Baseball Season Preview: Balanced Roster Has Wildcats Primed For a Successful 2012 Season
Feb. 15, 2012
VILLANOVA, Pa. - When head coach Joe Godri embarks on his 11th season as Villanova head coach in 2012 he will do so with a roster that is as balanced as any team he has coached. When the 2011 season came to a close the Wildcats had turned a corner and were playing their best baseball of the season. Many of the players responsible for that upswing return this season, including 11 position players and 10 pitchers.
Of the 21 returning players more than half (11) are seniors and they form a group which will provide a great deal of experience and leadership both on and off the field. Despite having such a large senior class Villanova still has a combined 14 players in their first or second year of eligibility. The balance is thanks to a significant infusion of talent into the program that Godri and the rest of the coaching staff have been responsible for over the last several years.
With the right pieces in place entering the 2012 season both the present and future look bright for the Wildcats, who will be looking to contend for their first postseason berth in the BIG EAST Championships since the 2008 squad reached the semifinals of the conference tournament.
Villanova has always been a team built on pitching and the Wildcats reputation for developing their pitchers continues to attract top talent to the program. Two pitchers have been selected in each of the last two Major League First-Year Player Drafts and Villanova pitchers have been drafted a total of 14 times in Godri's tenure as head coach. Three of those 14 selections have come in the first four rounds of the draft.
The veteran anchor of this year's pitching staff is senior left-hander Kyle Helisek (Cranberry Township, Pa.), who has logged more than 200 innings over the past three seasons and is the Wildcats only returning pitcher with more than 85 career innings for the team. Helisek consistently keeps opposing hitters off balance and will be expected to return to the weekend starting rotation for the third straight year.
Sophomore right-handed pitchers Max Almonte (Massapequa, N.Y.) and Pat Young (The Woodlands, Texas) each stepped up during the second half of last season and will have a chance to earn weekend starting roles as well. Almonte started five of his 11 appearances as a freshman and finished the season 2-0 with a 4.63 ERA. Young is one of the hardest throwers on the team and went 2-2 with a 5.28 ERA in 14 appearances last season.
Villanova should be just as strong at the back end of games as it is with its front-line starters. One of the key figures who may pitch in the late innings is junior righty Stephen Ostapeck (Sacramento, Calif.), who comes off a breakthrough campaign last season. Ostapeck has perhaps the best control of anyone on the team and is versatile enough to pitch in any role ranging from a traditional closer to a long reliever or even a top starter. He logged 45 2/3 innings last season and walked just eight while striking out 27 and not allowing a home run to any of the 204 batters he faced. Ostapeck finished the year 2-2 with a 2.96 ERA, ranked third on the team with 20 appearances and at one point during the season put together a scoreless streak of 17 2/3 consecutive innings.
Senior right-handed pitcher Julian Diaz (Trenton, N.J.) will also have a role in the late innings of games and will once again fill a unique role on the team. Diaz is the trusted option that the Wildcats turn to in close and late game situations and his 50 career appearances are the most of any pitcher on the team. He is 4-2 in his career and went 3-1 last season, when he held opponents to a .136 batting average with a 2.45 ERA spanning his final five outings of the year.
The tandem of right-handed senior Jerry Battipaglia (Katonah, N.Y.) and junior southpaw Matt Longfield (Miami, Fla.) figure to be in the mix for bullpen roles. Battipaglia could see spot starts as well and went 2-2 last season while pitching in 11 games (four starts) and registering 27 strikeouts over 32 1/3 innings pitched. He has averaged 8.3 strikeouts per nine innings during his career, which includes 43 appearances and 84.0 innings pitched. Longfield is a lefty specialist who pitched in 18 games last season and led all returning pitchers on this year's team by averaging 11.6 strikeouts per nine innings (24 strikeouts in 18 2/3 innings).
Junior Kevin MacLachlan (Matawan, N.J.) and sophomore Matt Lengel (Devon, Pa.) - both right-handers - have each been used as either a starter or a reliever during their careers. They both have a wealth of potential and could eventually work their way into the starting rotation or earn roles out of the bullpen. MacLachlan has gone 6-4 with a 4.63 ERA over the past two seasons while demonstrating solid command of his pitches. Lengel pitched 26 2/3 innings and recorded 22 strikeouts as a freshman last season and showed promise out of the bullpen during conference games. Sophomore Chris Haggarty (Valley Cottage, N.Y.) has continued to develop after coming out of high school as a very polished pitcher. He has improved command of his secondary pitches during the past year and will be looking to earn a bullpen role during the season.
Five newcomers join the pitching staff this season and as a group fill a number of needs on the team, as the Wildcats have added both depth and a bevy of left-handed pitching. The two right-handers in the incoming group are freshmen Tyler Radtke (Buffalo Grove, Ill.) and JB Kole (Basking Ridge, N.J.). They were each extremely successful as high school pitchers and have the talent to make an immediate impact. Both freshmen have a deep enough repertoire to contend for weekday starting assignments or to offer contributions out of the bullpen on weekends.
Villanova also brings in a trio of left-handed arms in sophomore Matt Meurer (Katy, Texas) and freshmen Josh Harris (Streamwood, Ill.) and Jeff Courter (Maple Glen, Pa.). Meurer is tough on left-handed hitters and can develop quickly into an effective specialist out of the bullpen. Harris came on strong during his senior year of high school and both he and Courter should continue to make strides in their first season of collegiate ball.
Senior Adam Nelson (St. Joseph, Mo.) does an excellent job of controlling opposing running games with a strong arm behind the plate. Over the past three years he has thrown out a respectable 29 percent of would-be base stealers (32 of 111) and in 2010 cut down a remarkable 52 percent (11 of 21) of runners trying to steal. He is expected to return to his starting role as a senior after batting .260 in 42 games last season.
Backing up Nelson will be sophomore John Cialone (Houston, Texas) and junior Brandon Clark (Spring, Texas). Both are part of a pipeline of players from the state of Texas that have come to the Main Line over the past two years and each are solid options for the Wildcats to turn to. Cialone demonstrated great power potential in 27 games as a freshman last season and has continued to improve his all-around catching skills. Clark is a junior college transfer with a chance to help the team both offensively and defensively.
Villanova senior assistant coach Rod Johnson spends a great deal of time working with the Wildcats defense and his efforts have continued to make the team one of the strongest defensively in the BIG EAST. One of the top defenders in the infield is senior Kevin Wager (Holden, Mo.), who has logged significant time at both first base and third base during his career. He is equally strong defensively at either spot and will likely begin the year slated as the starter at third base. Wager ranks second among returning players this year with 136 career games played and is a .259 with a .360 on-base percentage and only 60 strikeouts in 515 career plate appearances.
Sophomore Connor Jones (Chandler, Ariz.) can play both the outfield and first base and saw time in 24 games as a freshman during the 2011 campaign. Jones gives Villanova a power bat from the left side who has made great progress as an offensive player. He will have a chance to fit into the lineup as a first baseman to begin the season.
The freshman duo of B.J. Bochicchio (Moosic, Pa.) and Brandon Carr (Danville, Calif.) are both expected to make a push for playing time this season. They each are highly accomplished players both in high school and in club baseball who have bright futures within the Wildcats system. Bochicchio can play on the left side of the infield and Carr can slide in as either a third baseman or in the outfield.
Senior first baseman Phil Rosenblum (Berwyn, Pa.) is a local product who is in his first season with Villanova and has two years of athletic eligibility remaining. He walked on to the team during the fall season and could be a pinch hitter in key situations off the bench in addition to seeing spot starts as a designated hitter. Rosenblum played at Wesleyan (Conn.) as a freshman in 2009 and batted .310 in 15 games.
Seniors Marlon Calbi (Montclair, N.J.) and Tyler Sciacca (Staten Island, N.Y.) will be mainstays in the Wildcats lineup this season and currently they project as the starters at shortstop and second base, respectively. Calbi is the most experienced of the Villanova upperclassmen and is a .278 career hitter in 146 games, including 135 starts. He tied for the team lead by hitting .325 last season and also hit .390 with a .492 slugging percentage in 27 regular season BIG EAST games. He also shows tremendous range and a strong arm in the field.
Sciacca sat out last season due to an injury but is fully healthy entering the 2012 season and is likely the team's top defensive player. He committed just seven errors in 225 chances in 2010 and also batted .309 with a .403 on-base percentage and a .414 slugging percentage that season. Sciacca and Calbi should both hit near the top of the Wildcats lineup during the season.
Depth at the middle infield positions will come from freshmen Bochicchio and Dan Morris (New York, N.Y.). Morris is a slick fielder who can play second base and shortstop equally well and also has potential at the plate after batting .300 as a senior in high school while playing in an exclusively wood bat league.
One of the big bats in the middle of the Villanova lineup will be that of senior Matt Fleishman (East Northport, N.Y.), who led the Wildcats in nearly every offensive category last season. Fleishman batted .325 with a .542 slugging percentage and counted 30 extra-base hits among his team-high 66 hits. His 21 doubles were one away from tying the Villanova single-season record and he also had four triples, five home runs, 42 runs batted in and 27 runs scored while stealing six bases in seven tries. He also has a strong and accurate arm that produced six outfield assists in a span of 13 games last season. Fleishman will play either corner outfield position in addition to possibly seeing time as a designated hitter.
Junior Steve Schrenk (Brigantine, N.J.) came on strong after being inserted into the starting lineup during the second half of the 2011 season. He finished the year batting .279 in 41 games, including 23 starts. A left-handed hitter who has the potential to hit for power he was the team's top pinch hitter in critical situations before getting the chance to play every day.
Strong defense up the middle is always a trademark of the Wildcats, as is having a great deal of speed in the lineup. Both of those ideals are represented perfectly by junior Paul Rambaud (Chicago, Ill.) and senior Jordan Zech (Naples, Fla.). They are the two fastest runners on the team and both use their speed well both on the bases and in the outfield. Rambaud finished last season with a .283 batting average and eight stolen bases while starting 30 of his 38 games played. Zech hit .239 with a .314 on-base percentage in 44 games (33 starts) and was the starting center fielder for much of the season. Rambaud and Zech will each be competing for a starting role this season and both could end up in the everyday lineup at the beginning of the year. Defensively the two combined to handle 168 chances in the outfield without a single error last season.
Senior Andrew Geenen (Portola Valley, Calif.) hit .258 in 32 games last season, his first with Villanova after transferring from junior college ball. In his 25 starts he hit both at the top of the order and the middle of the lineup while showing the potential to hit to all fields. He will compete for playing time this season and can play either corner outfield position.
Connor Jones and Brandon Carr can each play both the infield and the outfield. Jones could end up with playing time at first base or either corner outfield spot while Carr can play third base and the outfield.
The schedule the Wildcats play early in the season is never an easy one and in 2012 the team will open up against Arkansas, a member of the Southeastern Conference who begins the season as a consensus top 10 team in the nation. Villanova has been in this position before and in fact has wins over SEC opponents Florida and Alabama to its credit during Godri's tenure as head coach. The three-game series between the Wildcats and the Razorbacks opens the season from February 17-19 in Fayetteville, Ark.
Another highlight of the opening three weeks of the season is Villanova's trip to Florida during the first week of March. Godri has had plenty of success in the Sunshine State before and this year the Wildcats head to what will be a new spot for the team. Villanova will play in the Snowbird Baseball Classic in Port Charlotte, Fla. and has six games in the schedule from March 2-7. The slate of games in Florida includes Big Ten opponents Northwestern and Ohio State in addition to contests against Chicago State, Western Michigan, Miami (Ohio) and Xavier.
Last season the Wildcats won the outright Liberty Bell Classic title for the fourth time with a 7-6 win over Delaware in the championship game at Citizens Bank Park. It was the second straight season that Villanova held at least a share of the championship. The first round of the Liberty Bell Classic this season is scheduled for March 27 when the Wildcats visit Penn. Villanova would host a potential semifinal game the following week (April 3) at the Villanova Ballpark at Plymouth.
The home schedule for the Wildcats begins as usual with the Villanova Baseball Classic (Mar. 9-11) and the Big Five Baseball Bash (Mar. 16-18) both on the docket for the eighth straight year. Villanova welcomes Maryland-Eastern Shore, Iona and Central Connecticut to the first home tournament and then hosts NYIT, Binghamton and Buffalo the week after.
Regular season BIG EAST play starts during the final weekend in March and the rotating conference schedule gives the Wildcats four series at home and five on the road this season. Conference play begins at home, however, as Villanova hosts St. John's (Mar. 23-25) before going on the road the following weekend for a three-game series at Louisville (Mar. 30-Apr. 1). The other home BIG EAST opponents are Georgetown (Apr. 13-15), Notre Dame (May 4-6) and Cincinnati (May 11-13). Besides the road series against Louisville the Wildcats will also travel to West Virginia (Apr. 5-7), Seton Hall (Apr. 20-22), USF (Apr. 27-29) and Rutgers (May 17-19).
The top eight teams out of 12 in the regular season league standings will qualify for the BIG EAST Championship, which returns to Bright House Field in Clearwater, Fla. for the fifth straight season in 2012. The conference tournament was held there for the first time in 2008, when the Wildcats notched the eighth and final seed in the tournament and wound up making a run to the semifinals.