Catawba Baseball Preview
SALISBURY — It sounds like someone is hunting ducks at Newman Park, but those shotgun blasts actually are the eerie sounds made by Paul Kronenfeld’s bat when he’s mashing baseballs.
Be careful walking around Catawba’s track this spring. Even with the quieter bats they’re using now, Kronenfeld, an imposing, Jerry Sands-ish, lefty slugger who transferred to Catawba from Georgia Tech, is a good bet to launch homers over the Shuford Stadium bleachers and onto the football field.
While the arrival of the former Yellow Jacket created major buzz, two more Division I transfers — shortstop Dylan Richardson (Appalachian State) and pitcher/infielder Cam Cockman (UNC Wilmington) — may be just as vital.
Add that trio to an impressive cast of returners, and this year’s edition of Catawba baseball is more talented than the 2012 squad that stormed to the Southeast Regional title and won twice in the World Series.
Catawba coach Jim Gantt is excited about a new season that opens today with games against Pfeiffer at 3 p.m. at Newman Park, but he also cautions against through-the-roof expectations. It’s unrealistic to expect a magic-carpet ride on an annual basis. Maybe the Indians can repeat the joyful journey of last spring, but they’ll have to be lucky as well as good.
“We’ll have a good team and we should have a chance in every game we play,” Gantt said. “But while we were good last year, we also had some things go our way in the regional. There were teams more talented than us in the regional. There were teams more talented than us that didn’t make the regional. But we played flawless in the regional. We won it and we went to the World Series. And if we can hit .200 in the World Series, we probably win that too, but we didn’t.”
Catawba was the No. 5 seed in the six-team regional last season. Being one of six regional qualifiers this time might come down to winning or losing a couple of extra-inning games.
“The coaches poll ranks us 13th in the nation,” Gantt said. “But three teams in our region (Mount Olive, USC Aiken and Francis Marion) are ranked ahead of us.”
Catawba was carried by arms in 2012, both in the long haul of a 45-17 season and in the pressure-cooker of regional and World Series play.
J.J. Jankowski, who shared SAC Pitcher of the Year honors, is a big loss. So is Nate King.
“We do have very good guys back,” Gantt said. “But they are basically just replacing themselves. And it’s not like we’ve replaced Jankowski.”
Four frontline pitchers return to Newman Park. Lefty Nick Lomascolo and right-handers John J. Tuttle and Ross Whitley will be counted on as weekend starters.
Lomascolo (10-5) is a classic southpaw with an unflappable demeanor. Looking at his body language, you can’t tell if he’s struck out five in a row or given up five straight singles. He allows a hit an inning, but he doesn’t walk people, and he’s twice as tough once people get on base.
“Nothing rattles him, and it’s that ability to handle any situation that sets him apart,” Gantt. “He pitches both sides of the plate, and his stuff is good. His fastball is at 85 to 87 right now, and it’s early.”
Tuttle (5-4) is a junior, but he may be draft material this summer. He owns an effective slider and a wicked sinking fastball that reminds Gantt of former ace Blake Ketner, the master of the heavy, sinking fastball.
“Tuttle is Blake, but with more velocity,” Gantt said. “He’s getting it up there upper 80s and low 90s.”
Whitley (8-3) was outstanding late last season. He also throws in the 90 mph range and has a nice curve and changeup.
“Whitley works his butt off, he’s in tip-top shape, and he’s always thinking about ways to get better,” Gantt said.
Craig Brooks is a great closer, but he is too good to pitch just in save situations and will be used in longer stints.
“He’s a shorter guy for a pitcher, but he’s really competitive and his fastball has that extra gear,” Gantt said.
Lomascolo, Tuttle and Brooks are on the preseason All-SAC team.
Cockman will add a lot. He mixes a curve and a slider with an upper 80s fastball.
Gantt has a host of capable hurlers available for spot starts, long relief and favorable matchups out of the bullpen.
Michael Trombino, Graham Lawing, Will Johnson, Sean Grant and Ryan McClintock head that list. Tyler Byrnes, Tyler Britton and Alex Bost could get some opportunities.
Trombino has been a hard-luck guy (ACL surgery, concussion), but he’ll open the season as the primary long reliever.
All the pitchers are benefiting from the expertise of coach Randy Benson.
Three starters are missing from the lineup — shortstop Brett Underwood, catcher Greg Lawson and right fielder Ryan Bostian.
Danny Parisi, last year’s top backup, enters the season as the starting catcher. John Wallace and Will Beeson also are competing behind the plate.
Three-quarters of the infield is set, with power-hitting Chris Dula (11 homers, 41 RBIs) providing a large target at first base. Second baseman Julio Zubillaga (.343) is a Gold Glove guy. Richardson, a prodigious slugger in his days at Randleman High, gets the first call at shortstop.
Third base isn’t set in stone because the Indians have three candidates good enough to start. Returner Cameron Beard (.317) isn’t a power guy, but he gets on base often and is a steady fielder. Besides being key hurlers, the main defensive position for two-way players Cockman and Brooks is third base, so Gantt has a lot of options. Beard also can play first base and could see time there.
“It’s kind of a dilemma, but it’s a good problem to have,” Gantt said. “All three are going to play.”
The outfield should be outstanding.
Kronenfeld, a junior, started 23 games for Georgia Tech in 2012 and batted .303, but he was looking for a place to play every day. He’ll bat third and will be the right fielder. Ethan Satterfield (.400, 53 RBIs) was sensational last season and will man left field. Lefty swinger Blake Houston, who started in 2011 as a freshman but had to sit out last year, is back in center field and is bigger and stronger.
“Blake is our best defensive outfielder,” Gantt said. “He’s making unbelievable plays, he’s running well, and he’s hitting left-handers better.”
Keaton Hawks (.289, 40 RBIs) was a capable starter in 2012 and should get plenty of at-bats.
More run production will come from DH Garrett Furr (10 homers, 56 RBIs). The veteran is coming off labrum surgery.
“He had surgery in September and we’d all but ruled him out, but he’s been cleared,” Gantt said. “That’s a bonus.”
Also keep an eye on Zach Smith. The former East Rowan slugger could get a shot in the outfield or as the DH.
Furr, Dula and Satterfield are preseason All-SAC picks.
“If things fall into place, we’ll be interesting,” Gantt said. “But we won’t base our season on getting to the World Series. What happened last year may never happen again.”