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Pitt baseball aims to learn from mental mistakes in new season

By Stephen Caruso / Assistant Sports Editor

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Yogi Berra, that old master of the befuddling — but truthful — phrase, once said “baseball is 90 percent mental and the other half is physical.”

For Pitt baseball, nothing could sum up the key to the upcoming season better.

Competing in the ACC has been hard for Pitt since its transition two years ago. It has yet to make the ACC Tournament or finish above .500 — both overall and in conference.

But even with the increase in competition, Pitt’s players don’t feel overmatched.

Pitt junior starter T.J. Zeuch would know better than anyone, after beating No. 1 in the country and eventual College World Series champion Virginia 1-0 earlier this year.

“I don’t really take it as pressure. You want to face the best teams you can, the best competition,” Zeuch said.

Being immune to the pressure is the sort of trait needed in a developing staff ace like Zeuch. But it is also a trait that head coach Joe Jordano hopes to see forming in the whole team.

“We had so many leads that we lost late [last year],” Jordano said. “I think our team realizes we have to play cleaner baseball, we have to play from the first pitch to the last out and finish games.”

For junior infielder Nick Yarnall, becoming immune means three things: practice, practice and more practice.

“I think if we just practice how we’re going to play…we won’t really think about [making plays],” Yarnall said. “If it’s a routine double play, we’ll turn it, because we’ve moved on it so many times in practice, we won’t be thinking ‘oh I need to field this ball and get rid of it,’ we can just field it and get rid of it, it’s part of your nature, instead of overthinking it.”

Zeuch agreed.

“We’ve set our goals as Omaha, which is obviously every team’s goal, but I think we’ve put too much pressure on ourselves to do everything so perfectly that we get in our own heads and we need to work on that as whole,” the junior starter said.

While improved mentality seems to be of utmost focus, the physical half cannot be overlooked.

Jordano didn’t mean to offer it as an excuse, but he said Pitt had an “inordinate amount” of injuries last year. That included Yarnall, who missed close to half the season with mono, departing senior Boo Vazquez, one of the best hitters in program history and senior Matt Johnson, a starting infielder who missed all of 2015 with a hand injury sustained before the season’s start.

But with both poised for healthy seasons, Pitt’s head coach seemed confident in the offense.

“It’s going to be another year for them to develop and be productive,” Jordano said. “The way I look at it is with what we’ve added and what we have returning, I feel very good about where we’re at offensively and looking forward to take another step forward.”

That offense will include Yarnall, who hit .330 and slugged a robust .580 in his sickness-shortened season. Players like redshirt junior outfielder Jacob Wright, senior catcher Alex Kowalcyzk and Johnson also look to be contributors.

Meanwhile, Zeuch will lead the pitching staff. However, the MLB draft, for the second year in a row, robbed Pitt of pitchers with remaining eligibility, including junior Marc Berube, who started 13 games last year.

Senior Aaron Sandefur and junior Sam Mersing both seem capable of nailing down a starting job with strong camps. But even with the loss, Jordano seemed confident that the team will be able to compete.

“We had a very good game plan put together going into the draft,” Jordano said. “We are going to be relatively young in some areas, especially the mound. But we very much feel good about the quality of player and student-athlete we are attracting and committing.”

While Pitt’s schedule has yet to be revealed, it will be sure to include matchups within the Coastal division like Virginia, Miami and North Carolina-Chapel Hill, all three of which finished the year within the RPI top 25. Virginia and Miami participated in the College World Series last season.

Such matchups will pose a challenge to a young team like Pitt, but for Zeuch, it only adds to the thrill.

“All I can do is go out there, do my job, throw the ball and try and have some fun with it,” Zeuch said.

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Pitt baseball aims to learn from mental mistakes in new season