In the three years since it joined the Northeast Conference, Bryant has finished atop the regular-season standings twice, going 25-7 to win the NEC by five games in 2010, then going 24-8 to win the league by three games last year. But the Bulldogs were not eligible for the postseason while completing their transition to Division I, so they had to put their NCAA tournament ambitions on hold—until this year.
In its first season as a full NEC member (with conference tournament eligibility), Bryant has gotten off to an 8-0 start in the league. The Bulldogs have won 13 straight games (tied with Delaware and Louisiana State for the nation's longest active winning streak), improving them to 18-9 overall. Winning two regular-season titles has been rewarding for Bryant, but the players and coaches have waited patiently for a chance to finally play in the postseason this year, and they look poised to take full advantage of the opportunity.
"This senior class was the first (Division I) recruiting class brought in by (former) coach (Jamie) Pinzino," said third-year Bryant coach Steve Owens. "They knew they would play three years then have a chance their fourth year. This is our first time eligible for the conference tournament—that would be fun."
The Bulldogs are battle tested, having played four games at Oregon State in Week Two and traveled to Ohio State for three games in Week Four. They played the Beavers tough, letting a late lead slip away in a 2-1 loss in the opener and losing another game 3-1. And they won the middle game at Ohio State.
"I always try to take my teams to play good teams early in the season, on the road at their place," said Owens, who took Le Moyne to regionals before that program dropped from Division I to D-II. "I've never been to the West Coast before, always down South or the Midwest. It was a great experience. (Oregon State is) a very good baseball team, coached very well, and they have an elite pitching staff. Our hitters were challenged every single inning for 36 straight innings. I think we held our own out there."
After a slow start offensively, Bryant has gotten its bats going during its 13-game winning streak. Owens describes his lineup as a "scrappy," patient bunch that works counts and drives the gaps. The lineup has a dangerous centerpiece in senior outfielder Kevin Brown (.368/.512/.600 with four homers and 25 RBIs), and leadoff man Jordan Mountford (.284/.409/.421, two homers) has occasional pop, but the Bulldogs are not a home run-hitting team.
Freshman outfielder A.J. Zarozny (.372/.453/.512) has provided a spark in the No. 2 hole since returning from a broken leg, and cleanup man John Mullen (.265/.333/.373, 22 RBIs) has shown a knack for delivering clutch hits. And senior shortstop Dan Muscatello (.316/.430/.408, 19 RBIs) has provided additional protection for Brown and Mullen while also anchoring the infield defense.
But Bryant's strength is its deep, experienced pitching staff. Senior righthander Peter Kelich (4-2, 2.01) is a rock on Fridays, with 27 career victories under his belt. Owens said Kelich's velocity has continued to climb throughout his career, and he'll touch 91-92 early in games. He keeps the ball down in the zone, mixing in a cutter, changeup and breaking ball to get plenty of groundball outs.
"He's really mature mentally—he figures out a way to get out of tough spots," Owens said.
Sophomore righty Kevin McAvoy (2-1, 5.35) has been up and down, but he has good movement on a sinker that reaches the low 90s and mixes in a solid slider. Junior righty Craig Schlitter (4-3, 4.27) excels at spotting his 88-92 mph fastball and throwing his curveball and changeup for strikes. And fifth-year senior lefthander John Healy (4-0, 2.64) has given the staff another quality starting option after transferring in from Division II St. Anselm (N.H.). Healy is a mid-80s southpaw who can pitch to both sides of the plate with a solid three-pitch mix.
The bullpen is anchored by senior righthanders Salvatore Lisanti (four saves, 1.42 ERA) and Joseph Michaud (2.20 ERA). Lisanti can bump 90 and a pair of good secondary pitches, while Michaud works around 90 and has the best breaking ball on the team. Michaud works out of the pen on weekends and starts midweek.
Freshman Kyle Wilcox (3.00 ERA) and junior Vaughn Hayward (0.75 ERA) have the best arm strength on the team, giving the bullpen admirable depth. Wilcox works at 92-93 and bumps 94, while Hayward sits at 92-93.
"We have six or seven or maybe even eight guys who can get it up there around 90 or even better," Owens said. "My pitching coach (Ryan Fecteau) has done a good job with them. We're just fortunate; all these guys have developed. They weren't all like that coming out of high school for sure, but they've gotten to pitch a lot and worked hard. We've had scouts at every game we've played here, which is kind of cool. That hasn't happened our first couple of years here."
Bryant is talented enough to win the NEC and make some noise in a regional, but for now the Bulldogs are just enjoying their winning streak and trying to stay grounded.
"We know we're going to lose games, but this has been fun," Owens said of the streak. "We haven't thought about it too much, but now it's getting a little bit of attention.
"So I'm pleased with our progress as a team. We're a relatively young team, other than on the mound, and the kids have worked hard and continued to improve."