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Baseball: Pitt makes mark in first ACC season

By Dan Sostek / Staff Writer

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Last season, the Pitt baseball team set a program record for wins, so it was only natural that the Panthers would face some regression this year. 

Between losing two of the team’s best players — catcher Elvin Soto and pitcher Ethan Mildren — to professional baseball and transitioning to the ultra-talented Atlantic Coastal Conference, the Panthers couldn’t duplicate the success of the previous season in 2014.

With an overall record of 22-30  — 11-19 in-conference — Pitt fell 20 games short of last year’s output and finished sixth out of seven teams in the ACC Coastal Division, only beating out Virginia Tech. A six-game losing streak to end the season ensured Pitt wouldn’t make the 10-team ACC tournament. Pitt finished with the lowest batting average, fielding percentage and fewest hits and total bases in the entire conference. No players received postseason honors.

But for players like junior outfielder Boo Vazquez, the season wasn’t necessarily a bad one.

“The transition to the ACC went okay, but obviously not what we wanted,” said Vazquez, who will likely be selected in the MLB Draft this offseason. “I think there definitely were some bright spots.”

Some of these bright spots were defeating then-No. 1 Virginia on a walk-off sacrifice fly and other key wins versus Clemson, UNC and sweeps of Georgia Tech and Duke.

There were more positives to take from the season than Vazquez highlighted, and even more to look forward to in 2015.

One of the most welcome surprises was the smooth transition for pitcher Joe Harvey, who served as a closer for the Panthers in 2013, to the starting rotation this season where he excelled, posting a 2.90 ERA and a team-best 56 strikeouts.

“[The adjustment] was more of a mental makeup thing,” said Harvey, the winning pitcher in the victory over UVA. “Mentality is the only difference between starting and relieving. For me, I just try to go out there every game and give everything I got.”

And for every upperclassman performer like Harvey, there was one like T.J. Zeuch, a 6-foot-7-inch freshman right-hander who had a 2.75 ERA — the best of all Pitt starting pitchers — while also being the only Panther pitcher to throw a complete game.

“[Zeuch] came out a bit anxious and nervous,” Harvey said, “but he really settled down and had a great season for a freshman.”

Vazquez also cited Zeuch as an underclassman who impressed him.

“[Zeuch] did very well for his first year in a very good conference, and he’ll only get better with experience,” Vazquez said.

The Panthers will need pitchers like Zeuch, as well as younger hitters like Nick Yarnall and Manny Pazos to step up in 2015, since the Panthers will lose key seniors like preseason All-American right fielder Casey Roche, as well as starters like center fielder Stephen Vranka, Steve Shelinsky and Matt Wotherspoon. The biggest loss might be the junior, Vazquez, who will almost assuredly hear his name called in the June amateur draft.

The opportunity appeals to Vazquez, who has already heard from a number of teams. “I think every kid’s dream when they start playing baseball is to play professionally at the highest level, and that’s something that’s been a goal of mine for a long time,” he said.

Losing the entire starting outfield would be a devastating blow to the 2015 Panthers team, but there is talent to replace them, like Frank Maldonado, a freshman who didn’t play this season due to injury, while Nick Yarnall and A.J. Lardo will also need to step up.

2014 was the final year with this current 17-person core of upperclassmen in tact, and while the season might not have been a success in the wins and losses column, there were flashes of the kind of talent the Panthers will boast in the foreseeable future.

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Baseball: Pitt makes mark in first ACC season