By Jack Margaros
SPRINGFIELD – Every season since 2015, the Springfield College baseball team has improved, albeit in small increments. Going from 10 wins in 2015 to 12 in 2016 then 15 in 2017 (with zero postseason appearances in between), a slow journey to the top seemed to be the indication of where this program was headed.
Although in 2018, the Pride exceeded expectations.
It went 23-14-2, posting their first season north of 20 victories since 2014, and just their third season of the sort in the past 13 years. Springfield also clinched its first NEWMAC playoff berth since 2014 but were eliminated in the first round by MIT.
“I think we have not only a growth in talent but also a big culture shift in a positive way,” senior catcher Alex Denoyelle said.
It started with pitching. Shawn Babineau pitched to a 1.59 ERA en route to earning the program’s first-ever NEWMAC Pitcher of the Year award. Brian Johnson (2.18 ERA) and Kyle Naples (2.25 ERA) complimented to head one of the best pitching staffs in the NEWMAC.
The offense featured three players hitting over .330, and two more hitting over .300. Chad Shade collected 49 runs, breaking the single-season record, and 32 stolen bases – falling five short of breaking Joe Cervino’s single-season record.
“Some things that certainly make you feel good about yourselves happened last year and I think there is a sense that we got a chance to take a step forward,” head coach Mark Simeone said.
The expectations and pressure to succeed are only heightened this season, as the prospect of capturing the program’s first-ever NEWMAC title becomes more of a legitimate reality than a heavy dose of optimism. Players are not shying away from these lofty measures either.
“I think (the team) is as good as we’ve ever had in a long time,” Johnson said. “Coach says he has the most talent on the rotation and the lineup he’s had in years.”
Springfield lost nine players from last year’s roster to graduation, most notably Naples and their four-year backstop – Pete Marsicano. Jack Weinberger departed from the bullpen while Joe Gamache and Ken Manero are extracted from the starting rotation as well. Despite all this, the pitching staff has the potential to be even better.
“As good as a year Kyle Naples had and Jack Weinberger certainly contributed on the bullpen as well, I think we’re a deeper pitching staff this year than we were last year,” Simeone said. “A good year on the mound last year doesn’t automatically mean a good year on the mound this year.”
The Pride did retain NEWMAC second team all-conference honoree Mark Joao, who is returning as a graduate student. He led the offense slashing .336/.427/.518 with 34 RBI and a .945 OPS.
Johnson, who comes into the season having added seven miles per hour to his velocity, and Babineau stay atop the rotation. Sophomore Noah Bleakley will assume a larger role on the mound, likely to replace Naples.
“Noah was capable of being on the rotation last year as a freshman and I didn’t put him in the rotation because I thought he might win the third base job, and he did,” Simeone said. “He was a very good high school starter and all the type of makeup that would lead me to believe that he’ll be able to transition into a very solid college starter.”
Bleakley was impressive in a small sample last season, pitching to a 2.08 ERA in 13 innings. At the plate, he drove in 23 runs in 102 at-bats while reaching base at a 35 percent clip. To retain his two-way capability, Simeone plans to use Bleakley as a first basemen and designated hitter when not pitching.
“He will still be an impact for us both on the mound and at the plate, but certainly more on the mound this year than he had a chance to make an impact last year.”
With the top of the rotation set, the backend will comprise of underclassmen – and could be a carousel of young starters. Sophomore Dakota Aldrich (3.45 ERA in 15.2 IP in 2018) is a potential candidate. Freshman Mitch Wright has impressed Simeone as well through the fall season.
“The freshmen in our program are of quality,” Simeone said. “We’ve got some freshmen that I think are going to find a way to make contribution, maybe more so on the mound.”
Denoyelle, a senior, will take over the starting catcher role. He is a career .246/.341/.362 hitter in 23 games across three seasons.
“Offensively, got to be more consistent, but I’m a big power guy. Not a big wheels guy so I got to get the balls in the gaps,” Denoyelle said. “I’m excited for myself personally of course but I’m excited because we’re going to have a great team this year and I think that we’re going to do very well.”
Simeone added, “I’m hoping that Alex has a great senior year. He will find ways to contribute as he always has.”
There’s every reason to believe the offense will outpace its production from last season. Joao, Shade, Jack Cooney and Brandon Russo – who all finished with batting averages above .300 and on-base percentages above .400 – all return. Russo, a switch-hitter, and Jake Gleason (.848 OPS) provide balance in a right-handed heavy lineup.
However, Springfield led the NEWMAC in strikeouts (303), and by a large margin. The team below, 2018 conference champion Babson, struck out 281 times.
“We’ve talked about the fact that we need to cut down strikeouts and put the ball in play more with two strikes,” Simeone said. “I think that has a lot to do with decision making. We looked at some balls that are too close to look at. You can’t make the same mistake three at-bats in a row.”
There’s been some improvement leading Simeone to believe that strikeouts will decrease in 2019. If that holds true, Springfield can put pressure on opposing defenses with their speed. Their 81 stolen bases led the NEWMAC, and it’s evidently improved.
“A less than perfect hit and a ball that you hit weak in fair territory can be a base hit for a lot of the guys in our lineup,” Simeone said. “We got as good of team speed that we’ve had in a number of years.”
With a spike in talent comes a spike in competition, both on the schedule and internally among the team. Springfield opens the season on Saturday against Western New England, who received votes in d3baseball.com’s Preseason Top 25 poll.
In the most recent rankings, conference opponent Wheaton is receiving votes while Babson is No. 22. When the Pride travel to Florida next week, No. 2 Rowan and No. 8 Southern Maine will be waiting.
“I think it creates an early season measuring stick. You find out where you are when you play some big dogs early,” Simeone said. “They’re really good wins if you beat them and they’re eye opening losses if you don’t.”
There is competition among players fighting for starting spots; even more so this season. There are deserving candidates, but only nine spots to fill.
“Because of our depth, there’s going to be personal adversity every single day, because there’s guys good enough to be in the lineup that might not be on that particular day,” Simeone said. “Can you handle more talent among all constituents on a team?”
Simeone believes it, but it boils down to the players. To become the team that delivers the first conference title in program history must outweigh the temptation to prioritize individual success.
Photo courtesy Reef Rogers