Patriot League Preview

Members: Army, Bucknell, Holy Cross, Lafayette, Lehigh, Navy.

Team to Beat: Holy Cross. Last year, the Crusaders (30-27) fell just short of securing their first regional berth since 1978, surrendering an eighth-inning run to lose to Navy, 1-0, in the decisive third game of the Patriot League championship series. The Crusaders will have a strong chance at redemption this season, as the team loses little from last year’s team. Holy Cross brings back its entire rotation, led by senior righthander Brendan King (7-2, 2.84). The bullpen should be a strength, as well, with the return of closer Jon Escobar (1-1, 2.08)—who touched the mid-90s in the Cape Cod League—from injury. Senior righthanders George Capen (3-4, 3.15) and Joe Cravero (6-3, 3.24) should also help shorten games. Offensively, Holy Cross boasts just as much depth and experience with the return of senior outfielders Bill Schlich (.313/.373/.478) and Josh Hassell (.252/.345/.447, 9 HR) and junior second baseman Cam O’Neill (.279/.369/.363). Powerful senior first baseman Anthony Critelli broke his hamate and likely won’t return until March. If he’s able to return to his pre-injury form,  he’s one of the top power threats in the conference, hitting .267/.340/.462 last year with nine homers. The Crusaders have a difficult early season slate, including trips to Auburn and Southern California, but they should once again be a top contender for the Patriot League crown once conference play rolls around.

1. Mark Washington, rhp, Lehigh
2. Jon Escobar, rhp, Holy Cross
3. Anthony Critelli, 1b, Holy Cross
4. Adrian Chinnery, c, Navy
5. Brendan King, rhp, Holy Cross
6. Brett Smith, of, Bucknell
7. Jacen Nalesnik, of, Lehigh
8. Patrick Donnelly, 3b, Lehigh
9. Bill Schlich, of, Holy Cross
10. Peter Moore, lhp, Lehigh

Player of the Year: Jacen Nalesnik, of, Lehigh. Nalesnik led the Mountain Hawks in nearly every offensive category last year, batting .333/.419/.533 with a career-high seven home runs as a junior. A sturdy 6-foot-2, 235-pound outfielder with above-average speed and emerging power, Nalesnik should continue to be a key cog in the Lehigh lineup.

Pitcher of the Year: Brendan King, rhp, Holy Cross. King was as steady as they come on Fridays for the Crusaders last season, going 7-2, 2.84 with 74 strikeouts to just 18 walks in 82.1 innings. A 6-foot-1, 200-pound righthander, King throws with a clean, compact delivery, sitting 89-91 mph, touching 93 mph and locating a breaking ball and changeup. The addition of a cutter will give him another weapon to use against Patriot League hitters.

Freshman of the Year: Levi Stoudt, rhp, Lehigh. A 6-foot-1 righthander out of Pennsburg, Penn., Stoudt impressed in the fall, sitting 89-92 mph with his fastball and touching 93-94. He should have every opportunity to start on the weekend for the Mountain Hawks right away.

Notable Storylines: Army made its second coaching change since 2013, in June hiring Jim Foster to be its new head coach. Foster served as Boston College’s pitching coach for the last two seasons, guiding the staff to a 3.83 ERA in 2016 en route to the team’s first super regional appearance. Foster also spent nine seasons as the head coach at Rhode Island. Foster inherits a team that went 16-32 a year ago but returns 25 lettermen, including speedy switch-hitting senior second baseman Kris Lindner (.315/.430/.394) . . . Navy won the Patriot League regular season and tournament titles in 2016 and has the chance to do it again with one of the deepest, most experienced teams in the league. Though the Midshipmen lose ace lefthander Luke Gillingham, they should still have more than enough options on the mound, including reigning Patriot League freshman of the year Noah Song (9-3, 2.75), who works 89-91 mph and can touch higher. The Midshipmen should be strong up the middle, too, with the return of senior catcher Adrian Chinnery (.302/.409/.396) and senior shortstop Travis Blue (.261/.342/.376). Navy will have to replace center fielder Robert Currie, who graduated with the program’s all-time records for games (205) and hits (258) . . . Lehigh has a powerful, veteran lineup, led by Nalesnik, third baseman Patrick Donnelly (.299/.329/.430) and first baseman Connor Donovan (.272/.357/.435). The Mountain Hawks’ success will likely depend on their pitching. Their arms are unproven—but talented. Junior righthander Mark Washington (6-1, 1.80) has pitched mostly in relief in his career, but he was the No. 4 prospect in the New England Collegiate League thanks to his 6-foot-7, 210-pound frame and 91-93 mph fastball. His command and the effort in his delivery have held him back in the past, but he has frontline upside. Behind him, junior lefthander Peter Moore (6-3, 4.30) is a physical, 6-foot-3, 225-pounder who sits 85-88 mph but has touched as high as 91 mph.

Tournament: Four teams, two best-of-three series. Semifinals, May 13-14. Championship, May 20-21.

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