Last season was an overall success for the Case Western Reserve University baseball team. The team finished the season with a 29-10 overall record, matching the third-highest single-season win total in program history. The Spartans also claimed the University Athletic Association Championship for the third time ever, completing conference play with a 12-4 overall mark. However, without an automatic bid from the conference, CWRU narrowly missed out on an at-large bid to the postseason, and was left out of the tournament.
"I don't think last year was a failure because we didn't make the NCAA Tournament," said Head Coach Matt Englander, who will be embarking on his 13th season at the team's helm. "We accomplished some of our goals, some of them we didn't, and some of them were out of our hands. We are coming into this year with a similar mindset of being as good as we possibly can, and the team has done a good job of working hard and improving. We learned how to win last year, but we also learned how thin of a margin there is between both winning and losing games, and making and not making the tournament. Every game is a playoff game."
As a team last season, the Spartans batted .292 and averaged 7.0 runs per game, while the pitching staff registered a 3.64 team (46th in Division III) earned run average and a .248 opponents' batting average. CWRU led the UAA and finished 28th in Division III with 2.38 steals per game, while also pacing the conference in home runs, doubles, hits, and slugging percentage. In addition, the team was third among all Division III teams with 1.13 double plays turned per game, and notched a 0.962 fielding percentage, 78th out of 384 Division III teams.
The Spartans will head into the 2019 campaign with a veteran squad, including 18 returning players and eight newcomers. Among the returners are six seniors, all of which have been contributors to the team throughout their four seasons. Ten position players who appeared in 15 or more games during the season are slated to return, including six who started at least 30 games. In addition, five pitchers who threw at least 30 innings will be back for the Spartans.
"Having a veteran team doesn't guarantee success," said Englander. "However, I am confident in this group because they are accomplished and they understand what it takes to win. And, we've got a healthy mix of young players, especially from a leadership standpoint."
Case Western Reserve received votes in the D3baseball.com Preseason Top-25, and was ranked 40th in the Collegiate Baseball Division III Preseason Poll.
One of the Spartans' major strengths in 2019 should be their infield, with starters returning at all four positions. Two of the team's top returning hitters reside in the middle of the infield, with senior second baseman and D3baseball.com Preseason All-America First Team selection Rocco Maue and sophomore shortstop Jacob Lott. Maue had a breakout season last year, batting .358 with a school-record 11 home runs, while stealing 26 bases on 27 attempts. Lott was third on the team with a .287 batting average, recording 10 doubles and two home runs, and driving in 23 runs.
"We have a small roster, and the middle infield is a place where we don't have a ton of guys, but some really talented players," said Englander. "Jacob has helped Rocco become a better player because he's allowed him to move to his natural position at second base. Lott is a special defensive player, and has such great feel and hands that he can make plays that other people can't at this level. The two are as good a double play combination as there is."
Other options to play in the middle of the infield if necessary include freshmen Nathan Shapiro and Carter Theis.
"It is an area of strength, if not tremendous depth, and the guys who play there are good, so there's no concern if we have to go with one of our youngsters," said Englander.
Third base will be manned by a name familiar to Spartan fans, as senior Jacob Kucia will be starting at the hot corner for the fourth-straight season, entering the campaign as a .256 career hitter with three home runs, 20 doubles and 53 RBIs, including a .290 campaign as a sophomore.
"We think we can be special defensively, especially on the infield, and Jacob is a big part of it," said Englander. "It helps being a good leader and he's involved with everything. He's done a great job and we expect him to have a good year."
On the other side of the infield, Englander will have no shortage of options at first base. Among the returners who could see time at the position are junior Casey McConihe (.274 batting average, eight RBIs), sophomore Benjamin Stawicki (.408, five doubles, eight RBIs), junior Noah Mehrle (.230, seven doubles, 15 RBIs) and sophomore Tre Armstrong. Theis and fellow freshman Mac Camardo are also possibilities to see time at first this year.
"We're got some good athletes at first," said Englander. "In the past, it used to be 'put your big guy over there.' Now, we're getting some athletes to play the position, and it makes a big difference on defense."
Veteran depth with be prevalent at catcher as well, with two returning players who saw considerable time on the field last year in senior Tyler Wypiszenski sophomore Jake Ryan, in addition to Armstrong, who will return after missing most of last year due to injury, and sophomore newcomer Sam Nalli.
"We have a number of catchers who are going to find their way into the lineup pretty often, which is pretty unique," said Englander. "It is position of strength."
Wypiszenski has been one of the team's top hitters over the last four seasons, and will enter his senior campaign with a .297 career batting average, eight home runs and 82 runs batted in over 92 career games played. His presence behind the plate can have an effect on a game as well, as opposing runners attempted just 29 steals against him last season, and were thrown out 48.3% of the time.
"If Wypiszenski isn't the best defensive catcher in the country, I'd like to see who is," said Englander. "He's a special player, he's a great leader, and he's proven he can hit the ball, especially in big spots."
Ryan notched a very successful freshman season, batting .360 with seven extra base hits in just 50 at bats. He drove in 17 runs during the campaign, and slugged a pair of home runs.
"Jake is going to be in the lineup because he can hit, and he's a good enough athlete to move around the field," said Englander.
Englander will have a number of options for his outfield this season, with a group of talented veterans and newcomers who should all see time on the field.
"The outfield should bring me a lot of happiness, but we also have more good players than spots," said Englander. "It is going to require some juggling, but will also allow us to maximize guys who are hot."
The options among returners at the corner outfield include Mehrle and Stawicki (who could also be at first base) and Ryan and Armstrong (who may also catch). Senior Jacob Pestel will be back after recording a career season last year with a .267 batting average, five doubles and 10 RBIs. Freshmen Cole Jarrett and Nick Sellitto should also have a chance to make an early impact on the outfield rotation as well.
Meanwhile in centerfield, junior Samuel Neal returns after a breakout sophomore campaign, during which he led off every game for the Spartans, hitting .271 with 33 runs scored and 21 RBIs.
"We expect Neal to play centerfield again this year," said Englander. "He had a good year for us last year, and showed some real flashes of brilliance at the plate."
The Spartans will also be returning a deep and experienced pitching staff, with a few new additions that could add to the group's success from last season. Senior Mark Gross, who will be in his fourth year as a prominent member of the starting rotation, went 6-4 last season with a 3.69 ERA, while his 13 career victories put him in a tie for the seventh-most in program history. The righty will once again will aim to be anchor the Spartans' starting pitchers.
"Nick Callahan, our pitching coach, does a great job preparing and developing our pitchers," said Englander. "Mark has been a frontline guy for us for four years, and he's got a chance to really anchor us this season. Behind him have some pitching depth, and that should improve further this year with some young guys that can help us. "
Other returners expected to be in the rotation include sophomore righty Matt Levine, who was named to the All-UAA Second Team after posting a 6-1 record with a 3.18 ERA, McConihe, who went 3-1 with a 3.49 ERA over nine starts, and sophomore righty Tony Smodilla, who made six appearances out of the bullpen as a freshman, recording a 6.92 ERA. Freshman left-handed pitcher Nick Denove should also be an early factor on the starting rotation.
CWRU's two top options out of the bullpen are each southpaws in senior Corey Brown and junior Scott Kutschke. Brown made 12 appearances last season, going 4-1 with a 2.75 ERA and two saves, while Kutschke was 4-1 with one save and a 3.23 ERA in a team-high 14 appearances. Junior Paul Slota will provide a veteran right-handed presence in relief, while freshmen right-handed pitchers Willem Bouma and Keaton Stankowski should also shoulder some of the burden out of the bullpen.
"Brown and Kutschke have been really good and solid for us. Slota has made huge strides, and we're expecting him to help out a ton," said Englander. "The rest of the guys are talented, and it is either a matter of them getting some experience, or taking advantage of their chances. Some players who may have been in the back of the bullpen previously may get an opportunity to step up. They are ready."
Englander will enter his 13th season as the program's all-time winningest coach, and is just 13 victories shy of 300 for his career with an all-time record of 287-213-2, good for a .574 winning percentage. Included in his all-time record is a 56-38 mark (.596 winning percentage) in University Athletic Association games. Englander has guided the team to 24 or more victories in each of the last nine years, while taking the team to the postseason four times, and claiming three UAA Championships.
Englander will be returning assistant coaches Nick Callahan and Branden Stucky, while also adding former University of Akron baseball player Jake Plata to the staff for 2019.
As is usually the case, the Spartans' schedule should rank among the most challenging in all of Division III. Of the 38 games currently on the CWRU schedule, 16 are against teams either nationally ranked in the D3baseball.com Preseason Poll or receiving votes, including a pair of games against top-ranked Wooster in late April.
The Spartans will open their season with three games against Spalding University in Louisville, Kentucky this weekend, playing a doubleheader starting at 1:00 p.m. on Saturday, February 23rd, and a single game at noon on Sunday, February 24th. Fans can follow the game with live video, with the links available on the CWRU baseball schedule page on athletics.case.edu.
CWRU will open its home schedule early this season, hosting a doubleheader against Allegheny on March 3rd. Other early season non-conference highlights for the Spartans include six games against teams receiving votes in the D3baseball.com poll, including a doubleheader against Washington & Jefferson on March 2nd, a pair of games against Western New England in Lexington, South Carolina as a part of the Spartan Southern Classic on March 15th and 16th, and a home doubleheader against Marietta on March 24th.
"The scheduling philosophy isn't so much about postseason alchemy, rather than making sure you're battle tested," said Englander. "If you're going to go into the UAA and win, you need to understand how to beat good teams, since the conference is so strong. We'd rather play really good teams to see what we're made of, rather than work our schedule to see what record we could have."
University Athletic Association play begins at home for the Spartans with a four-game series against Washington University (which received votes in the preseason rankings) from March 29 – 31, followed by road series at NYU (which also received preseason votes in the D3baseball.com Top 25) on April 5 - 7 and at Emory from April 12 – 14. The Spartans will then play games at top-ranked Wooster on April 18 and at Heidelberg on April 20, before returning home to host Wooster on April 21. CWRU is then scheduled to wrap-up its season with a four-game series against Brandeis from April 26 – 28.
Should all go well, the Spartan hope to clear the hurdle that stopped them last season, make the NCAA Division III Championship Tournament, and make an impact in the postseason.
"We're really excited," said Englander. "We have a good group, and they are laser focused on what they are doing and their teammates. It's a really exciting time to be here, and I can't wait to get started. I know our guys are thrilled that its right around the corner, and at the same time they're mature enough to get every drop out of the last few days before we start. It is an exciting group because they're talented and a legitimate team."