‘One pitch at a time’: Pitt baseball talks upcoming season


Thomas Yang | Assistant Visual Editor

Nico Popa suffered a season-ending injury as a sophomore but fought back to earn second-team All-ACC honors in 2019.

By Griffin Floyd, Staff Writer

When Pitt baseball makes its season debut this Friday against Indiana State in Port Charlotte, Florida, head coach Mike Bell is taking an approach that might sound like a time-old sports cliche.

“One pitch at a time, one inning at a time, one game at a time.”

A year after a trying season — finishing last in the ACC with a 21-34 overall record — Bell thinks that having a short memory is exactly the approach his team needs.

“It’s one of the things he preaches, take things one pitch at a time whether you had success or failure on the previous pitch, just forgetting that and moving on to the next one,” junior outfielder Ron Washington Jr. said.

This year’s squad will look significantly different, as the Panthers lost four players to the MLB and welcomed 21 new players to the roster with 10 first-years and 11 junior college transfers, many of whom will instantly step into prominent roles.

Bell singled out praise for one newcomer in particular — junior JuCo transfer Jordan Anderson.

“He has a chance to be an elite level center fielder. [He’s a] prototypical speed guy, leadoff guy, he can really cover gap to gap and cause a lot of havoc on the bases,” Bell said.

And though growing pains seem likely with so much roster turnover, an established veteran core is ready to step up.

One of those veterans, senior infielder David Yanni, said he wants to finish his collegiate career strong after pushing through 26-, 30-, 26- and 34-loss seasons.

“All I’m really focused on is anything I can do to help the team get to where it wants to go, be it RBIs, playing good defense, driving guys in, scoring runs, whatever it may be. I just want the team to win,” Yanni said.

That selfless outlook is another theme Bell is pushing. With back-to-back College World Series appearances as a player and seven straight NCAA tournament bids as an assistant coach for powerhouse Florida State, he is no stranger to team success and how to achieve it.

“We try to compete at a gold standard here at Pitt, and competing for championships at the highest level is what we strive to do,” Bell said. “Our motto is win the day. We want to be better tomorrow than we were today, we preach trying to be just as strong in April, May and June as we are in February. It’s not where you start, it’s where you finish.”

Although buzz about the ACC tournament and the College World Series in Omaha, Nebraska, filled the dugout, the Panthers are staying grounded.

“One game at a time. The only [game] I have circled right now is Indiana State on Friday, and then we’ll go from there,” sophomore infielder Sky Duff said.

There was no mention of being “on to Cincinnati,” but it was hard not to think of the relentless, single-minded approach made famous by New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick. And Bell didn’t mince words on his expectations.

“Our goals remain the same every season. We want to win a championship. Now, those come in a lot of different fashions. They can come in a conference championship, regular season, they can come in a regional, a super regional. Those are our goals each and every year, to reach the final destination, Omaha,” he said.

There was also palpable excitement that both the players and coaches expressed for one another — the stoic Bell practically gushed over senior outfielder Nico Popa, Pitt’s leader in most batting categories last season including average, OPS, hits and total bases.

“I’m really looking forward to following [him] and his story. It’s something that hopefully we can write a storybook ending on. He’s not only a phenomenal player but an outstanding young man,” Bell said.

Popa, who suffered a season-ending injury as a sophomore but fought back to earn second-team All-ACC honors in 2019, took the same approach as the rest of the team when it came to the upcoming season.

“Just do whatever it takes to help the team win. Be a leader on and off the field, for these younger guys and also the returning guys,” Popa said.

Pitt’s record last year left much to be desired, but the Panthers did accomplish some big wins that flashed the sort of potential they have when firing on all cylinders. Most notably, Pitt bested No. 11 North Carolina in a three-game series at home to end the regular season.

“My favorite memory last year was taking the series here from UNC. Three really close games, and the way we won at the end was awesome,” Duff said.

The final two games of the series were a double-header, and after seeing the Tar Heels blow the game open late in the first game, Pitt fell behind 3-2 in the top of the 7th in the second game. The Panthers managed to dig deep, scoring five runs in the final two innings to take the game and the series — but the reason the series was memorable for him went beyond that.

“It was because we got coach Bell his first ACC series win,” Duff said.

As the team’s elder spokesman and one of the best players in the ACC, Popa is familiar with the talent level necessary to succeed in college baseball. He praised Bell’s ability to recruit this offseason, testifying to the skill of Pitt’s incoming players.

“Coach has done a really good job at recruiting, bringing in some good junior college arms and good high school guys too that can fill the void left by the players we lost last year,” he said.

For Washington, the reason for the team’s respect toward Bell is simple.

“He’s our guy.”