Upon arriving in North Carolina, the team will play its annual three-game series against an opponent from one of the nation's top baseball conferences. This year's marquee foe will be Duke out of the Atlantic Coast Conference, a team that Villanova should match up well with. Also on the docket for the Wildcats are single games against North Carolina Central and North Carolina A&T. The latter game will be played at the USA Baseball training complex in Cary on March 1. Villanova will conclude its trip to North Carolina in Wilmington, with one game against UNC-Wilmington and a neutral-site game there versus Holy Cross.
The first chance for the Wildcats to continue being a dominant home team at the Villanova Ballpark at Plymouth comes in the home opener against Bucknell on March 8. After that, the team hosts back-to-back weekend tournaments from March 11-13 (Villanova Classic) and from March 18-20 (Big Five Baseball Bash).
Villanova plays a home game this year in the first round of the Liberty Bell Classic when it hosts Lafayette on March 29, while a potential second round game will be played on the road on April 5. It will once again take two wins in the local tournament in order for the Wildcats to advance to the championship game at Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia.
In late March when regular season BIG EAST play begins, Villanova will once again have its hands full every weekend against teams that make the league one of the nation's most competitive from top to bottom year in and year out. This year the schedule seems to slightly tilt in the Wildcats favor, however. Villanova will be able to play five of its nine series in league play at home, while three of the four road trips are just a short bus ride away.
Conference play begins with two straight series at home against Seton Hall (March 25-27) and USF (April 1-3). Due to the rotating BIG EAST schedule, the Wildcats did not play one of its most traditional league rivals last season (Seton Hall) and will look forward to renewing acquaintances on their home turf. The other BIG EAST foes coming to the Villanova Ballpark at Plymouth are Connecticut (April 15-17), West Virginia (April 29-May 1) and Rutgers (May 13-15).
On the road, Villanova will travel to Pittsburgh (April 8-10), Cincinnati (April 21-23), Georgetown (May 6-8) and St. John's (May 19-21). The final series of the regular season at St. John's is another chance for the Wildcats to write the next chapter against a longtime conference foe that did not appear on last year's schedule.
Missing from this season's schedule are league opponents Louisville and Notre Dame. Since the Cardinals joined the BIG EAST back in 2006, they are the only conference team that Villanova has not missed on the schedule and Godri has led his teams in more games against Louisville over the past five years (17 games) than versus any other squad.
The goal for Villanova in all of the above games will be the same as always, to secure one of eight spots in the BIG EAST Championship, which runs from May 25-29 and returns to Bright House Field in Clearwater, Florida.
Below is a look at how the 2011 edition of the Wildcats will shape up at each position on the field.
It appears that Villanova has a set weekend rotation entering the season, with juniors Kyle Helisek (Cranberry Township, Pa.) and Kyle McMyne (Old Forge, Pa.) expected to return to their roles as consistent weekend starters for the team. Sophomore Kevin MacLachlan (Matawan, N.J.) had a successful freshman campaign as a midweek starter and will pitch on weekends this spring.
Helisek is a left-hander who posted a 4.23 ERA last season and is 7-8 in his career while logging 135.0 innings over the last two seasons. McMyne, a right-hander, won six games in his first season as a starter in 2010 and ranked second on the team with 66 strikeouts in 67 2/3 innings pitched. MacLachlan was both a midweek starter as well as a reliever on weekends and wound up starting nine of his 14 appearances. He was 4-0 for the year with a 3.70 ERA and limited opponents to a .263 batting average against him.
A trio of freshmen will have a chance to fill the same role that MacLachlan held last year, as well as Helisek the year before. Right-handers Max Almonte (Long Beach, N.Y.), Matt Lengel (Devon, Pa.) and Pat Young (The Woodlands, Texas) are all power pitchers capable of making an immediate impact either in the rotation or in relief roles on weekends.
Like the front of the starting rotation, the back of the bullpen will have a very familiar look for the Wildcats, with the return of senior Mike Francisco (Newtown Square, Pa.) and juniors Julian Diaz (Trenton, N.J.) and Jerry Battipaglia (Katonah, N.Y.).
The left-handed Francisco is back for his third season as the closer and begins the year with 11 career saves. He tallied seven saves while averaging better than 12 strikeouts per nine innings last season, while holding opponents to a .253 batting average. Diaz and Battipaglia both emerged as reliable setup men last year and combined to make 45 appearances. Diaz pitched in 26 games and was 1-1 with a 3.65 ERA in a bullpen-high 37.0 innings pitched. Battipaglia appeared in 19 games and was 1-1 with a 4.89 ERA while striking out 31 in 35.0 innings of work.
In long relief or matchup situations, Villanova can turn to the aforementioned Almonte, Lengel and Young at times, with a nod likely going to whoever does not end up in the weekday rotation. Also in this mix is freshman right-hander Chris Haggarty (Valley Cottage, N.Y.), a walk-on during the fall season who is among the more polished pitchers in this year's incoming class.
Junior Tom Tesauro (Lawrenceville, N.J.) and sophomore Stephen Ostapeck (Sacramento, Calif.) will also compete to earn roles out of the bullpen. Tesauro was limited to three appearances last season but pitched five scoreless innings with just two hits allowed in those outings. Ostapeck appeared in seven games as a freshman and has shown steady growth during the past year.
Villanova has always fared well in matchup situations and that should again be true during the coming year with the presence of two left-handers in sophomores Matt Longfield (Miami, Fla.) and Drew Packard (Knoxville, Tenn.). Both pitchers have continued to make strides during their time with the Wildcats and can be counted on in the right situation.
One of the positive developments for Villanova last season was the ability of junior Adam Nelson (St. Joseph, Mo.) to effectively control the opponent's running game from behind the plate. Nelson threw out 11-of-21 would-be base stealers for a sterling 53 percent caught stealing rate. He also handled 137 fielding chances without committing an error (117 putouts, 20 assists). Nelson split time between catching and serving as the designated hitter last season and wound up hitting .200 with a .317 on-base percentage and eight doubles in 29 games, including 23 starts. He is first in line to earn a starting role entering 2011.
Freshmen catchers John Cialone (Houston, Texas) and Dan Jaffe (Las Vegas, Nev.) both arrive on campus with the potential to help the team right away. Cialone profiles as an excellent defensive catcher with an accurate throwing arm who also has the potential to develop offensively. Jaffe has a solid frame and was very highly-rated at his position during the recruiting process. Both first-year backstops will be in competition to serve as the main backup behind the plate.
Villanova returns its entire starting infield from the last two seasons, beginning with junior Kevin Wager (Fairfax, Va.) at first base. Wager started 49 games last season and batted .277 with a .380 on-base percentage while leading the team with 14 times being hit by a pitch. He also ranked fourth with 36 runs scored and stole 10 bases in 12 tries while playing as good defense as any of his counterparts in the BIG EAST. Wager committed just three errors in 415 chances for a .993 fielding percentage.
Junior Scott Buckwalter (Harrisburg, Pa.) is a solid option at first base both offensively and defensively and is a power threat at the plate. He started six of 17 games played last season and compiled a .207 batting average and a .333 on-base percentage. Freshman Tyler Reich (Ocean City, N.J.) has the potential to add immediate power to the Wildcats lineup and defensively is capable of playing the corner positions in both the infield and the outfield.
Junior Tyler Sciacca (Staten Island, N.Y.) is the top defensive player for Villanova and can play both middle infield positions equally well. He was the starter at second base last season and committed just seven errors in 225 chances. Sciacca was also a pleasant surprise offensively, batting .309 with a .403 on-base percentage and a .414 slugging percentage. He was second on the team with 12 doubles and stole eight bases without being caught en route to finishing the year with 33 runs scored and 29 RBI.
There is plenty of depth for the Wildcats in the middle infield and freshman Michael Erb (Camarillo, Calif.) has the potential to step in right away for the team. He is a talented offensive player who plays steady defense and was recruited by a number of West Coast schools prior to signing with Villanova.
A third player who could see occasional time at second base is senior Dain Hall (Barrington, Ill.), who will also be used as a designated hitter and in left field.
In his second year as the primary starter at shortstop, junior Marlon Calbi(Montclair, N.J.) was a steady presence in the lineup for Villanova last season. He batted .248 with a .317 on-base percentage but did much more offensively than those numbers indicate. Calbi tied for second on the team by getting hit by a pitch 12 times, while his 14 sacrifice bunts were a team high. He finished the year with seven doubles, two triples and a home run while scoring 30 runs and driving in 20. In the field, Calbi handled 246 fielding chances with 84 putouts, 144 assists and 18 errors for a .927 fielding percentage.
Senior David Koczirka (Thornton, Pa.) was a pleasant surprise with a breakout season as a sophomore and he continued to post solid numbers for Villanova last season. He returns as the likely starter this year after batting .286 and tying for the team lead with nine multi-RBI games last season. Koczirka finished the year with 10 doubles, three triples and two home runs while drawing 26 walks to rank second on the squad in free passes. He also continued to play excellent defense, with just five errors and a .955 fielding percentage in 111 chances.
Villanova can expect a fair amount of depth at the hot corner, as each of the other infielders also have some experience at third base. Juniors Kevin Wager and Marlon Calbi are among those who have seen some time at third base during their Wildcat careers.
Villanova had one of its best outfields in 2010 - one which produced a pair of draft picks following the season - and will be tasked with replacing starters in center field and right field. Among the returnees is junior Matt Fleishman (East Northport, N.Y.), who overcame a midseason illness to hit .276 in 32 starts with three home runs and 25 RBI. He posted a .359 on-base percentage and a .439 slugging percentage with five doubles and three triples to go along with his home runs. Fleishman has the best arm of any of the Wildcat outfielders and is likely to be used in right field during the season.
A pair of junior college transfers will each have an opportunity to make an immediate impact this season, as juniors Jordan Zech (Naples, Fla.) and Andrew Geenen (Portola Valley, Calif.) each have an impressive skill set. Zech batted .350 with 47 runs scored and 21 stolen bases last season for Central Florida CC, while Geenen comes to the Wildcats from De Anza CC in California. Zech will have a chance to play in center field and Geenen should slide into a corner outfield spot. Both players have two remaining years of eligibility.
Sophomore Paul Rambaud (Chicago, Ill.) is a prototypical Villanova outfielder with great speed and the ability to hit at the top of the order. He had a successful collegiate debut in 2010 and will compete for a job in center field this spring after appearing in 37 games with 20 starts as a freshman. He batted .250 with a .347 on-base percentage, 20 runs scored and five stolen bases while playing steady defense at all three outfield positions.
Other options in the outfield for the Wildcats include Dain Hall and sophomore Steve Schrenk (Brigantine, N.J.). In his freshman campaign last season, Schrenk showed good power potential off the bench and wound up batting .222 (6-27) with a triple, home run and seven RBI in 19 games played. He is capable of playing both corner outfield positions. Freshmen Connor Jones (Chandler, Ariz.) and Justin Henderson (Cary, Ill.) will also have the opportunity to compete for playing time. Jones shows power to all fields while Henderson possesses great speed with the ability to play good defense at all three outfield spots.
Depending on its defensive alignment on any given day, Villanova may use several different players in the designated hitter role. One of the primary options will be senior Dain Hall, who could also be used defensively in the infield or outfield. Hall is the team's top returning offensive player and last season was the only player on the team to start all 52 games. He finished the year with a .328 batting average, a .435 on-base percentage and a .421 slugging percentage. Hall was second on the team with 17 stolen bases and 36 RBI, while scoring 38 runs and finishing the year with 64 hits, nine doubles, three triples and a home run. He led the squad with 35 walks and also laid down 10 sacrifice bunts.