The first pitch of the 2019 Pitt baseball season is scheduled for Friday afternoon, as the Panthers will take on Villanova at 3 p.m. in the Diamond 9 Sunshine State Classic Series in Kissimmee, Florida.
It’s a new era for the Panthers, as it will be the first game under new head coach Mike Bell, who came to Pitt after seven years as an assistant at Florida State and replaced longtime skipper Joe Jordano.
The Panthers are coming off their most successful season since entering the ACC in 2014, with a pair of upset wins in their first ACC Tournament appearance leading Pitt all the way to the conference semifinals, where the Panthers lost to Louisville.
After the season, Pitt got even better news as pitcher Derek West eschewed his MLB Draft selection to return to Pitt, as did recruits Billy Corcoran (Milmont Park, Pa.) and Mason Ronan (Ashville, Pa.)
Those three, along with fellow returning starter Dan Hammer and junior college transfer Christian Camacho, should provide the talent for a pitching staff that can once again lead the Panthers, despite the losses of 2018 starters Matt Pidich (graduation) and Blair Calvo (graduation).
“In baseball, you’ll only go as far as your pitching,” Bell said to Pittsburgh Sports Now before leaving for Florida. “That’s always been the backbone of any program that I’ve been a part of. We’ve got some young guys that are going to have to learn on the fly. There are going to be some new names in our rotation.”
Hammer is expected to start the opener against Villanova, with Camacho facing Iowa on Saturday. Corcoran, junior Chris Gomez and lefty Chris Cappas, who only played outfield as a freshman in 2018, but will get a look from the mound this year.
Ronan and West are expected to work out of the bullpen and will be joined there by sophomore Chase Smith, who was named to the preseason watch list for NCBWA Stopper of the Year. That group will be expected to step up to offset the losses of 2018 closer Yaya Chentouf and long reliever RJ Freure, who were both drafted and righty Kevin Henriksen, who is out with a shoulder injury.
Behind the dish, Pitt will return ironman Canadian Cole MacLaren, who played in all 55 games for the Panthers as a junior a year ago. Nationally ranked freshman Zach Klapak (Milford, Pa.) will provide depth.
Around the diamond, Klapak is also one of three freshmen looking to earn some playing time at first base, along with Andres Antonini (Hollywood, Fla.) and Kristopher Soto (Miami, Fla.).
The opening day starting middle infielders from a year ago both have returned, with Alex Amos and David Yanni back. Yanni’s .752 OPS from 2018 is second and his 36 RBIs are tops
amongst returning players. Sophomore Bryce O’Farrell could also get some playing time up the middle.
At third base, it’ll likely be another freshman, Sky Duff (Shamong, N.J.), who will replace Liam Sabino, who was drafted by the St. Louis Cardinals.
In the outfield, Pitt will have Cappas, Nico Popa and Connor Perry return, as well as promising freshman Kyle Hess (Mt. Joy, Pa.), the highest-rated hitter in Pitt’s recruiting class.
Designated hitter Ron Washington, Jr. is Pitt’s leading returner in OPS (.761), home runs (six) and RBIs (41).
The Panthers will play four games this week in Kissimmee. After Villanova, they’ll play Iowa at 11 a.m. on Saturday, Marshall at 6:30 p.m. on Saturday and Milwaukee at 1:30 p.m. on Sunday.
They’ll have three games in Spartanburg, South Carolina next weekend, then return to Kissimmee for four games March 1-3 before Pitt’s home opener on Tuesday, March 5 against Youngstown State.