Baseball is a game of habit and its players thrive off of routine, meaning that any disruption to the flow of a season can have major impacts. Secondary to its devastating effects on a person’s health, the COVID-19 pandemic offered a sudden way to upset that flow during this past college season.
Pitt baseball was at one point on top of the world. On April 19th, having just beat North Carolina in two of three and reached a program peak — their highest ranking in school history at No. 14 in Baseball America’s top-25 — The Panthers were primed for a marquee series at then No. 7 Louisville the following weekend.
Then the COVID shutdown hit. An outbreak forced them to shutter team activities on April 21st and after returning two weeks later, did not look like the same team that had drastically upset the ACC’s preseason pecking order. They limped to the finish of the season and were ultimately left out of the NCAA Tournament by the slimmest of margins.
The Panthers were one of the NCAA’s “First Four Out” and head coach Mike Bell thought his team “just came up a game short.”
This past season of Panthers baseball can be best understood by highlighting the pandemic-induced pause in team activities that spanned from mid-April to the first week of May. The 16 days which separated the end of a series vs. North Carolina and an 8-2 loss at rival West Virginia represented the demarcation between two parts of one season, the first unexpectedly successful and the second wildly disappointing.
When the Panthers were setting school records and rolling through the conference’s southern powers during the first five weeks of the season, they established a winning formula.
Pitt first and foremost leaned on excellent pitching, led by a pair of junior starters, Mitch Myers and Matt Gilbertson, who broke onto the national stage with a pair of dazzling performances in Tallahassee, Florida against then No. 9 Florida State. The duo combined to throw a dozen shutout innings and strikeout 23 Seminole hitters in two of the Panthers three wins that weekend.
The offense, while not necessarily prolific, was timely. They routinely came up with clutch hit after clutch hit, earning victories by manufacturing early leads or leaning on the power bats of Nico Popa, Ron Washington and Kyle Hess to create late comebacks.
Bell had created a team that lived up to his preseason expectations. The Panthers played good defense and situational hitting backed their pitchers, who were inarguably the strength of his team. But after the COVID-shutdown, Pitt faltered and the rapidly-approaching end of the season didn’t leave enough time to recover.
Team-wide shutdowns weren’t unique to baseball as a sport or even Pitt specifically, but it’s impacts were nonetheless destructive.
“At the college level, there’s a flow to playing a mid-week game and a series on the weekend,” Bell said following an ACC Tournament victory vs. North Carolina. “There’s a rhythm to it. … If you look at all the teams that had to pause at one point or another, when they came out of it, they didn’t come out too sexy. … I don’t know if it’s the flow of the game, if it’s the rhythm of the game, because I felt like our guys were in a really good spot [coming out of the pause].”
Through their first 31 games before the shutdown, the Panthers went 20-11, scored more than six runs per game and allowed less than five. Their pitchers were surgical, owning a strikeout-to-walk ratio of 2.49.
In the 11 games that followed their pause, the offense stalled, extra base hits became rare and the offense averaged just 2.45 runs per contest. The pitching staff also lost what made them so dominant throughout the early portion of their schedule. The walks increased, so did the hits and opponents took advantage to the tune of 6.55 runs per game. Pitt went 3-8 over that stretch and gradually sank from the NCAA Tournament field.
The grand aspirations this Panthers team and its fans had for the postseason came crashing to the ground abruptly.
Still, this was one of the best seasons in history for a program that has struggled to gain a foothold among the deep and rigorous ACC since relegation in 2014. They earned their highest winning percentage in ACC play ever and the first winning season in Bell’s tenure in Oakland. In less than three full seasons, Bell has turned the Panthers into a fringe NCAA Tournament team, a transformation that was expected to take much longer.
“I hurt for them,” Bell said. “I still hurt for them. I feel for them. They’ve done everything we’ve asked them to do. … More importantly, I want them to be able to go back and look at all of the things they were able to accomplish this year.”
But for all the successes of 2021, it’s conclusion leaves plenty of questions. There will be key departures. Nico Popa’s steady defensive hand in the outfield and powerful bat at the plate will not return in 2022. David Yanni, who was affectionately known as “Gramps” by his teammates, will also exit Oakland after exhausting six years of eligibility, taking his 28 career homers and 146 RBIs with him.
Washington and Hess are just juniors but are expected to weigh their options for professional baseball after strong offensive seasons in 2021.
McCrum, Gomez and utility pitcher Stephen Hansen — who split his appearances between starting and relief roles — are set to graduate.
Worst case scenario, the Panthers could enter next year without four of their top five hitters, as well as two of their best relief pitchers and their replacements are not immediately clear. The only freshman to make starts this past season were catcher Jackson Phinney and right-handed pitcher Chris Pouliot.
Both have talent, but Pouliot’s 11.88 ERA over 8 ⅓ innings pitched and Phinney’s .086 batting average don’t inspire much confidence.
The reality is that, in order for this team to recreate or even top their record-breaking 2021 campaign, production will have to come from fresh faces.
So Bell and company entered the offseason with two versions of themselves fresh in mind — the squad that shattered expectations and was poised to make a run at a conference title and the team that fell apart down the stretch.
After being picked dead last in the preseason conference poll, Pitt was playing with house money in 2021, but now expectations have officially been raised and in 2022, another missed postseason isn’t an option.