Catawba baseball preview

Published 12:00 am Thursday, February 2, 2012

By Mike London
SALISBURY — Catawba coach Jim Gantt watched sophomore second baseman Julio Zubillaga pull a screaming liner over the left-field fence at Newman Park, shook his head, and then allowed himself a small smile.
It was only an intrasquad homer, but the victim was Catawba’s ace left-hander Nick Lomascolo. It’s not like Lomascolo’s lost anything — it’s just that Zubillaga is coming on like a freight train.
“Zubillaga has been unbelievable,” Gantt said. “I get excited just watching the guy. He can be as good as anybody we’ve got.”
Even when he played high school ball at Carson, the Cuban-born Zubillaga’s glove was golden. Not everybody thought he could hit college pitching — even Gantt wasn’t sure — but he’s now ready to climb from the bottom of the lineup card to the vital No. 2 spot in the batting order.
Zubillaga’s leather kept him in the lineup as a freshman even when he was batting .231. This season — Catawba opens today at 4 p.m. against Belmont Abbey — Zubillaga will be counted on to get on base as well as excel defensively.
While Gantt never tired of watching Jerry Sands and his buddies wallop balls over the fence, he’s still a pitching-and-defense guy at heart. The 2012 edition of the Indians is one he’s very comfortable with.
With the change to less explosive bats and the loss of Wade Moore and Craige Lyerly, Catawba’s homer production fell from 78 in 2010 to 43 in 2011, while the team batting average plunged from .324 to .281. But the Indians kept rolling with stellar pitching and sharp defense. They were 41-15 overall, 23-4 in the SAC and 21-5 at Newman Park.
The Indians are picked to repeat as SAC champs in 2012 and expected to make another playoff appearance.
Zubillaga and shortstop Brett Underwood will form a dynamic double-play combination. In 2010, Catawba’s starting middle infielders were charged with 47 errors in 53 games. With the sure-handed Underwood shifting from second to short and the addition of Zubillaga, that middle-infield error total dwindled to 23 in 56 games in 2011.
“Not to take anything away from anybody, but those two guys together are as good a combination as we’ve ever had here,” Gantt said.
Catawba’s pitchers appreciate that groundballs are outs — often two outs.
Assuming good health, Catawba’s hurling should be outstanding.
Lomascolo, a junior, is all-everything. He’s 16-6 in his two seasons. As a soph, he was 9-3 with a 2.78 ERA.
Senior J.J. Jankowski was a huge Division I transfer last year. He went 8-2 with a 2.78 ERA. He fanned a team-high 118, while walking only 26.
Sophomore John J. Tuttle (6-2) joins Lomascolo and Jankowski in this year’s projected weekend rotation.
“All three fill up the strike zone, change speeds, locate fastballs and have good breaking balls,” Gantt said. “It’s not like they’re just out there throwing hard. Tuttle is a lot like (former Catawba hero) Blake Ketner — except he throws 7-8 mph harder.”
Next in line is Ross Whitley, a 6-3 right-hander with an upper-80s fastball. He’ll start and relieve.
“In the preseason, Ross was as good as anyone,” Gantt said.
All-star flamethrower Chris Dula probably is the most talented guy on the roster. He’ll close on the mound, and he’ll also be counted on for power in the middle of the lineup.
Other veteran pitchers are Joe Kase, Clay Watson and Wesley Mister. New guys to watch include two-way player Craig Brooks, Ryan McClintock, Nate King, Graham Lawing and former East Rowan magician Will Johnson, who has added a curveball to his arsenal.
Offensively, Catawba’s punch will center around Dula (nine homers, 62 RBIs) and DH Garrett Furr (12 homers, 56 RBIs). Both are receiving plenty of preseason accolades.
Dula handled third base in 2011, but the plan is for him to shift to first base this year. The move means less stress on a powerful right arm that the Indians need to close games.
Brooks, an impressive freshman from Monroe Parkwood, gets the chance to start at third, and he could be the shortstop of the future.
Veteran Greg Lawson returns as the No. 1 catcher, with newcomers Jonathan Wallace and Danny Parisi in the mix.
Senior right fielder Ryan Bostian (South Rowan) is back as a fixture in the outfield.
Bostian (.257, 48 runs) has started two seasons. He’s exceptional defensively (nine assists, one error in 2011) and has the speed to serve as the leadoff hitter.
“A good player who does everything well,” Gantt said.
Keaton Hawks (.260) is the probable center fielder, with Ethan Satterfield (returning from labrum surgery) in left. Satterfield wields a lethal bat and could hit cleanup.
Cameron White and Jordan Kuhn give Gantt solid bats off the bench. Versatile Cameron Beard will be a key contributor in the infield.
“We should have a good team, but the league is competitive,” Gantt said. “Tusculum is always good. Wingate’s going to be very strong. Newberry was coming on toward the end of last year. Lincoln Memorial has pitching.”
But no one should have more pitching than Catawba.
Look for the Indians to win the SAC again.
NOTES: Freshmen Gunnar Hogan (Carson) and Justin Morris (East Rowan) open the season as backup infielders. Russell Michalec (Salisbury) should see time in the outfield and at first base. D.J. Webb (West Rowan) should get innings on the mound. Matt Laurens (North Rowan) has battled mono but should contribute on the mound down the road. Pitt Community College transfer Zach Smith (East) isn’t eligible yet, but can be a huge plus in 2013. Last year’s center fielder Blake Houston (South) and freshman slugger Joe Watson (Davie) aren’t eligible, but Gantt hopes to have them available in 2013, as well as veteran Austin Moyer. … The Parisi brothers, Danny and outfielder Mario, are nephews of 1980s Catawba star Bill Patrice.