2014 Baseball Outlook
An old baseball adage is that championship teams are almost always strong up the middle, that is, catcher, shortstop and second base and centerfield.
If that adage is true than the 2014 Rider University baseball team is primed for a third run at the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference Championship in the last seven years, with seasoned veterans in those four positions.
Among the five returning starters, four of them play up the middle; junior catcher Eric Strano, junior shortstop Mike Parsons, junior second baseman Greg Fazio and senior centerfielder Nick Crescenzo.
“We have a lot of experience up the middle, with Strano behind the plate, Parsons and Fazio at middle infield and Crescenzo in centerfield,” said Rider head Coach Barry Davis, the 2013 MAAC Coach of the Year. “That’s good to have. They’ve played a lot of games. We should be good defensively.”
Another adage is that baseball is 90 percent pitching. Some feel that is more of a cliché, one that does not have the facts to back it up. Rider fans hope the later is true.
The Broncs return the 2013 MAAC Pitcher of the Year in junior Kurt Sowa, but suffered their greatest losses in personnel to the mound corps.
“I’ve never had a pitching staff like this,” Davis said. “We have a lot of good arms and we plan on using all of them. It would not be unusual this year for us to throw four or five pitchers in a game, at least in the first 20 games or so. Everybody is going to get a chance.”
One thing that is certain is that Sowa will be the ace. Last year he won a Rider-record 11 games and opponents batted just .180 against him. For his efforts he was named All-East and was an ECAC All-Star. “Sowa will most likely get the ball the first game of each series,” Davis said.
Along with Sowa, the weekend starting pitchers look to be senior Kyle Kennett, junior Zach Mawson and junior David Hafer. “Kennett, Mawson and Hafer are all in contention for the second and third slot,” Davis said.
Kennett, a team captain, has 10 career starts and owns a 6-2 career record. He has appeared in 34 games.
Mawson appeared in 24 games last year, all in relief, and had a team-high nine saves, but moves to the starting rotation this year.
Hafer owns a 1.40 earned run average last year in 18 appearances, but only three starts.
“After Sowa we don’t have a lot of starting experience but we do have pitching experience,” Davis said. “They’ve made a lot of appearances and pitched a lot of innings.”
Other pitchers who will have an opportunity to contribute this year include junior Eric Thomas, freshmen Josh Sharik, Mike Diorio and Benjamin Deaver, and junior transfers Mickey Donnelly, Peter Mayer-Klepchick and Chris Wirth-Kenyon.
Thomas has appeared in 32 games as a Bronc and has 38 strikeouts in 38 innings. Sharik pitched a no-hitter with 15 strikeouts last year at Ewing High School, where he was the Bicentennial Athletic League MVP. Diorio led his Middletown South High School team to the Division, County and State Championship. Mayer-Klepchick comes to Rider from Raritan Valley CC after excelling in baseball and football at Delaware Valley Regional High. Wirth-Kenyon compiled 31 strikeouts in 31 innings at FDU-Florham after earning All-Prep Team honors at The Pennington School. Mickey Donnelly threw a two-hitter for Ocean County College last year with 13 strikeouts against eventual national champion Gloucester County College. “Mickey Donnelly has ‘swing-and-miss’ stuff and has the potential to pitch in every role for us,” Davis said.
Deaver was a Preseason All-American last year and finished his scholastic career with a 16-3 record with six saves. “We expect Ben Deaver to start out as a situational reliever,” Davis said. “I expect to see a lot more appearances from a lot of different pitchers. Sharik and Diorio will also be starters this year, starting out in the mid-week games and if they show they can pitch well they could move into the weekend roles. Both are big kids with good arms. We expect Chris Wirth-Kenyon and Peter Mayer-Klepchick to see action as well, coming in for an inning or two.”
The bullpen will feature closer Vincenzo Aiello, who saved three games last year. “Vinnie Aiello will start the season as our closer,” Davis said. Aiello was named to the ACBL All-Star team as a closer last summer.
“If we pitch well we have the potential to be as good as or better than last year,” Davis said. Rider won a program record 34 regular season games in 2013. “We lost some very good pitchers (Tyler Smith and Mike Murphy) but almost everyone else is back and should be better. Our core players are experienced. I would expect us to be better both offensively and defensively.”
Behind the plate will be Eric Strano, along with Lee Lipinski and Connor Luff. “Strano is going to be the catcher and if we want to keep his bat in the line-up but give him a break from behind the plate he’ll see some action in the outfield,” Davis said. “He will be a team captain this year.” Strano started 45 games and collected 46 hits last season.
Lipinski will back Strano up and can also be a corner infielder. “He can play some first or third base for us,” Davis said.
Luff batted .294 last year and enjoyed a five-game hitting streak.
At first base will be junior Justin Thomas, who collected 58 hits, including 12 doubles, in 57 games last year. “Thomas had good numbers last year,” Davis said. “He could be a middle of the order type of player, drive some runs in for us.”
Freshman Tyler Kaiser will also see some action at first base. Last year Kaiser was a First Team All-Burlington County selection at Moorestown. “Tyler gives us a quality left-handed bat off the bench,” Davis said.
The veteran middle infielders, Parsons and Fazio, have played all but two games over the last two years. Parsons batted .282 last year and has 98 career hits and will again be the leadoff batter. Fazio had a .376 slugging percentage last season and has 102 career hits.
The third middle infielder, senior Ken Kremer, will see action at designated hitter and second base. Kremer has played in over 100 games, starting 72.
Junior transfer Nick Richter will man the hot corner. “We graduated a third baseman that played for four years (Adam Wayman-234 career hits) and we went out and got one with experience,” Davis said of Richter, an All-Conference and All-Region selection at McHenry CC last year. “He’s good. He runs well and he puts the ball in play. He’s a ‘top-of-the-order’ type of player but he may hit fourth for us.”
The outfield will be led by Preseason All-MAAC pick Crescenzo, an All-New Jersey selection last year who has 167 career hits. “Nick will play center and bat third,” Davis said of his team captain. “This is probably the first year since his freshman year that he is fully healthy.” As a Rider rookie Crescenzo was a Freshman All-American. “He’s seasoned, stronger and he’s a leader.”
Locklear collected a hit in 13 of his last 15 games his rookie season. “He has good speed and will begin the season batting second in the order,” Davis said.
Gussen comes to Rider form Gloucester Catholic High School, where he was a two-time First Team All-Conference selection. “Gussen can be very good,” Davis said. “He runs well and is a good hitter. He comes from a good high school program.” Gloucester Catholic won four State Championships with Gussen on the team.
Brian Donnelly was bothered by a foot injury last year but when healthy can play all three outfield positions. “He’s a natural athlete and he’s a gamer,” Davis said.
Freshman Nick Kagel looks to be the fifth outfielder. Kagel set the Lawrence High school record for RBI and batted .500 as a senior.
In the preseason MAAC poll the Broncs are picked third. “As we all know, preseason predictions are just that,” Davis said. “I’ve been told that third is too high for this team,” Davis said. “I guess we’ll know more in late May.”
The Rider team goals remain the same. “Our goals are to win every series, make the MAAC tournament, and win the tournament,” Davis said.
Being strong up the middle will certainly help achieve those goals.