Pitt baseball looks to rebuild after emotional 2021 campaign

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Lucas Zheng | Senior Staff Photographer

Junior infielder Sky Duff celebrates a grand slam to right-center field during Pitt’s first home ACC series win of the 2021 season vs. Miami.

By Zack Gibney, Senior Staff Writer

After his team’s surprising omission from the 2021 NCAA Tournament, Pitt baseball head coach Mike Bell spoke about the disappointing conclusion to a season that, just a few weeks prior, seemed so promising. In the press conference, Bell reflected on a memorable campaign, but also lamented that his team wouldn’t have a chance to prove their worth in the national tournament.

Bell alluded to the fact that the team, after dropping eight of their final nine contests, hadn’t played well enough down the stretch to comfortably make their way into the NCAA Tournament. While many believed Pitt still should have made the tournament, the team’s late-season woes ultimately gave the committee a decision to make.

“If you look at our body of work, [our last 10-15 games] is the one thing you can really hold against us,” Bell said. “You never know when you put it in someone else’s hands.” 

Bell and the Panthers will now look to recalibrate as they head into the 2022 season — one with no shortage of questions to be answered.

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Several fixtures of last year’s team have moved on from collegiate ball into the next chapter of their lives. Former second baseman David Yanni left Pittsburgh after five seasons with the program and last year’s ace pitcher Mitch Myers will play baseball professionally after the Oakland Athletics selected him in the MLB Draft.

Pitt lost several players to the transfer portal, including catchers Riley Wash and Jackson Phinney, along with bullpen piece Chase Smith. Other notable subtractions from last year’s team include outfielder Nico Popa, a .313 hitter who appeared in all 43 games last season, and catcher Ramon Padilla, whose graduation makes for a total of three departing backstops for a team that saw little consistency at the position a season ago.

One of the names expected to fill that hole is junior catcher Tatem Levins — a transfer from La Salle who is primed to play a pivotal role in the catching rotation. Levins, a career .318 hitter during his collegiate career, enters his first season at Pitt brimming with excitement about the upcoming season.

Levins said he felt welcomed from the moment he stepped on campus. He said while moving from La Salle to Pitt has been a cultural adjustment, he hasn’t regretted it for a second and is eager to get the season underway.

“It has blown away my expectations and I couldn’t be happier with the transition so far,” Levins said. “The camaraderie of all the players and everyone buying in — everyone is friends with everyone.”

While Levins and others are beginning their Pitt careers, much of Pitt’s core from last season is returning with the hope of making amends for the shortcomings of 2021. One of these foundational players, junior infielder Sky Duff, returns after a season during which he finished fifth in the ACC in batting average. Duff said last year can be a reference point for what the program is trying to build heading into 2022.

“It was pretty shocking in the moment when we didn’t get [into the NCAA Tournament],” Duff said. “But at the same time, we have tried to look at the positives from the year and really just build off of it.”

And while the turnover may be concerning for some, Duff feels the transition will be an easy one. He agreed with Levins’ evaluation of how well the team has gelled, even in just a few short months together.

“We did have a lot of guys graduate out of the program last year, but that core group is still there,” Duff said. “And with the new editions we’ve had, it has gone really smoothly.”

Coach Bell also noted the new-look Panthers made a seamless transition from last year due to returning players, such as Duff who made the newcomers feel right at home.

“I thought the core guys that returned from last year did a great job of welcoming [the incoming players],” Bell said. “These guys were really open-arms to each other within their position groups and as a team.”

During fall exhibitions and practices, Bell said the veteran presence has also been critical when it comes to onfield success. The core showed newcomers the ropes, and Bell suggested this will help them develop and find success quickly.

“There’s no doubt when you’ve been there and done it before, the how-to allows you to relate that to others that have not,” Bell said. “When you have a group of guys that have been there and done it, and they’ve seen it, it’s easier to make those next steps forward.”

Bell echoed the same idea during the offseason that he did at his final 2021 press conference — uncertainty arises when you leave the decision up to a committee. Pitt will begin its season this time around with the goal of controlling its own destiny and avoiding any drama the selection show may bring by winning.

“When you have the opportunity to take care of something yourself, take care of it yourself,” Bell said. “Don’t put this in a decision-maker behind closed doors, let’s take care of things out in the open — where there’s a scoreboard and where we compete every day.”

The Panthers will look to do just that as they begin their season in Port Charlotte, Florida, where they face Canisius in the Snowbird Classic on Feb. 19.