After a 10-6 start to the 2020 campaign, the Panthers were pulled off the diamond on March 12th and are chomping at the bit to get back on the field. With changes to the NCAA rules for 2021, all baseball teams are allowed expanded rosters and Coach Mike Bell is hoping the small expansion will contribute to the team’s success this year.
“We have more depth, but so does everyone else,” Bell said.
The Atlantic Coast Conference made additional changes to the 2021 campaign expanding the conference schedule from 10 weekends to 12. “This has a chance to be the most competitive season Pitt baseball has ever seen,” Bell added. The Panthers start conference play against Top 25 opponents in four of their first five weekends.
The conference schedule is out now. Pitt will host Virginia Tech, Notre Dame, Miami, North Carolina, Boston College, and NC State. They will visit Florida State, Duke, Georgia Tech, Virginia, Louisville, and Wake Forest.
Pitt will play out of conference games, as well, but some of those are still up in the air. “We are still working on midweeks and out of conference games. Those hinge on what other conferences decide to do.”
Regardless of how the schedule plays out, Coach Bell’s squad has been preparing all fall for a competitive season during a pandemic.
“The fall taught us a lot about who we were as a tea,” the head coach said. “It taught us to control what we can control. Some teams get too caught up with the opponent. We don’t know what this season is going to look like, but everyone is going through it and everyone is going to have challenges.”
Despite all the challenges the COVID-19 pandemic has brought, there is so much excitement in Oakland about the future of Pitt athletics. The Pitt head coach talked a bit about that. “It is a great time to be a part of Pitt athletics. There is a great culture and great morale and that comes from a great leader in Heather Lyke.”
On the diamond, Coach Bell’s team has gone through a lot of changes in pursuit of a championship, especially on his coaching staff. The headline addition is certainly former Major League All-Star Devin Mesoraco.
“Devin is a son of a high school coach,” Bell said. “Coaching is in his blood.” Mesoraco is working with the catchers and first basemen and is sure to make an impact on the team defensively. Also making an impact on the defense is new assistant Matt Reida. Reida comes to Oakland from the University of Alabama. Bell added, “Matt is a great infield coach. His work with infielders will allow Coach Megahee to focus on the outfielders and our guys at the plate.”
The final addition to the Panthers coaching staff is former Pitt Panther, Nick Yarnall. “It’s always great to get an alum on the staff,” Bell said. Yarnall will assist Coach Megahee with the hitters. With the changes on the staff, Coach Bell will take command of the pitching staff. “I am taking over the pitching side of things, but Devin will also be a huge help with those with his background as a catcher.”
Let’s take a peek at the Panthers on the field:
On the Mound:
Anchored by a stout weekend rotation, starting pitching was a strength of the Panthers in the 2020 shortened season. Leading the charge this season will most certainly be third-year Sophomore Billy Corcoran. Corcoran, standing at a stout 6’9”, is a hard-throwing right-hander who showed incredible improvement from 2019 to 2020, especially with his command. In his freshman campaign, he featured a 2:1 strikeout-to-walk ratio, but last year he raised that to nearly 6 to 1. With Corcoran leading the rotation, Coach Bell is anticipating a highly competitive starting crew.
“We are looking to build up five to six guys to start,” Bell explained. “Then we will take the top four guys and build our starting rotation. Billy Corcoran, Mitch Myers, and Matt Gilbertson all had great falls. They have earned their spots for the weekend.” The pitching staff will not be entirely made up of returners though. Expect plenty of contribution to come from new faces.
Bell added, “We had a lot of new guys that performed well in the fall. Stephen Hanson (Graduate Transfer from Iona) threw the ball very well in the fall. He has weekend starting experience which is helpful. Also, Chris Pouliot (Freshman, Quebec, CA) had a great fall and continues to improve.”
In addition, Chase Smith returns for his fourth year on campus and will certainly be a name you see in box scores nearly every game. Smith set the Panther record for pitching appearances in a season with 33 and is a staple in the Panthers bullpen.
Behind the Plate:
In the college game especially, the catching position is incredibly important to a team’s success. It’s the most difficult position to find depth and often teams suffer because of it. Fortunately, the Panthers are as deep at the position as they have ever been.
Leading the way behind the plate is fourth-year Junior Riley Wash. Wash, a junior college transfer prior to the 2020 season, provided stability at the bottom half of the order last year. Catching, obviously, can take a toll on the body which is why Coach Bell is so excited about his team’s depth behind the plate.
In addition to Wash, Pitt will turn to the experience of Arkansas-Little Rock transfer Ramon Padilla to assist in catching duties. “We are very excited about Jackson Phinney,” Bell discussed. “He’s a freshman catcher with great upside. Catching as a freshman in the ACC is always difficult, so it’s huge for us that we can rely on Wash and Padilla and don’t have to throw a freshman into the fire.”
Returning every starter from 2020 provides the Panthers a great launching point for 2021. In the infield especially, the veteran presence will be critical to the Panthers success defensively.
“The flexibility of our infielders is crucial,” Bell said. “David Yanni has the ability to stay at short and the versatility to slide to first. If Yanni’s name sounds familiar that’s because he is the longest-tenured Panther, now in his sixth season in Oakland. Yanni’s versatility extends beyond the field. The left-handed-hitting infielder’s On Base Percentage and Slugging Percentage were both in the .400’s meaning he excels at both hitting for contact and extra-base hits.”
Versatility is a theme that extends past Yanni. “Cam Barto and Lucas (Ismaili) can play all over the infield,” Bell continued. “With Bryce Hullett providing stability at first base, we are two deep at each position.”
The flexibility of Pitt’s infield is even more important this year as conference play is twelve weekends instead of the normal ten. With an extra six games of conference play, the entire roster is going to be called on to contribute.
The Panther outfield is sure to be a strength heading into the 2021 season. Headlined by star third-year sophomore Kyle Hess, the Panther outfield is poised for a strong year.
Hess, who hit .373 with twelve extra-base hits in the 16-game 2020 season, will undoubtedly be the focal point of the Panthers lineup. However, it’s his defense that has been his focal point during the offseason. Bell covered the outfielders, too. “Kyle has worked extremely hard to be a better outfielder. He has always had the tools to run and hit so he focused on his defense all fall.” Hess is an incredibly balanced hitter with a simple swing and advanced raw power allowing him to make contact at a high rate while still driving the balls to the gap.
Hess is certainly not the only weapon the Panthers have in the outfield. “Jordan (Anderson) has the tools to be a weapon,” Bell continued. “The wind at home makes it cover the ground and Jordan’s speed and defense is an asset.” Anderson is likely to split time with freshmen Dominic Popa and CJ Funk. Funk is a power-hitting right-handed bat that will add some much-needed pop to the Panther lineup and Popa, like his older brother Nico (three-year starter in the outfield) has the tools to play all over the outfield.
Combining with the outfielders, Ron Washington, Jr. is likely to be the Panthers full-time Designated Hitter. Washington battled injuries last year but has proven to be a power bat to be reckoned with.
2021 should shape up to be an exciting one for the Panthers as they continue to try to make up ground in the ACC.