2012 Spartan Baseball Preview
CLEVELAND, Ohio -- Following a school-record season that produced 33 wins and a third-place finish at the NCAA Mideast Regional, the Case Western University baseball team has its sights set on a University Athletic Association Championship and another deep NCAA Tournament run during the spring of 2012.
The Spartans finished the 2011 campaign with a school-record 33 wins (33-15 overall) and earned the first NCAA Tournament berth in program history.
Despite the graduation of five key players, including 2011 D3Baseball.com National Player of the Year Chad Mullins, the Spartans expect to surpass last season's performance behind nine returning starters, 20 letterwinners and a talented group of 15 newcomers.
"We definitely hope to build on the success that we have had," said sixth-year Head Coach Matt Englander. "We had a taste in 2011 of what success is like, and you always hope to accomplish more than what you have done in the past. That is our goal each year, and we understand what it takes to reach a certain level. We are going to strive to achieve even more success through continuous hard work and dedication to all of the details."
Three full-time starters return from last season's infield in addition to a pair of part-time players.
Leading the way up the middle is two-time first-team All-UAA junior shortstop Matt Keen (Tallmadge, Ohio/Tallmadge), who has started all 90 games during the past two seasons. In 2011, Keen batted .381 with 37 runs batted-in, 68 runs scored and 13 stolen bases in 14 attempts. The UAA's Rookie of the Year in 2010, Keen also led the league and ranked second in the nation last season in runs scored while totaling four triples and 18 doubles. He was a UAA Championship All-Tournament Team selection and a Capital One Academic All-District honoree. In two seasons, he is batting .389 with eight homeruns, 29 doubles, six triples, 78 RBI, 116 runs and 24 steals in 27 attempts.
"Matt (Keen) is crucial to our success," noted Englander. "He plays arguably the most important position on the field, and he plays it very well. He is very talented and very athletic, but the most important thing I have seen is his attitude and his ability to improve. He is very coachable and very detail-oriented along with being responsible for what he does."
Senior second baseman Bobby Marko (Lyndhurst, Ohio/Brush) completes the middle of the infield with 118 starts and 124 games played. In 40 games and 36 starts as a junior, Marko batted .280 with a homerun and 20 RBI. He has 19 doubles, five homers and 64 RBI in his career.
At first base, Case returns junior Brett Ossola (Potomac, Md./Bullis School), who could also see some at-bats as the designated hitter. A two-time All-UAA selection, Ossola has played in 88 of 90 games the past two seasons with 86 starts. In 2011, he batted .308 with three homers and 58 RBI – third on the team. He also doubled 13 times and scored 26 runs en route to earning second-team All-UAA honors. Ossola is a career .336 hitter with four HR and 84 RBI.
Third base and catcher will have new occupants for the first time in several years following the graduation of Mullins and Steve Bills. Each was instrumental in building Case Western Reserve into one of the Mideast Region's premier programs, and Mullins graduated with ownership of mostly every career offensive record.
"Obviously, we have losses each and every year with graduation and the dynamic of the team changes on an annual basis," said Englander. "Roles change and how you score runs and play defensively change, but our focus on continuous improvement will remain the same."
The favorite to fill the spot at third base is sophomore Andrew Frey (Mentor, Ohio/Mentor), who saw significant time at both third and second base as a freshman. In 38 games and 19 starts as a rookie, he batted .422 (38-of-90) with a HR and 20 RBI. The team's Rookie of the Year, Frey also posted back-to-back four-hit games on April 10 and 12.
Senior Peter Zak (Brookline, Mass./Brookline) is expected to see the most time behind the plate. Last season, he served as the team's main back-up to Bills and batted .312 (15-of-48) with two HR and 10 RBI. He also provided the most memorable moment of the season when he belted a game-winning, pinch-hit grandslam in the top of the ninth inning versus Adrian College (Mich.) during the team's NCAA Mideast Regional debut.
The Spartan lineup saw several players fill the DH role last season, namely 2011 graduate Cory Pecoraro. This season, Englander expects a similar rotation as he looks to keep several bats in the lineup. Senior Sam Alexander (Alexandria, Va./T.C. Williams) is likely to see the most time in the DH role while also playing in right field.
In his first season as a full-time outfielder, Alexander started 47-of-48 games and batted .368 with four homers and 55 RBI to go along with team-bests of 19 doubles and five triples. He was a second-team All-UAA and American Baseball Coaches Association (ABCA) All-Mideast Region selection. Alexander was also tabbed to the UAA Championship All-Tournament Team and earned back-to-back UAA Hitter of the Week awards on Apr. 18 and 25. In 117 career games, he is a .333 hitter with six HR, 96 RBI, six triples and 29 doubles.
In addition to Alexander, the Spartans return another starting outfielder from 2011 with classmate Jimmy Abed (Westlake, Ohio/Westlake) in left field.
Abed played in 42 games with 36 starts and batted .257 with a pair of homeruns, 16 RBI, 39 runs scored and 13 stolen bases in 16 attempts. He also homered during NCAA Mideast Regional action versus Heidelberg University. In 109 career games, he is a .270 hitter with 32 RBI and 36 stolen bases.
Pakan was a two-year starter at Division I George Washington University (D.C.).
Dague played in only 23 games with four starts due to an injury midway through the season. He collected eight hits in 14 at-bats (.571) with three RBI and three steals in three attempts.
"We have a very talented group in the outfield," said Englander. "Paul (Pakan) will be making the transition into the outfield, and he is a really gifted athlete and a special offensive player. I think with him alongside of Jimmy (Abed) and Jordan (Dague) in addition to some younger guys in the mix, we will expect a lot from the outfield. It is an athletic group and it has the opportunity to be a special unit."
The Spartans rotation is deep with the top two starters from last year back in addition to the return of two starters who missed all of 2011 due to injury.
Honorable mention All-Mideast Region junior left-hander Jamie Hora (Twinsburg, Ohio/Twinsburg) was the ace of the staff in 2011 with an 8-3 record and a 4.54 earned run average. In 14 games and 11 starts, he led the team in wins, complete games (6), innings pitched (77.1) and strikeouts (46). Hora was also a two-time UAA Pitcher of the Week.
Hora is joined by a fellow southpaw in sophomore Ray Kelly (Rochester, N.Y./Aquinas Institute), who was one of the UAA's top rookies, pitching in 12 games with eight starts. He was 5-1 with a 4.72 ERA in 47.2 innings pitched. The UAA Pitcher of the Week on Apr. 18, Kelly picked up the win when the Spartans broke the school single-season record for victories versus Oberlin College on April 13.
In 2010, Fry posted a team-best 7-3 record and 4.93 ERA in 49.1 innings pitched. In 37 career games, he has 11 wins and 72 strikeouts in 155 innings.
Gish was 3-3 as a freshman in 2010 with a team-best 39 strikeouts in 49 innings pitched.
"Last year's team was unique in the fact that we had some guys really pitch well for us at crucial times," said Englander. "Overall, I think the staff will be much improved and deeper this year and will have more defined roles. We got a real shot in the arm with Jarrett (Gish) and Zach (Fry) coming back from injury. Last year, our offense carried us at times when our pitching staff was struggling. This year, we hope to be a bit more three-dimensional in terms of our pitching, offense and defense coming together at the same time."
Case's bullpen also figures to be deep with a mixture of experienced and young arms looking to eat up innings when called upon.
Sophomore Jose Vega (Strongsville, Ohio/Padua Franciscan) returns after making a team-high 15 relief appearances as a rookie. The right-hander posted a 3-3 record with three saves and led the team with a 4.03 ERA in 22.1 innings pitched.
Moving to the bullpen from the starting rotation is senior left-hander A.J. Boshinski (Alpharetta, Ga./St. Pius X), who pitched in a team-high 16 games with eight starts. He posted a 4-0 record with a 5.32 ERA in 47.1 innings of work with 38 strikeouts. In 41 career games, he is 8-7 with 105 strikeouts in 131.1 innings.
Senior Cory Smith (Chagrin Falls, Ohio/Notre Dame-Cathedral Latin) is also back in the mix after missing all but one game in 2011 due to injury. His only appearance in late February produced four shutout innings with five strikeouts at Guilford College (N.C.).
"There will be a lot of competition in the bullpen, and we will feel comfortable putting in just about any arm that we have," noted Englander. "That flexibility will afford us the opportunity as a coaching staff to make more in-game decisions. It will give us the option to do more situational pitching – matchup pitching per se – in terms of who is pitching well that week or against righties or lefties."
A highly touted recruiting class is expected to add even more depth to an already deep Spartan roster. Englander also anticipates that several of his newcomers will play significant roles in 2012.
"We are fortunate to have such a deep and talented class," said the head coach. "Quite honestly, there isn't a single guy I look at that I don't feel can help us this season. This is the first year since I have been at Case where we don't have an opening day starter that is a true freshman. But at the same time, this may be the best class that we have brought in here in the six years."
In addition to the aforementioned Pakan, freshmen Matt Diehl (Centerville, Ohio/Archbishop Alter), Andrew Gronski (Hilliard, Ohio/Hillard Davidson) and Kerrigan Cain (Hartville, Ohio/Archbishop Hoban) are expected to impact the infield. Catcher Jordan Swisher (Pittsford, N.Y./Pittsford Sutherland) and catcher/pitcher Robert Winemiller (Twinsburg, Ohio/University School) will also be in the mix for significant playing time, while right-handers Edward Abramson (Maitland, Fla./Winter Park) and Kevin Johnstone (Placentia, Calif./Valencia) will likely factor into the pitching rotation.
The 2012 schedule features some of the top teams in the Mideast Region and is expected to be one of the toughest since Englander took over the program in 2007.
"Our goal is not just to get to the NCAA Tournament and regional round, but to succeed there," said Englander. "I think playing the teams we did last spring really helped us and prepared us for the NCAA Tournament. Once we got into the playoffs, we looked at it as we have competed with and in fact beat a number of playoff teams and we know how to handle the pressures that come along with it. You have to play against the best to have any expectation to beat them. It would be disappointing to our guys if we didn't roll out a schedule that wasn't challenging and difficult in 2012. Our guys want to play the best teams and show that last year wasn't a flash in the pan."
The Spartans open the season with a neutral site doubleheader on February 24 versus John Carroll University at 12:00 p.m. at Linda K. Epling Stadium in Beckley, West Virginia. The team then heads further south to play a DH at Guilford on Feb. 26 and heads back north for a pair of regional twinbills with Oberlin and Ohio Wesleyan University on March 3-4 at V.A. Memorial Stadium in Chillicothe. The UAA Championship Tournament is March 11-18 at Sanford Memorial Stadium in Sanford, Florida.
Other key dates include a three game series with Heidelberg split between Tiffin and Cleveland on March 24-25, a three-game series with The College of Wooster split between Wooster and Classic Park in Eastlake on April 7 and Apr. 10, a Sunday twinbill with Otterbein University on Apr. 15, an Apr. 19 match-up with Muskingum University at Progressive Field (home of the Cleveland Indians) and a four-game series at DePauw University (Ind.) on Apr. 21-22.