PITTSBURGH — There aren’t a lot of easy weekends in ACC baseball, with the conference finishing the 2018 regular season with teams ranked in the top 25 and sending six to the NCAA tournament.
So it’s not that much of a surprise that Pitt will start its 2019 ACC slate with one of those top teams when the Panthers make the trip to Raleigh, North Carolina for a three-game series against No. 22 NC State that starts on Friday.
The thing that first-year Panthers coach Mike Bell is looking for is how his young Panthers respond to some adversity when entering a hostile environment against a top opponent.
Of the nine hitters with the most at-bats and five pitchers with the most innings pitched, Pitt has five freshmen and one first-year transfer. That’s not a lot of experience with the talent level of the league, and there will be a learning curve.
“Things are not always going to go right,” Bell said before practice on Wednesday. “Can you be tough enough to learn and be able to compete when things aren’t going the correct way? I think that’s going to be the biggest challenge for our young group.”
Bell said the groundwork for some of that was laid during Pitt’s three non-conference weekends. After winning its first game of the season, Pitt got some push-back, losing three straight to Iowa, Marshall and Milwaukee. But the Panthers rebounded to win five straight and enter league play with a 6-4 record.
Pitt’s offense has gotten expected contributions out of returning starters like designated hitter Ron Washington, Jr. and shortstop David Yanni, but the contributions of three other returners have jumped off the page.
Senior outfielder Conner Perry (Norwin) hit .190/.341/.263 a year ago, but owns a team-best .406/.525/.750 line through 10 games. Junior outfielder Nico Popa (Seton LaSalle) has seen a similar jump, from .181/.269/.314 to .368/.478/.579. Senior catcher Cole MacLaren’s average is up 150 points and has hit four extra-base hits after only hitting six in all of 2018.
“I think you see some of the teaching that’s going on here,” Bell said. “I think you see the work that coach [Ty] Megahee and coach [Dan] Ninemire, not just the physical attribute of the swing, but what are we trying to do from a plate discipline approach.”
On the mound, Pitt has been led by junior right-hander Dan Hammer. The Collegiate Baseball Newspaper National Player of the Week, Hammer is fourth in the country in strikeouts per nine innings and 14th in strikeout-to-walk ratio.
Hammer will start Saturdays for Pitt, but the rest of the rotation is not as set in stone. Instead of set-in-place starters, Bell expects to utilize multiple pitchers in two- or three-inning “chunks.”
One of those will be projected Friday starter Christian Camacho, who has a 4.63 ERA over 11 2/3 innings so far. Other options will be freshmen Billy Corcoran (9 2/3 IP, 3.72 ERA) and Brady Devereux (8 1/3 IP, 3.72 ERA) and lefty Chris Cappas (6 1/3 IP, 4.26 ERA), who is playing two ways this season after just working in the outfield as a freshman.
They’ll be followed by Pitt’s bullpen, anchored by gap reliever Derek West (10 IP, 2.70 ERA) and closer Chase Smith (6 2/3 IP, 0.00 ERA).
First pitch from Doak Field at Dail Park is scheduled for 3 p.m. on Friday, 2 p.m. on Saturday and 1 p.m. on Sunday. There is rain forecast for both Friday and Sunday.
Pitt will return home for Tuesday’s home opener at Charles L. Cost Field against Penn State. That game is scheduled for 3 p.m.