Pitt baseball looks to start the season strong this weekend vs. Canisius


Alanna Reid | Senior Staff Photographer

Matt Gilbertson pitches during a baseball game against North Carolina in 2021.

By Jermaine Sykes, Staff Writer

Pitt baseball looks to start the 2022 season strong when it opens play Friday against Canisius. With some roster turnover, Pitt is searching for replacements after key departures. To avoid another year of heartbreak, the Panthers will look to find an identity — offensively, and on the mound — early against Canisius.

The Panthers will travel to Florida for a four-game series against the Canisius Golden Griffins, starting Friday at noon. Games will continue as the teams play a doubleheader on Saturday, before finishing off the series on Sunday.

The Golden Griffins will test the Panther pitching rotation in their first series of the season as their starting ace in 2021 — Mitch Myers — departed for the MLB. Senior starter Matt Gilbertson will likely take the ace role this season after a productive junior season. Gilbertson won six of his 13 starts in 2021, along with a 1.29 WHIP, and will almost certainly be seen in the series opener.

The Panthers can also rely on junior Billy Corcoran against the Golden Griffins. Corcoran saw a short 2021 season due to injury, but should return to starting-caliber this season. The 2020 season shortened by COVID-19 saw Corcoran lead the Panthers in WHIP with .95 and a 2-0 record on the mound.

Other than Gilbertson and Corcoran, there are no returning starters in the Panther rotation. Head coach Mike Bell and the Panthers will likely have to rely on pitchers Ben Dragani and Hayden Summers to finish the four-game series. Dragani, a transfer from Michigan, gives the Panthers a lefty in the rotation. Summers, on the other hand, gives the Panthers some right-handed velocity.

The additional loss of pitchers Chase Smith and Jordan McCrum out of the bullpen left the Panthers thin in relief. Smith and McCrum combined for a total of 46 appearances in 2021. Redshirt senior Dylan Lester has the most experience out of the Panthers’ bullpen and should be an arm to resort to against Canisius. Lester posted a shaky 7.06 ERA in 15 appearances last season, but Bell will look for him to rebound.

Things get a little less questionable for the Panthers offensively. Headlined by catcher Tatem Levins, the Panthers should attack the Golden Griffins’ pitching early and often. Levins — an incoming transfer from La Salle — saw great production in 2021, tallying a .315 batting average, a .416 on-base percentage and a .503 slugging percentage.

Aside from Levins, the Panthers will return infielder Sky Duff and outfielders Dom Popa and Ron Washington Jr. will likely bat leadoff, as he had a .366 batting average in 2021, good enough for No. .5 in the ACC. Popa and Washington will boost the power in the Panther lineup, after combining for 15 home runs in 2021.

Duff, Popa and Washington will have to step up as leaders for this Panthers team due to all of the turnover. But Bell seems confident in the group going into the season.

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

The Golden Griffins have a few players that can give the Panthers fits. Sophomore infielder Max Grant had a stellar 2021, hitting .386 from the batter’s box along with a .519 on-base percentage. Graduate student Vinny Chiarenza posted a team-leading nine home runs last season and the Panthers shouldn’t sleep on his power.

On the mound, Jeff DeStefano and brothers Matt and Aaron Duffy should see action against the Panthers. DeStefano posted a 1.23 ERA along with a 1.64 WHIP in 2021. Matt Duffy had an even better 2021, as he allowed only a .96 WHIP in six appearances. Aaron Duffy, a first year, has no prior collegiate experience, but with his brother’s production, he should look for a start. 

Despite this, Canisius shouldn’t be much of a challenge for the Panthers. The Panthers — 23-20 overall and 16-17 in the ACC in 2021 — are in a far more competitive conference than Canisius and should look to capitalize on that. If the Panthers want to build on an upsetting season in 2021, they should look for an early-season sweep against the Golden Griffins.