Because of the wholesale derailments to college sports games, seasons and careers caused by the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, the NCAA decided to grant a blanket year of extra eligibility to all college athletes.
For many coaches and players around the country this was great news: an extra year of education and competition for athletes while coaches can fill rosters more easily during a difficult time to recruit.
But Pitt baseball head coach Mike Bell wasn’t wholly rosy about the extra eligibility. He said that the blanket waiver will prove to be a double-edged sword. While he is confident that Pitt’s returning experience will be valuable this year, so will that of its opponents.
“I think every coach in the country feels like they’re better than where they were last year,” Bell said. “You have seniors coming back, we have deeper rosters. I think you got a chance to have the most competitive college baseball season out there, whether COVID is involved or not.”
But this year’s continuity creates more advantages for Bell and Pitt than not.
There were a number of Panthers that were scheduled to conclude their Pitt careers after the spring of 2020, but will instead serve as experienced pillars for a team trying to earn their spot among the sport’s elite in 2021. Because of the high volume of returners, Bell said that he had an idea of who would start almost set to go because of what he’d seen in the past.
The Panthers will be led by their veteran outfield, beginning with leadoff hitter and junior college transfer, junior Jordan Anderson.
Anderson just barely got his feet wet with the Panthers after transferring from Chipola College in Florida. In limited action, Anderson’s average was not impressive, only .206 after starting in all 16 games. That said, he does provide some speed — he stole six bases despite reaching safely a grand total of 21 times last year — from the leadoff spot and Division I experience from his one year at Mississippi State.
Classmate Nico Popa follows right behind Anderson in the order and on defense will likely man right field. Popa was named to the Al-ACC Second Team after batting .353, driving in 39 runs and hitting eight home runs in his sophomore season.
But the Panthers’ star outfielder came crashing back to earth through less than 70 at bats last year. He posted a .275 batting average, drove in only six runs and didn’t hit a home run. It wasn’t a bad season, but still Popa looks to his simpler approach in 2019 as a model for how he wants 2021 to go.
“I think that year I really just focused on not worrying too much about my mechanics and things like that with my swing and more just being myself, being aggressive and just sticking to my approach and to the plan the coaches gave us,” Popa said. “I think that has allowed me to have a lot of success.”
The final piece of the outfield puzzle lies in junior Kyle Hess, arguably the most well rounded bat in Pitt’s lineup. The Panthers’ presumptive starter in left field led the regular starters in average, OPS, hits, RBIs, total bases and slugging percentage last season.
And even though he will take on extra leadership responsibility as one of the program’s veterans, Hess isn’t letting pressure interfere with perspective. He said that he’s grateful just to be getting back out on the field.
“We all know that there’s definitely a lot of challenges and a lot of roadblocks in the way this upcoming season,” Hess said. “But like I said earlier, with what happened last year and not being able to finish our season, I think we’re all just grateful to be able to be out here and have the opportunity to come out and play again this year.”
Junior Ron Washington Jr., who practices with the outfield but logged most of his at-bats as a designated hitter last season, is another potent bat within the Panther lineup. Bell prefers to fix Washington and his career .451 slugging percentage in the clean-up spot to rack up RBIs.
The infield also boasts a couple of veterans that will defend the middle and lengthen the lineup behind Pitt’s trio of outfield stars.
Sophomore second baseman Sky Duff and senior shortstop David Yanni were both prepared to take big leaps last spring. Through the brief 2020 season they both improved on their average by significant margins and were holding north of .300 through the shutdown.
Yanni hit nine home runs during his last full campaign in 2019 and his power will be necessary, but more importantly he will provide a veteran presence the likes of which only a sixth year senior like himself can offer. Yanni was a key part of helping Bell transition into his new job at Pitt three years ago and is still building that relationship.
“I was kind of the gateway to the players for him,” Yanni said. “He talked a lot about how I could help out and learn what the guys like, how the guys are feeling, whatever. … He knows the vision of this program and he has it on the right track and is taking it where it wants to go.”
Bell has said that he wants his team to be defined by strong pitching in defense, but the Panthers rode strong bats to a 10-2 start last year. They averaged 8.9 runs per game and hit 11 of their 13 total home runs for the season over that stretch.
The pitching, however, lagged behind. The Panthers ranked 12th of 14 teams in the ACC in ERA and gave up the fourth most runs in the conference last year. Luckily for Pitt, sophomore Billy Corcoran is back and already penciled in as the opening day starter.
The 6-foot-9 right-hander was drafted right out of high school, in the 36th round, to the Texas Rangers. But he instead chose to come to Pitt and was immediately a reliable option on the mound. He’s started 15 games in his Pitt career sense, posting a sub-four ERA in the process.
For him to reach the next level of his play and truly anchor this staff, Corcoran said he needs to refine secondary pitches in order to reach further in games.
“I feel like I’ve done enough work on them to where they’re serviceable for this year,” Corcoran said. “I feel good about it and that was definitely a goal of mine heading into this year, to develop my secondary pitches and I think I succeeded.”
Junior right-hander Matt Gilbertson — who led Pitt in innings pitched during 2020 and posted a 1.12 ERA — figures to be the number two starter behind Corcoran. In the bullpen, Bell said he’s been pleased with how freshman left-hander Chris Pouliot has added depth.
“We’ve got some young guys that honestly are going to be there to fill in when needed’” Bell said. “On the mound, when you look at it — Corchran, [junior righty Mitch] Myers, Gilbertson — they’re back. That’s a good thing to have experience. I like the way that Chris Pouliot has come on and developed. … So we like the depth that’s coming on.”
The Panthers will have to contend with one of the most difficult schedules in recent memory. More than half of Pitt’s games will come against teams ranked in the top-20 of at least one major poll. But this is a welcome challenge. Corcoran said that the intense competition is why he chose to come to Pitt.
“I mean that’s why you come to Pitt,” Corcoran said. “You come to play in the ACC and that’s the challenge that we want and that’s definitely the challenge that I want. So I want to face the best in the country.”
That’s the attitude around Pitt baseball this season — they want to play the best and beat with the best.
Washington has been with the Panthers for three years now and has more often than not found himself on the losing end of things. Pitt’s mediocre 60-66 record over his time in Oakland is blown away by an abysmal 19-44 mark in conference play. Still, Washington is confident.
He said this Pitt team has the best chance of any he’s been on to finally break through in the ACC and leave an indelible mark on the program by winning. They have all the talent they need, now it’s about putting everything together on the field, according to Washington.
“There were times [last year] where one position group had to pick up another and there were other times that were vice versa,” Washington said. “So I’d say [this year] it’s about coming together and all having our good days on the same day.”
Pitt will open their series vs. Indiana State on Friday. First pitch from Port Charlotte is scheduled for 2 p.m.