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Yarnall, Mersing highlight slate of Pitt baseball players in summer leagues

By Joe Rokicki / For the Pitt News

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Sometimes, hitting can be contagious — Pitt first baseman Nick Yarnall hopes for his bat to catch fire with his offseason work this summer.

Yarnall, who started 24 games for the Panthers last season, batting .330 with 29 hits, four home runs and 15 RBI in 88 at-bats, is playing left field, first base and DH for a different team: the Kalamazoo Growlers of the Northwoods League in Kalamazoo, Michigan. This is his second season with the team.

Yarnall is one of a large group of collegiate players to participate in a summer league — and one of 12 current Pitt players to do so — as these leagues serve as a great method to stay fresh heading into the NCAA season.

Many players hope to develop different aspects of their game during summer league. Yarnall’s primary goal this summer centers primarily at the plate.

“I’m working on staying aggressive in the box, getting ahead in counts so I can see more fastballs,” Yarnall said.

Through 40 games with the Growlers, Yarnall is hitting .199 with 28 hits, three home runs and 18 RBI. Seven of those hits have been for extra bases, another product of Yarnall’s conscious approach.

“Right now, I’m working on keeping my hips closed. [My coaches] want me to hit the ball to all fields, they want me to be a full range hitter rather than just a pull guy,” Yarnall, a true lefty, said.

It’s a fundamental aspect of a versatile hitter — watch any clip of Cincinnati Reds legend Pete Rose slice a ball into left field, sprint to first then generously round the bag and watch the throw from the outfield in daring anticipation.

“On the bases, I feel like I can get more jumps. I can go from first to third well, I like to test [outfielders’] arms and stretch my hits,” Yarnall said.

The Growlers’ 72-game season concludes on Aug 9. For Yarnall and his teammates, that means 36 games in Kalamazoo and 36 on the road, which may be beneficial, yet tedious.

“This year I’ve noticed I’ve been hitting better away from home. I feel like I know what to expect on the road [in my second year],” Yarnall said.


 

After two seasons of constantly shifting roles, junior pitcher Sam Mersing is ready to start — literally.

Mersing earned one start as a freshman at Pitt, working primarily out of the bullpen. In his sophomore season, Mersing started eight times for the Panthers and posted a 3-3 record with a 5.17 ERA through 47 innings.

Mersing has proven his stuff is effective, whether in relief or in the opening frame. He said he has also improved as a pitcher thanks to his time in the pen.

“You have to have the right mindset and be mentally strong and you have to be ready to throw strikes right out of the pen,” Mersing said. “If there’s runners on base, you’ve got to hold them. It’s definitely made me a stronger pitcher in different situations.”

Now, Mersing hopes his bullpen days are behind him. He’s aiming for a weekend spot on the Panthers’ starting rotation next year, when the team typically plays its conference games.

“Starter is where I want to be, it’s where I’m more comfortable,” Mersing said. “As a starter, you can keep a routine, get in a rhythm. You strive to get to the sixth inning clean and give your team a chance to win.”

Pitching coach Jerry Oakes can relate to chaotic working conditions of a relief pitcher — he pitched eight professional seasons with the Twins, Giants, Braves and Rangers.

“Out of the bullpen, you’re kind of on the fly. Mentally, you’re supposed to be locked in all the time,” Oakes said. “Believe it or not, there are guys out there who would be better served as bullpen pitchers.”

For the second consecutive summer, Mersing pitched for the Holly Springs Salamanders of the Coastal Plain League in North Carolina. He went 2-1 with a 2.15 ERA through 29.1 innings on four starts. He also struck out 27 batters, surrendered just seven runs and held opponents to a .184 batting average.

“I sent him out because we have been working on something for two years now and he has been progressing big time, and I just wanted him to go out and get 20 more innings,” Oakes said.

This year, Mersing wanted to improve his tenacity on the mound and aggressively attack hitters with strikes early in the count. It’s a philosophy Oakes cherishes and instills in all of his pitchers.

“I’m old school, in that I’m going to go after guys until they get to us,” Oakes said. “We challenge hitters. That’s a part of our standard, especially in the ACC where strike one can make all the difference.”

Mersing also pitched from the wind-up while in Holly Springs for the first time in eight to 10 months — he pitched exclusively from the stretch this entire season with the Panthers. Oakes said Mersing’s delivery will be smooth, regardless of the approach or pitch.

“All three pitches come out of the same window, he doesn’t change his arm angle and that’s what makes him so effective,” Oakes said.

Mersing also worked extensively on his fastball against formidable hitters from some of the nation’s top programs while in Holly Springs. Specifically, it’s a pitch Mersing needs to locate precisely, regardless of velocity.

According to Oakes, Mersing’s velocity has increased seven miles per hour in just one year. Mersing insists it’s all about location.

“I noticed the mistakes I made [in Holly Springs] were with a fastball I left up high or over the plate. It’s the easiest pitch to hit if you make a mistake,” Mersing said. “But when you throw one past a guy who plays for TCU, it builds confidence.”

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Yarnall, Mersing highlight slate of Pitt baseball players in summer leagues