The slap and ping of baseballs colliding with gloves and bats returned to fill the air at Charles L. Cost Field, the home of Pitt baseball, last month. The Panthers have just recently begun their official preparation for the 2021 college baseball season.
Pitt started strong in the 2020 season — before it’s cancellation due to the COVID-19 pandemic — but faltered as they entered conference play and the level of competition picked up. This season, Pitt head coach Mike Bell wants to show more consistency and prove that his team has the depth to push into the ACC’s upper echelon.
“We got off to a great start last year — I think it’s 10-1,” Bell said. “We got into the ACC schedule, faced a very competitive Miami team, lost a couple of close games and then really didn’t factor in a third game. We want to make sure we’re competitive in all three games. I wanna make sure we’re competitive each and every time we step on the field.”
Luckily for Bell, in pursuit of that consistency amid an unpredictable pandemic, he will be able to roll out a daily lineup that boasts a triumvirate of standout veteran outfielders, all eager to prove that their hot starts to the pandemic shortened-2020 season were more than a fluke. Seniors Nico Popa and Ron Washington Jr., alongside junior Kyle Hess, all came out of the gates hot last spring. And they all return to the Panthers in 2021 with their sights set on greater heights.
Through the shortened spring of 2020 — just a total of 16 games — the threesome of Washington, Hess and Popa played and started in every game while accounting for 42% of Pitt’s total runs batted in, 46% of its home runs and 37% of its total hits.
The outfield is undeniably a strength of Pitt’s 2021 roster. And that advantage has been built through the grind of everyday workouts and practice, according to the players themselves. It’s in these workouts that the outfield’s depth is on full display.
Popa, a native of Mt. Lebanon and alumnus of Seton La-Salle High School, is the trio’s best defender by fielding percentage and said that he chalks up this position group’s success to the competitive nature fostered during drills at practice. He claimed that the high relative talent level lifts each player within the position group.
“Our outfield is very strong and I think one of the reasons for that is just that we’re all constantly pushing each other to get better every day,” Popa said. “We’re not trying to just be alright and be OK. Everyone out there has a lot of talent and wants to be great and I think that’s the big thing.”
Washington — who was the designated hitter for most of last season, but still considers himself an outfielder “99% of the time” — says the competitive spirit is manifested in small games at practice. To illustrate that point, he described a drill used to practice fielding among outfielders.
A coach will stand on a foul line, with fielders positioned roughly 40-50 yards away. The coach will begin rifling ground balls “pretty hard,” as Washington puts it, towards the players, who must field the ball cleanly in order to move on to the next round.
With each completed round, the players move five yards in but the velocity of the ball doesn’t slow. Coaches continue to rattle off rocket after rocket, round after round, picking players off in knock-out-style fashion until a winner remains.
The rivalries are spirited and contentious, but fun. Washington said that there is no dominant force in their outfield knock-out game. The winner varies, making the game fun and encouraging camaraderie and friendship amongst the group. And three years of battling in these games together has made the trio tight-kit.
“Those are some of my best friends,” Washington said. “Nico and I have bonded together for four years, Hess for three years now. And it’s just been a great relationship since day one. We’ve really bonded from the start and we’re always competing with each other. Little games in the outfield where there’s just the drive of competition with each other, but it’s a really fun time. It makes the atmosphere a lot better.”
Hess — another in-state product from Mt. Joy, Pennsylvania — echoed that sentiment, only he added that there is a wealth of depth behind the starters that keeps everyone engaged.
“We’re just really deep, got a lot of good players,” Hess said. “That definitely helps create a better environment, a more competitive environment for all of us.”
Hess has come to appreciate competitive, humbling environments after spending the summer of 2019 in the renown Cape Cod League, matching up with some of the country’s top collegiate talent. Hess, who batted only .203 with a single home run through 31 games for the Bourne Braves, said that his struggles on the Cape gave valuable experience which paid dividends in the following spring.
“Obviously the Cape is pretty good competition, best in the country,” Hess said. “To be able to have that opportunity as a freshman is something that I valued pretty highly. It didn’t go so well for me personally, but I was able to learn a lot and take it back in and come to the fall feeling pretty good following and it was able to translate to the spring.”
The subsequent spring, while short, was Hess’ best as a Panther. He finished in the top two of Pitt hitters in batting average, slugging and on-base percentage.
Hess, Popa and Washington’s experience together has built a tight relationship and established the outfield as a team strength, but that hasn’t exactly translated into many wins over their three seasons together at Pitt. The Panthers have posted a record of 60-66 and 19-44 in conference play, over the three years in which this group has been on the same team.
Washington knows that both he and the team have a long way to go. He has personal goals — to cut back on his team-high 26 strikeouts, improve his defensive mechanics, among other things — but there is an ultimate aim that trumps all others: he wants to win.
He has little doubt that this is the Panthers team that can finally break through and establish Pitt as a winning program for years to come.
“This is, I think, my fourth year I’ve been and the ACC and this [Pitt] team can stack up to any of the schools in our conference, honestly,” Washington said. “We have some dogs everywhere on the field and on the mound and in every position group. I feel like we really have what it takes this year to take that next step to the postseason and put Pitt on the map, honestly.”