Baseball: Pitching staff will lead Panthers into grueling ACC

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Posted: Wednesday, February 19, 2014 7:08 pm

With the Pitt baseball team coming off its winningest season in program history, duplicating similar results might prove difficult. On top of that, the Panthers will begin play in the ACC in the 2014 season, facing entirely new competition.

But Pitt’s coaching staff thinks its pitching rotation can ease the transition into one of the country’s toughest conferences for baseball.

Last year, the ACC sent eight teams to the NCAA Tournament, and it seems this season will be no different. According to preseason polls, six conference foes will begin the year in the Top 25. 

In their new conference, though, the Panthers were picked to finish last in their division by the ACC’s preseason coaches’ poll. 

“It is a completely different level of baseball,” head coach Joe Jordano said. “I say that with complete respect to my friends and colleagues in the Big East last season and to both the new Big East and the American Athletic Conference.”

Pitt’s baseball team won a program-record 42 games in 2013 because of a variety of factors. Seven hitters finished the year with a batting average above .300. The pitching staff had three starters with eight wins or more. 

But in baseball, good pitching always beats good hitting.

The steps the Pitt coaching staff takes to ensure pitcher development, not only this year, but for years to come, will be crucial in sustaining the success of the program. Moreover, the exceptional growth of Pitt’s pitching staff over the past three years must remain consistent for the program to flourish in the ACC.  

Dating back to the 2010 season, the Panthers’ pitching staff has lowered its team earned run average each season under Jordano’s direction, from 5.95 in 2010 to 3.59 in 2013.

Without a doubt, baseball’s distinct division of offense and defense gives pitchers complete control of the game. It’s the only major sport where the defense (the pitcher) begins play with possession of the ball. This alone makes the pitcher the most powerful player on the diamond.

Just as development has proved vital to the Pitt baseball program over the past 16 seasons, it functions similarly when assessing the value of a pitcher. 

College baseball, for a greater part of the last decade, has fostered growth for young, talented arms. The athletes who decide to remain in college for all four years become more in-tune with the game before advancing to the professional level. 

Becoming a successful starting pitcher is a process that does not exclude the need for direction. For the Pitt coaching unit, developing a well-rounded pitching staff falls primarily on the shoulders of pitching coach Jerry Oakes. 

While that process might take multiple seasons — see recent MLB draftee Ethan Mildren — Oakes’ primary focus is on putting his pitchers in the best possible position to succeed.

“I will always put our guys in the best situation for them to have success,” Oakes said. “I’ll never put a guy out there in a role where he doesn’t feel comfortable.”  

The most glaring obstacle the Panthers face in the 2014 season is how Oakes and the team will find a way to compensate for the loss of Mildren to the Minnesota Twins. Without Mildren, there is a huge gap to fill in the third spot of the rotation. 

Last year, Mildren combined with Matt Wotherspoon and Rhys Aldenhoven for 27 wins on the mound. The synergy the starting rotation developed in the course of the season allowed the Panthers to thump many opponents, and Wotherspoon and Aldenhoven each recorded eight-game winning streaks on the mound. 

Finding the right replacement to keep the rotation strong will be key this season. Last season, the Panthers went 35-7 when the starting pitcher went five or more innings. Similarly, the team finished with an astounding 35-1 record when leading after six innings. With that said, the importance of the starting staff’s ability to last deep into games can’t be overstated.

Considering the large amount of pitchers on the roster entering the season, who will fill this open void is a mystery at the moment.

“It may very well be a freshman,” Jordano said. “We have some solid arms that will be ready, but a few that lack any college experience.”

Sunday in Myrtle Beach, S.C., freshman T.J. Zeuch started the final game of Pitt’s three-game set against Coastal Carolina. Zeuch allowed four unearned runs and lasted only two and two-thirds innings in his collegiate debut. 

A lack of familiarity with the college game could be a big hurdle for an inexperienced arm to overcome, especially when Pitt begins facing ACC opponents. Dependable arms and longevity will be crucial for Pitt this season. 

Because of this, a change in philosophy might be necessary to sustain Pitt’s success on the mound.

“Each year I go off what I have, so if it’s a year like last year, I will go off the starters,” Oakes said. “But a year like this where we have a little more options, I will probably use the bullpen more. Either way, each game I will go inning by inning to give our team the best situation to win.”

In Wotherspoon’s case, steady development was key to his ascent in his first three years as a Panther and will  continue to be important as he enters his senior season. In 2013, he matched his win total from the previous two seasons. 

This type of achievement explains why he was selected in the MLB draft a year ago, though he opted to return to Pitt for his senior season rather than signing with the Detroit Tigers. Wotherspoon will anchor Pitt’s weekend rotation as the Friday starter and lead the team as it faces new challenges in the ACC.

“Everyone has their expectations pretty high for this season,” he said. “We are looking forward to going out and playing hard, clean, fundamental baseball.”

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