Play ball! Panthers look to improve in second year in ACC


By Mark Powell / Staff Writer

In its second season in the competitive ACC, Pitt baseball expects a major improvement after a disappointing 2013-2014 in which it failed to make the conference tournament.

Many problems still reside that need fixing in order to make that leap, especially with a depleted pitching staff following the loss of 2013-2014 players Matt Wotherspoon, Joe Harvey and Luke Curtis to the MLB Draft.

Tacked on to the graduation of slugger Casey Roche, the departures of the three draftees create a big obstacle to improving in 2015. The Panthers will need to rely on younger pitchers to ensure that the gaping hole in the rotation is filled.

“It is a challenge with a question to pick up those innings,” head coach Joe Jordano said. “But we do feel confident that the pitching staff that we have assembled will have the ability to keep icing games.”

The ACC is a conference composed of powerful lineups, so the Panthers must pick up some of the production lost from last season.

A key front of the rotation starters is T.J. Zeuch, a returning starter who made 15 appearances and nine starts his freshman season, leading the team with a 2.75 ERA in the process.

“Honestly, I think that’s tough for any team when you lose your three weekend guys to the graduation or the draft,” Zeuch said. “We’re doing our best and worked hard in the offseason to try and get up to that level.”

Standing at an intimidating 6-foot-7, Zeuch looks to be a future ace of the staff. Assuming he can build off of a strong freshman season, Pitt may replace the void in their rotation sooner rather than later. 

“Obviously everyone’s goal is to get to Omaha,” Zeuch said. “Personally I think our team goal should be to make the ACC tournament. Last year we fell short, and that was really a tough one to handle for myself.”

The beginning of the season will test the Panthers’ staff, as the team opens its non-conference schedule against three upstart offenses in St. Louis, Ohio State and Kansas State down in Port Charlotte, Fla.

Despite the excitement surrounding the pitching staff, Jordano preaches patience to Pitt fans expecting this team to gel from day one.

“I really don’t know, nor do I care, to project the ceiling for this team,” Jordano said. “We certainly need to take it one game at a time.

Jordano went on to praise the team’s effort in practice, behind an intense conditioning regimen put in place by strength coach Brian Bert.

Offensively, Pitt is led by Boo Vazquez, who should once again consistently see time in the middle of the lineup, either at the outfielder or designated hitter spots. Entering his senior season, Vazquez is the unquestioned centerpiece to Pitt’s offense, and the team expects him to compile another strong statistical year.

Vazquez struggled from the plate at times last year, batting only .246 after registering .300 plus averages in his first two seasons with Pitt. However, he still led the team with six home runs and 39 RBI’s. 

With another strong season, the senior could raise his MLB draft stock, but his team-first mentality could push Pitt to a successful 2015 offensive. 

“I’m just trying to be a leader and a team guy,” Vazquez said. “I wanna get the team going, pushing from behind instead of dragging from the back.”

While their 11-19 record suggests they were overmatched in ACC play last season, Jordano and company stress that the bad record is somewhat misleading, citing seven one-run losses in conference games. 

Still, the players understand that an inability to finish games is not an adequate excuse for their disappointing season.

“I think it’s just execution. It’s one pitch, one mistake and not dwelling on it,” Vazquez said. “If somebody boots a ball, you just need to be able to move on instead of dwelling on it and move on to the next pitching instead of letting it snowball. I think that’s going to be the key to this year.”

Jordano echoed those comments, suggesting that in a conference as competitive as the ACC, one mistake can cost a team a game and, in turn, several spots in the standings. 

Despite the optimism, the Panthers are a team with many new faces and moving parts that must acclimate quickly with the tough early-season schedule. Pitt doesn’t play a home game until March 10 against Niagara, and their long road trip includes stops against VCU and College World Series runner-up Virginia. 

“We’re anxious to get the season started to figure out exactly where we are at,” Jordano said. “We work very hard to make certain our guys have a clear understanding of our expectations and what we need to do every day to position ourselves to be successful.”

The new-look Panthers take the field for the first time this Friday against St. Louis in Florida.