By Steve Stone for MSNsportsNET.com
February 18, 2010
||Greg Van Zant||
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. - Over the past five seasons, the West Virginia University baseball program has set unprecedented offensive marks that only a handful of schools can rival. The Mountain State’s flagship university has simply been known as a place where hitters develop, as shown by the program’s influx of All-Americans, all-conference performers and professional players.
While the Mountaineers return an array of talented hitters, the key to their success will rest on a pitching staff that is as deep as any in Coach Greg Van Zant’s tenure at West Virginia. Nine pitchers return from last season’s team that finished 37-18 overall, with each thrower making strides during the offseason.
In baseball, the old adage says that good pitching always beats good hitting. Van Zant and the Mountaineers are prepared to have both of those assets on this year’s squad, a team that has limitless potential in addition to several proven players who will fill the leadership role and attempt to bring West Virginia its second BIG EAST championship.
For a team that has waged several offensive duels in recent years, Van Zant expects this year’s crop of pitchers to show its potential and put less pressure on the offense. West Virginia is 16 pitchers deep for the 2010 season, with plenty of mid-week and weekend options in the starting rotation and the bullpen.
“Our pitching depth is as good as we’ve ever had,” Van Zant says. “We’ve got some guys who are established and can pitch at this level successfully. Our pitching staff, on paper, looks like we can hold teams down better than in the past.”
Leading WVU’s hurlers is junior starter Jarryd Summers and senior closer Chris Enourato. Statistically, Summers was arguably the top pitcher in the BIG EAST last season, leading the conference with a 3.06 ERA and finishing in the top five in opposing batting average (.239), strikeouts (99), wins (7), games started (14), runs allowed (41) and innings pitched (94).
Enourato, West Virginia’s all-time leading closer, posted six saves in 2009 and struck out 58 batters in just 46.2 innings pitched. The all-BIG EAST third team member looks to emerge as one of the top closers in the country this season.
“We have a first-team all-conference pitcher returning. We have a solid closer, and not many teams have a legitimate No. 1 starter and a closer coming back. Having Summers and Enourato is a pretty good place to start when you’re trying to put together a pitching staff,” Van Zant adds.
Sophomore left-hander Jonathan Jones finished 6-2 last season, earning the team’s freshman MVP award. He gained valuable experience as the team’s Saturday starter while beginning the year in the mid-week rotation, and is slated to fill that same role in 2010.
A candidate to fill the No. 3 spot behind Summers and Jones is junior left-hander Eric Hinkle, a transfer from Potomac State. The Ocean Township, N.J., native had a superb fall season and has a tremendous opportunity to be a major asset to this year’s pitching crop.
“Jonathan Jones pitched well last year as a freshman and will have an opportunity to pitch our Saturday games,” Van Zant says. “We like to go from a right-hander to a left-hander if we can, and Eric Hinkle also showed that he can be a starter for us. We’ve got some other pitchers who are capable of getting in that starting rotation, but it will depend on how Summers, Jones and Hinkle perform.”
The most versatile pitcher on this year’s team is senior Andy Altemus, a right-hander who can be used as a starter or provide middle-to-long relief. The Morgantown resident went 1-1 with a 4.28 ERA and totaled four saves in 2009, and has improved tremendously during the offseason to give the Mountaineers a formidable thrower in the bullpen.
“Andy Altemus is a real big weapon for us because we can bring him right in the opening game of a series, and he will be the first guy out of the bullpen coming in for middle relief or long relief,” Van Zant mentions.
Also returning is sophomore southpaw Chase Pickering, redshirt junior Marcus Broadwater, senior Stephen Morrison, redshirt junior lefty Matt Morrone and sophomore right-hander Andy Podolinski. Each has a chance to make a large impact on this year’s club.
Freshman right-hander Jared Hill of Harrisburg, Ohio, impressed in the fall, and could find himself in the starting rotation to begin the season. Junior righty Andy Berry and freshmen Zach Bargeron, Marshall Thompson and Michael Twigg add quality depth to this year’s group.
The 2010 West Virginia baseball team has a catcher-by-committee approach, with five potent backstoppers in freshmen Matt Malloy and Humberto Melendez, juniors Kevin Griffin and Justin McDavid, and senior Michael Knight.
“Catching for us might be a situation where early in the season we use a bunch of different catchers until someone gets the job. The starting position is still up in the air,” Van Zant says.
Malloy has a heralded background from Cincinnati, Ohio, being named an Under Armour All-American and a top prospect by Perfect Game as a high school standout. He hopes to fill the shoes of former Mountaineer Tobias Streich, possessing a quick and precise arm that could make life difficult for base runners.
Griffin, a Martinsburg, W.Va., native, had excellent power numbers at Potomac State and looks to expand on his defensive skills in order to become the everyday starter. Knight is the only returning catcher from 2009, playing in five games last year and getting a start in WVU’s home finale against Youngstown State.
McDavid comes in with plenty of experience, having played at New Mexico State, Central Arizona Community College and Chandler-Gilbert Community College. Melendez will also get an opportunity to earn significant time behind the plate this season.
Arguably the strongest asset to this year’s team, West Virginia has its share of notable infielders. The combination of third baseman Dan DiBartolomeo and shortstop Jedd Gyorko make up one of the best left sides in the country.
DiBartolomeo, a junior, set the school single-season record last year with a .439 batting average. Gyorko, who earned numerous All-America honors last season and was a Brooks Wallace Award finalist, batted .421 with a school-record 28 doubles in 2009.
Also returning is second baseman Colin Durborow, a blooming player who is excellent defensively and polished at the plate.
“From a position player standpoint, our infield is probably our strength because we return Dan DiBartolomeo at third base, Jedd Gyorko at shortstop and Colin Durborow at second base. Those three positions remain intact,” Van Zant adds.
Speedy freshman utility player Brady Wilson is a capable backup to Durborow. Wilson, a standout track athlete at Frederick High in Maryland, is versatile enough to play the infield or outfield.
“Brady Wilson gives us an extra infielder who can play second base. Durborow can play second, shortstop or third, so we have some flexibility there,” Van Zant says.
At first base, there are three interchangeable players in redshirt sophomore Justin Ellis, freshman Matt Frazer and T.J. Kuban. All three are sound hitters who will need to provide some defensive stability.
“I’m confident that between Kuban, Ellis and Frazer, somebody will do a great job at first base,” Van Zant says.
This season’s group of outfielders carry plenty of speed with good hitting power. Headlining the group is redshirt junior Grant Buckner, a right fielder with a cannon-like arm. Buckner broke through last season by posting a .325 average with five home runs and 45 RBIs.
Redshirt junior Mark Dvoroznak could get the first crack at center-field duties, but may also see some time in left field. The Westlake, Ohio, native batted .324 in 32 games played last season, including 12 games started as a designated hitter or centerfielder. Brady Wilson could also see time in center and left field because of his speed, making both players interchangeable.
“Grant Buckner has proven that you can play excellent defense and produce offensively,” Van Zant says. “Centerfield and left field will be whoever wins those jobs. Mark Dvoroznak is fast, athletic and is going to get the first shot at one of the outfield positions. We might play Brady Wilson in the other spot. Wherever we play them, we’re going to have two very fast outfielders in left and center.”
Rounding out the group are Dom Hayes, Jeremy Gum and redshirt freshman Clark Sambuco, with each player adding great depth to the outfield group.
“We’ve got left-handed bats in Jeremy Gum and Dom Hayes who can both play left field,” Van Zant adds. “Clark Sambuco gives us a legitimate defensive replacement and pinch runner in the outfield. He might be our best defensive outfielder and is usable in that respect.”
West Virginia faces arguably its most daunting schedule since joining the BIG EAST. Its opponents include five NCAA Tournament participants from a season ago, including Super Regional qualifiers East Carolina and Louisville. The other three postseason qualifiers include Coastal Carolina, reigning Big Ten champion Indiana and Bethune-Cookman.
WVU begins its season with a challenging 10-game non-conference slate. It starts with Coastal Carolina’s Caravelle Resort Tournament against the Chanticleers, Kentucky and Virginia Tech, followed by the second annual Big Ten/BIG EAST Challenge in Clearwater, Fla. The Mountaineers then go to ECU’s Keith LeClair Classic to face the Pirates, Western Carolina and Illinois.
“The schedule is probably the most challenging since I’ve been here as a player, assistant coach or head coach,” Van Zant mentions. “The first 10 games are away from home at three different tournaments against teams in the Top 25 or in BCS conferences. We’re looking forward to going to Coastal Carolina, going back for the second year to Clearwater and to East Carolina.”
An improved March schedule features a 12-game home stretch that includes Manhattan and Eastern Michigan, followed by a neutral-site game against Bowling Green in Chillicothe, Ohio. WVU begins its conference schedule at Seton Hall, and will face St. John’s, Cincinnati and Georgetown on the road. The Mountaineers have five home series against Louisville, Notre Dame, Connecticut, Pitt and Villanova.
WVU also has non-conference matchups at Maryland and against Eastern Kentucky at the Mountaineer Diamond Classic at Appalachian Power Park in Charleston, W.Va. WVU faces Towson in a home-and-away series, and has a challenging opponent on May 11-12 in Bethune-Cookman.
“We’re definitely looking forward to our two neutral site games against Bowling Green and Eastern Kentucky,” Van Zant says.
“Our conference schedule will be difficult. We’ve got some really good series in April and May with Louisville, our school rival Pitt and the final conference series against Villanova will be huge. We’re looking forward to playing Towson, keeping our series going with Maryland and facing Bethune-Cookman. It’s a real challenging schedule and we’re going to work hard and attack it one game at a time.”