Heading into an opening-weekend series at Wichita State, Pittsburgh coach Joe Jordano had no idea that the Shockers had never lost a home game in the month of February.
"I'm glad nobody told me that before we went," Jordano said. "One of my student managers mentioned to me after the first game that they were 69-0 in February, and I said, 'Interesting.' You know how Wichita State fits into the whole story of college baseball—it's pretty neat. Great atmosphere, great facilities, and I think they have a pretty good team. We just did some pretty good things this weekend."
The Panthers entered the season with little fanfare, picked by Big East coaches to finish seventh in the conference, well behind conference heavyweights Louisville, St. John's, Notre Dame and Connecticut. But Pitt created some shockwaves by sweeping the Shockers—the first time Wichita has been swept at home in any three-game series since 1970.
"I can assure you that Wichita State didn't expect it," Jordano said. "We just went in there and played very solid baseball the whole weekend. I think we're a very solid baseball team. We're one of only three teams that made the Big East tournament the last four years; we've been flying under the radar for quite some time, but two out of the last three years we finished in third place. We've had 40-plus players sign professionally in the last 10 years or so, and we're doing that on about nine and a half scholarships."
The Panthers haven't made a regional since 1995, but they've been knocking on the door, and their recruiting efforts have gotten a boost from the Petersen Sports Complex that opened in 2011, and from an impending move to the Atlantic Coast Conference. Jordano said his recruiting class of 2013 will be his first fully funded class, as the school ramps up its commitment to baseball in anticipation of the move to a power conference.
Jordano knows it will be a challenge to compete in the ACC, but it's a challenge he is excited to take on.
"Let's face it, when you look at the so-called power conferences, what coach wouldn't want an opportunity to coach at that level?" he said. "So for me, I'm like rejuvenated. It's a new opportunity. It's very exciting not only for baseball but for our entire university and department."
So this is a program with positive momentum on a broad level. In the short term, Pitt looks like it will be a major factor in the Big East this season, because the roster is loaded with talent and experience.
The Panthers hit .375 with four home runs in three games at Wichita, with junior right fielder Casey Roche (8-for-14, 2 HR, 7 RBIs) leading the way. The 6-foot, 175-pound Roche has been a solid contributor for two seasons, posting an .843 OPS as a freshman and a .900 OPS last year, but he has taken a step forward this year.
"Casey has really developed into a very good baseball player," Jordano said. "He has tremendous tools, he's got a good arm, he runs well. He's not a very big guy, but has tremendous bat speed and plus power for his size. Great athletic tools, and he's worked very hard to become a very good baseball player—this weekend proved that. He'll be on the mound a little bit in some relief, just an all-around solid player."
Pitt's best prospects are sophomores Elvin Soto and Boo Vazquez. Soto, a draft-eligible sophomore, is a "legit switch-hitter" who handles the pitching staff extremely well, according to Jordano. A veteran of USA Baseball's 2010 18U national team (where he had some famous teammates), Soto has good catch-and-throw skills—the Panthers say he has shown pop times in the high 1.7- to low 1.8-second range—and emerging power, making him a candidate to be drafted in the top five rounds this June.
Vazquez, a left fielder, also brings significant pop, but Jordano said he wants Vazquez to become a bit more aggressive at the plate, because sometimes he can be overly selective.
"They both have just plus tools," Jordano said. "Last year they both played almost every inning of every game, and you can't teach experience; you've got to live it. That did a lot for them last year to play in that many games."
Another talented sophomore, righthander Tanner Wilt, anchors a bullpen that has solid depth. Wilt, who originally committed to Coastal Carolina before opting to stay closer to home and attend Pitt for personal reasons, has a low-90s fastball and a hard breaking ball that serves as his out pitch.
Three junior righties have earned spots in the weekend rotation—righties Ethan Mildren, Matt Wotherspoon and Rhys Aldenhoven. Mildren struck out nine over seven strong innings in Friday's season opener, mixing his 88-92 fastball and two solid offspeed pitches effectively. Wotherspoon also has good arm strength, with a fastball that reaches 93 and has touched higher in the past. And Aldenhoven, an Australian native who transferred in from Hill (Texas) JC, is a strike-thrower with plenty of competitiveness, and he handled the Wichita atmosphere well Sunday, allowing just two runs (one earned) over 6 1/3 innings.
"There are some good pieces to the puzzle, and of course we have to stay healthy and keep executing," Jordano said. "I can't wait to get back onto the field and try it again on Friday down at Wofford."
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